PTU News Reporter
‘A university,’ the late American poet and historian Shelby Foote concluded, ‘is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. The library is the university.’ Hardly anyone would doubt the importance of library to scholarship. As the facilities of the eight UGC-funded university libraries can no longer meet growing demand for services, in 2003 the Joint University Librarians Advisory Committee (JULAC) started planning to build the first Joint Universities Research Archive (JURA) in Kwai Chung to house rarely-used yet invaluable research materials. For this, we interviewed Peter Sidorko, university librarian of the University of Hong Kong and JULAC Chair 2014-15, about the challenges facing university libraries today.
Continued growth of HKU library’s collections has vastly diminished the space for readers. According to Sidorko, the number of volumes acquired by the library peaked at 120,000 in 2000-01. Since then the number has fallen significantly as the pace of digitisation increased. Nevertheless, while today 85% of the budget for collections development is devoted to electronic resources, the library still acquires tens of thousands of volumes in print every year.
Meanwhile, the number of students has increased as a result of the adoption of the 3-3-4 academic structure. In 2012, the total number of library users reached 1.4 million (person-time) in 2012; on peak days there could be as many as ten thousand users per day. Given the widespread use of electronic resources and the transformation in the modes of teaching, learning and assessment, the library has to convert freed-up space into learning commons and discussion rooms.
Currently the HKU library rents two floors of Hing Wai building, Aberdeen, as close-stacked remote storage. Nevertheless, as Sidorko said, it’s not easy to find a suitable place for remote storage. Apart from rent, the place has to meet environmental (including humidity and pest control) as well as security requirements.
JURA is a three-storey green building installed with state-of-the-art Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) that requires only 4 staff to operate. Computer-controlled robotic arms retrieve and return books stored in shelves of metal bins. JURA can store a total of 59,000 metal bins or 7.4 million volumes of books, surpassing the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library of the University of Chicago, the largest ASRS in North America. An additional floor can be added to the building to further increase storage capacity to 9.95 million volumes. JURA will be able to meet the needs of the eight UGC-funded university libraries in the next 15-20 years; its operation cost is only one-third of that of the eight libraries.
Sidorko hopes JURA will foster closer cooperation between member libraries in areas such as collections acquisition and cataloguing. Unfortunately, the project has yet to be submitted by the government to the Legislative Council for funding approval even when JULAC has already met all the conditions by providing a detailed design, securing a suitable site, and establishing a governing body to manage the archive.