v32#3 ATG Interviews Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian for Research and Instruction Services, Temple University Charles Library, Part 2

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments


By Donald T. Hawkins, Freelance Conference Blogger and Editor

When you open up the morning paper and the lead story on the front page is about the opening of a new university library, you know something big is happening. By coincidence, that very same day, I went to Temple University, home of the new Charles Library, to interview Steven Bell. In this issue you will find part two of my interview with Steven. Part one can be found in ATG v.32#2 April 2020. The full interview is also available online at https://www.charleston-hub.com/2020/04/v32-2-atg-interviews-steven-j-bell/. — DTH

DTH: Many public libraries are reinventing themselves and becoming community centers. They have makerspaces, outreach programs, meeting rooms, etc. for the community. Is the same thing happening in the academic world?

SJB: I believe so. I think that many academic libraries see that they have a community mission as well. We are not putting up walls and gates to keep the community out. Rather, we are doing those kinds of things for the people who are affiliated with our university. You must keep in mind that although the College of Engineering might have a makerspace and the College of Communications might have a great video production studio, you cannot use those unless you are a student in those schools. So it is up to the library to be the place on campus that provides those kinds of facilities for the entire community much like a public library might provide those kinds of space for everyone in the community. Not everyone has access to a private makerspace, so we see that as being very important to our mission, and we have all of those things. We have extensive community programming, such as lecture series or musical series that are open to everybody that wants to come. We also have our Loretta C. Duckworth Scholars Studio, a digital scholarship center for faculty and students from across the university who want to learn how to use digital scholarship techniques, and we have expertise in how to do that.

We have a virtual reality and visualization studio in the library for any student who wants to learn how to use those technologies and tools. So if you are a student in the Tyler School of Art that wants to learn how to use virtual reality for your art, you can do that at the TU library. Plus we have a makerspace that has 20 3D printers in it. We already have humanities faculty coming in and showing their students how to use makerspace technology to create 3D replicas of ancient artifacts.

DTH: Some of the public libraries are getting into areas that an academic library would not. I am thinking of the Fayetteville, NY Public Library that has sewing or woodworking classes as well as 3D printers (which are the most popular). I don’t see that coming into academic libraries.

SJB: Probably not. The reason we would not do that is because we probably have that expertise in other areas. So our Tyler School of Art, for example, has extensive resources for people who want to learn how to do woodworking, sewing, fashion design and those sorts of things. It would not surprise me if at some point our Scholar’s Studio might bring in something like that. It is really up to what people want; if students said, “We want to start a sewing club and need a place to put our sewing machines”, we would provide that. A couple of years ago, students came to us from our Gaming Club and said, “We need a place on campus where we can have our monthly meeting and gaming tournaments., and we created a “Gaming Den” in the library; our Scholar’s Studio will be where all the gaming takes place. 

I should mention that TU Library, being in a highly densely populated urban area, does collaborate with the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) which has five branches in North Philadelphia that are somewhat near to our campus (the closest one is a mile away). For example, we held a “sign up for a library card” event here so our students and faculty could get an FLP library card. That is very valuable for our students and faculty because, for example, we do not collect any audio books. We therefore encourage our students and faculty to get a FLP card because they have extensive audio book collections. We asked our FLP colleagues if they would mind if we directed our students and faculty to sign up for an FLP card, and they said, “Tell as many people as you can!”

DTH: Do they have to be Philadelphia residents?

SJB: The state is moving toward a “state library card” to reduce barriers between counties. Even though I am a Montgomery County resident, there are some things I can get from FLP when I show my local library card because they have cooperative agreements between the counties. But the main thing is that any student affiliated with TU can get an FLP card. We collaborate with the FLP branches in our area and talk together about what kinds of offerings to have. In this region of the city, the libraries do not have makerspaces and sewing clubs like they have in Fayetteville because they are much more stretched for resources. So if there are ways in which we can help out, we are glad to do it.

DTH: Do you want to say anything about the TU Press? It is now physically located in the library.

SJB: Our relationship with the TU Press was established about 7 years ago when the University Provost restructured it so that it reported to the Dean of the library. Our Dean has been working to create a much more collaborative relationship and make the Press an integral part of the library. So when we were designing the library one of the things we wanted to do was to bring the Press into it.

DTH: Is there friction between the Press and the library?

SJB: No. We maintain a productive collaborative relationship.

DTH: They have different missions. The Press must sell books and produce income, and the library is giving out information, not selling it.

SJB: That’s true. The library does use some of its budget to support the TU Press because, like the vast majority of university presses, the TU Press does not sell enough books to cover all of its expenses. It is very important that universities, when they are able to do so, continue to support the press so that we can have a press which produces scholarly monographs that no commercial publisher would ever publish. The other thing that is great about the Press is that we collaborate quite a bit on programming. We have authors that feature the content of their books and they bring in interesting speakers. 

