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A New Chapter for ASU Libraries


By Beth Giudicessi

In 1966, Governor of Arizona Samuel P. Goddard Jr. stood before a standing-room-only crowd gathered on the campus of Arizona State University to dedicate its newest building, the Charles Trumbull Hayden Library.

“We have in front of you, I think, one of the most significant acts that can be part of the growth of a great university: the opening and dedication of a fine library,” he said. “You have the thanks of all of Arizona.”

With that, a state-of-the-art library opened its doors. Five floors with twenty-seven miles of stacks boasted the capacity to hold more than a million volumes. Quiet rooms were equipped with coin-operated typewriters and newly acquired microfilm readers. Check-out lanes were expedited by one of the nation’s first electronic punch card charging systems.

That same library will turn fifty years old next year.

“We’ll have a party,” says University Librarian Jim O’Donnell. “But lots and lots has changed. We’ve transformed what we do: Our library facilities are being used twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all over the world—and that’s a thing of beauty.”

O’Donnell joined ASU in the fall of 2014 after more than two decades as a scholar of cultural history and a pioneer in integrating technology and academia, most recently at Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania.

His charge, in part, is to reimagine the university’s libraries for the future.

For O’Donnell, that starts with renovating Hayden Library to make it more open, bright, and visible to the community.

“In the last twenty-five years, Hayden has become a stealth museum: No one knows it’s here,” O’Donnell says, pointing to the underground entrance that was added to the library in 1989. “We’ll make it a place where it should be interesting for you to come by, to see what’s new, to see how you can use it and what the possibilities are that go with that.”

He conceptualizes ASU’s main library as “a showplace, a showcase, and a showroom”—a dazzling building that displays student and faculty achievements while highlighting its vast collections and resources to find them.

Ideally, the new space will feature multiple entrances, comfortable workspaces, high-end research functions, and a full exhibit and events calendar that attracts students, faculty, and the public.

Though plans for the library’s physical transformation are nascent, university leaders are optimistic that renovations could be completed as early as the fall of 2019. Two recent estate gifts dedicated to enriching ASU’s libraries provide a foundation for the expansive project.

In the meantime, digital innovation is being tested and implemented to improve access to the library’s treasures.

For the past few years, ASU Libraries have relied on a climate-controlled, high-density storage facility at the university’s Polytechnic campus. The facility contains 1.5 million volumes organized by size and arranged on 35-foot-high shelves. Once a book is recalled, it is quickly located and shuttled to one of multiple and convenient pick-up points on campus, or it is mailed to a student if he or she lives outside the metropolitan Phoenix area.

“It’s using technology to support the traditional print collection and win back space,” says O’Donnell.

He anticipates that more service points will open across campus and that patrons will one day use them to print books and other materials on demand so they can be carried, marked, and used as each learner chooses.

What’s more, researchers are working on tools that revolutionize the search for materials.

ASU’s library is developing software that lets a user browse back and forth on a digital “shelf.” When a book—or one of its neighbors—is selected, a reader can click to reveal its contents or find related documents. O’Donnell is hopeful that the tool will eventually contain not only ASU’s collections but the hundreds of millions of volumes that
make up the Greater Western Library Alliance, of which Arizona State University is a member.

While the physical and digital Hayden Library to come may hardly be recognizable to those present at its origins, their vision for it remains unchanged.

“It combines the best of modern architecture beauty with a very real concern for the welfare of the individual,” said Alan Covey, Hayden’s first university librarian, when he introduced the building. “It combines a tribute to the past and an investment in the future.”

O’Donnell is similarly enthusiastic.

“ASU rocks,” he adds. “We’ve got a president and a spirit in the institution that makes it possible to think bigger and dare bigger than any other institution in the country I know.”

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