Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mullen Library

The Basilica
The Catholic University of America has a beautiful building (renovated c2005) nestled in the hills between DC and its surrounding suburbs. It is a heavily wooded area and gives the campus a pastoral feel - it's easy to forget how close you are to the bustling Capitol.  The three-story Mullen library has a central location on campus with ample parking spots and accessibility from the metro as well as a campus shuttle stop nearby. I spoke with Shanyun Zhang, their electronic services librarian for well over an hour and she gave me a tour of the facilities. She was very open and kind and I learned a lot from her. I was very glad to hear her perspective as not only was she very high-tech in her approach to the library world but she had been working in the library for a long time and knew the community well.

Mullen library requires a student ID for entrance, but they do have computers (both Macs and PCs) open to the public in the main entryway. Students at the library may check out a laptop to use within the library, get on the wireless, and make themselves comfortable. Over time they have moved from being a primarily physical library to offering many electronic services such as ebooks from seven different publishers and electronic databases as well as substantial library guides for each of the University's schools, developed by each school's dedicated librarian. The school's librarian (Mrs. Zhang is the psychology librarian) creates the guides for their school and introduces the freshman students to the library resources, giving each student a friendly face for the library.


CUA has many librarians who work in the library and each of them are always busy. Their computer lab is mainly used for instruction, and they just got an upgraded CPU for the presenter/teacher today! It is connected to the Internet via the ethernet and connected to the overhead projector via the network (not sure if it was wired or not). In addition to an adjustable monitor, it has inputs for VGA, auxiliary, HDMI, Ethernet, and two additional 110v outlets in case someone wants to use their own computer. It is truly a shiny and beautiful machine. The computers in the lab have the built-in assistive technology from Widows 7 Enterprise Edition, but the only CPU with assistive technology off to the side in the MERIC lab.

The computer monitors in the lab itself have very limited mobility, so the visual line of sight is not ideal. At first they thought about putting the CPU on the ground and the monitor on the desk, but they were worried about students kicking the unit and general accessibility. In the interest of preservation and also putting the monitors higher up on the desk they placed the unit on the desktop. All the chairs are fully adjustable, so that helps. However, they sorely need to re-do their computer monitors in a way that allows for greater adjustments.

The computers are all installed with MacAfee for security, and while they strive for open source software they have recently installed Microsoft Office to increase compatibility. There are scheduled maintenances for all computers, copiers, and printers, and they have services for trained people to come on-site and fix the copiers and printers. The computers in the lab have the built-in assistive technology from Widows 7 Enterprise Edition, but the only CPU with assistive technology is off to the side in the Meric lab. You can see that it has a dedicated scanner to the MyReader2 print magnifier, a large print keyboard, and Eye-See (text to speech & braille) machine, and additional software installed on the computer. All student library workers are trained in the assistive technology to help any who may need it, but most of those who do are already knowledgeable about how they work.

They also have a substantial microfilm collection, and while they also have the newspapers available online, students have persisted in using the microfilm collection more than the online equivalent. So there are still two microfilm stations available for usage! You can't see it from this angle, but there's someone using the station on the other side. I really enjoyed the thought that students would rather come into the physical library and use the microfilm machine than access the collection from the comfort of their room.

As far as ergonomics go, their lab is limited but their library layout is luscious. There is space to walk, natural light in every room, and all outlets are near tables or walls to reduce tripping and strain. In the upper room the armchairs have wheels on them for ease of movement. and are by default moved to the sides of the room near the newspapers and windows. The entire second story is devoted to reading space. In the main hallway there are more computer stations and tables for studying. Every table 2-5 outlets for electronics, and many of them were added during the renovation. The top floor is silent and solely for study space.

The library did install a large screen TV with Blu-ray and a DVD player in the microfilm room, but it was recently stolen over a weekend (not by students), so they have a rather heavy TV/VHS combo and they encourage students to watch DVDs via the available laptops, and they offer headphones at the front desk. In general, I was told, the students preferred this over the large screen TV. The library also has a large collection of streaming music as CUA offers an excellent music program. They also have the ability to stream video from their ALADIN catalog which they share with other local universities.  CUA is a part of the Washington Research Library Consortium that has a large amount of electronic resources for all their students.

The sad TV/VHS Combo

Over time the library has moved much of its physical collections to an off-site facility and increased the online services. One thing that struck me was the story of a poor student who borrowed a book from the library and his car was stolen. It was an old and rather valuable book, so he had to pay a lot to replace the lost book. However, with ebooks the loss (both personal and educational) is much less. Another advantage to having more of an electronic collection is that students have access to them 24/7 through the library portal as opposed to the usual libraries (it usually closes by 9pm)

Overall, their library is like a hub for the students to enjoy the resources provided by the university and less of a place to pore over the stacks. The main focus of the library is to create a space for students to come, mingle, and learn. Years ago the university had separate classes for boys and girls, but the library was always co-ed, so it has always been a bit of a social place as well as a place of study. Even in middle of the day in the summer (it was a gorgeous 90ยบ Thursday in DC), the library is busy with students and faculty studying, talking, researching, and relaxing. Many of the students sit together and talk, and the entry area is a central meeting place for new students.

They offer the service to "IM With A Librarian", and it is used both by students as well as for internal communication. Most of the time it is answered by the student workers at the front desk, but occasionally other librarians will answer when needed, and Mrs. Zhang is always logged in. I learned that the student workers came up with the idea to use it when a printer ran out of paper, and since then it has been a regular use. They used to use Meebo, but just prior to its announcement of closure they switched to LibraryH3lp and had been using it regularly. Sometimes it may not be the best answer as they always prefer to teach the student how to find the answers themselves rather than hand them answers from The Almighty Librarian, but it often serves its purpose.

In reflection, I believe that CUA's library is on track to serve their patrons for a long time. Their balance of physical and electronic resources is efficient and it meets the needs of their highly mobile (and nocturnal) community. Knowing how much they have developed, adapted, and changed in the last five years to meet technological needs is heartening and impressive. The idea that they aren't afraid of open source software and innovating current usage of services is something that I think many libraries should do. I loved the sheer amount of space and light. There was no feeling of mustiness or dust anywhere in the library but rather an open and cheerful feeling of adventure in a new age of knowledge.

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