One of the things that presses are doing to become more self-supporting is to produce more popular types of books; two of our most popular books are the encyclopedias of the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. Those types of works help support the scholarly monographs. We have also created a new imprint called North Broad Press that is designed to publish only open access books, and we already have eight books in the pipeline. All books published by North Broad Press will be available as open textbooks. We will use the expertise of the Press to get the books through the publishing process, getting rights to materials, editing, and reviewing. The expertise of the Press makes these types of projects possible.

We are also not the only library that has an ASRS, but one of the things that is very different about our implementation of it is that we are not using it as just a storage facility. Some libraries do that, but they do not have 40,000 students and 3,000 faculty on campus almost every day. We believe that we are the first university that is experiencing regular daily heavy use of our ASRS to retrieve materials from a very active circulating collection. Unlike some libraries, our circulation has not plummeted but is rather healthy. Right now, we are retrieving books from the ASRS at the rate of one every four minutes. Other libraries might retrieve 50 or 60 books a day, so we are really putting our ASRS to the test as an everyday collection that people use heavily, and you can see that our hold shelf is packed with requested books.

DTH: You told me that you can order something and by the time you walk down three floors from your office, it is available on the shelf.

SJB:  Yes. We tell people that retrieval can be between 20 minutes and 1 hour, but we know that we are doing it much quicker than that; we just did not want to raise expectations when we first opened. Retrieval times depend on the time of day when a book is ordered; in the mornings books can come very quickly. One of the tradeoffs that people will always tell you about these kinds of systems is that you lose the serendipitous discovery of materials, and we totally understand that. But another thing that is very valuable to people is their time, especially to students and faculty. TU is a school of people from middle-class families. Many of our students have jobs or families to take care of, and we want to maximize their time for that; for example, if you are a student at home, you could order the books you want, then come to campus and as you are walking to class, you stop at the library, pick up your books, check them out at a self-check machine, and be on your way. How much time would it have taken that student to search, write down all the call numbers, go to the stacks, search for every book, and perhaps find that one is missing? That is a lot of time we are saving people with a system like this.

DTH: If people really want to wander the stacks and have serendipitous discovery, you have a whole 4th floor for them.

SJB: We do, and those are our latest five years of books, and we weight that collection towards more visual materials. For the future we and other libraries are working to have an online virtual browse technology, so you can imagine being on your computer, looking up a book, then swipe to the left or right and see what books are on either side of that book. We are totally comfortable with people requesting 20 books and when they look at them, only taking the five that they need. You could still retrieve books and browse them in our hold area.

DTH: Another thing that I think is innovative is a single “one stop shopping” help desk for anything.

SJB: We previously had three different service desks: a reference desk, a circulation desk, and a media services desk. That created a lot of confusion because people did not know what desk to go to, or they would go to one desk and be told that they needed to go to another one, so we centralized all of the services at a single desk. No matter what your task is on any day, you can go to that one desk and the staff there can resolve your need. Most people need help with finding a book, paying a fine, or reserving a room. These are repetitive questions that are easily handled by our one-stop desk staff.

DTH: So you do have fines?

SJB: Yes, although students pay no fines until they reach $35. They can keep borrowing books and accrue fines up to $34.99. Few students ever reach $35 in fines. Students must pay replacement fees for lost or damaged material, but we understand that students are struggling and always work with them to develop reasonable options because not everybody can afford these costs.

DTH: We have mentioned open access already, but is there anything more you would like to say about its role at TU?

SJB: We are strongly committed to open access and have a staff member who works with the scholarly communication group in the library and also with the Press, so that is a unique position. Few libraries have a staff member working for both the library and the Press who bridges the two. 

We are one of the libraries that ended our Big Deal with Elsevier in 2019. We felt that we could no longer pay the exorbitant amount of money that they were requesting to keep our existing Big Deal in place, so we decided to subscribe to their publications individually, and it seems to be working out very well. It has saved us a large amount of money, and the items that we are subscribing to are our most heavily used items. We receive few complaints from anybody about cancelled publications. We are also using the Copyright Clearing House’s “Get It” service. When people want an article from a journal that we do not have, they can use this service to get it within 24 hours. We also obviously make heavy use of interlibrary loan. To my knowledge, since we ended our Big Deal with Elsevier, we have been able to fully meet the needs of our community for scholarly information. We also encourage our faculty to publish in open access journals, celebrate Open Access Week, Open Education Week, and Fair Use Week, acknowledge faculty who publish in open journals, offer an Author Publication Charges fund, and promote all these to our faculty and graduate students. 

TU was one of the first universities to start a textbook affordability project in the library, and we consider it an important part of our work. We started this project in 2010, and since then we have had nine cohorts consisting of ten faculty projects. We provide them with a stipend to literally stop using commercial textbooks, as well as expertise to help them identify alternative materials which could be open educational resources, articles in e-book chapters from the library, or any number of no-cost options. We have had faculty use primary research materials in place of textbooks. It does require the faculty to do a bit of work and change the nature of their course, and we believe they should be compensated for the time they put into that, which is why we provide stipends. Conservatively, we have saved our students approximately $1 million. We have heard frequently from students that they don’t buy a textbook if it is too expensive or that they drop the course. The bottom line is that affordable learning content contributes to student retention and success, and we want to support that.

DTH: Do you have an institutional repository?

SJB: We have definitely been behind the curve on that and are actually rolling out TUScholarShare now. It is in beta right now and should be fully implemented for the Spring 2020 semester. We created and filled a position that is heavily involved in the maintenance of an institutional repository. I used it the other day (I am on the beta team), and it is super simple for people to add materials to the repository.

DTH: Is that publicly available?

SJB: It will be. You could use it to find our content. We are one of the libraries that use the Blacklight discovery system, which uses open access software and is used at several libraries. We customized it to meet the needs of our researchers. If you look at our web page and click on “library search”, you are using the Blacklight system. It searches everything we have, so when you get your results, you see the books, articles, videos, special collections, our web site, our librarians with subject expertise, and materials from the TUScholarShare. So you will not have to do a separate search on ScholarShare, but you can just use the library search to bring back results from it.

DTH: Let’s broaden our outlook to the information industry in general. What do you see as the major trends for now and the future and are any of them unique to a large academic institution like TU?

SJB: As a major research library, we still continue to make heavy use of all types of information resources, in the traditional databases as well as the more contemporary ones. Part of the challenge is that there seems to be no decline in the number of databases that third parties are developing and offering to libraries. We are constantly doing trials of new types of databases and services. I cannot foresee any time in the near future when we would not be providing access to the traditional databases like EBSCO, ProQuest, Web of Science, etc.

DTH: Do you use a traditional commercial discovery system?

SJB: Our library search using the Blacklight system searches many of the databases. I think the trends continue to point to an increase in streaming video and audio (Films on Demand and Kanopy are very popular with educators). I anticipate that we will see more of these kinds of databases, but they are expensive, and we have limited resources, so we will need to make some very tough decisions. 

Another major trend is the information industry showing greater awareness of accessibility, privacy, and security issues. We are only at the cusp of this; at our university, we cannot even buy one of these products until it goes through an accessibility review. Either it must be fully accessible or the vendor must have a demonstrated roadmap or pathway to becoming accessible. If we want to buy something that is not accessible, we must demonstrate that it is the only product in that category that is available for purchase, or we can get an exclusion for a two year period. The same thing now applies to security. If we want to acquire certain information systems, they must go through a security audit.

DTH: Does that also include privacy?

SJB: Yes. Part of our security audit requires that the vendors have liability insurance covering a security breach of their system, and if they are collecting data about our students, they must divulge this information. Our IT has very high security concerns, the foremost of which is cybersecurity. We must make absolutely sure that the products in the information industry will not open us up to cybersecurity liability, which will become a greater concern across all the libraries and vendors that we deal with. 

We are looking forward to other new kinds of exciting products, and I hope the information industry will continue to develop things in the artificial intelligence area, such as voicebots and chatbots. We obviously have concerns about privacy and security, but on the other hand, how can we make a better library experience for all the people that use our technologies? The people now coming to our university exist in a largely digital world. Our students in the Class of 2023 were born in 2001, so they literally have lived all of their lives in front of screens. For better or worse, that’s the information landscape in which we exist and for which we must adapt.

DTH: That raises staffing issues. With all these new innovations and services, what additional skills and training do you expect from your professional library staff? Is the MLS still good enough for a professional position? What other backgrounds and degrees do you see as being desirable for TU as it staffs its new library?

SJB: That could be a conversation all to itself! You are absolutely correct that to have a successful 21st century library at a research university, you need a fairly diverse staff in terms of the skill sets that they bring to it. For example, just to run Blacklight, you need a team of programmers and developers to manage those kinds of systems. In a building like this, every study room is on an automatic scheduling system so that rooms can be reserved online. We therefore need to have people that can make those systems work. Our Access Services and Special Collections staff had to undergo extensive training to learn the ASRS system. Staff are continuously learning new skills to make sure our library customers have the best possible experience.

DTH: Do you have an in-house IT staff?

SJB: We do, and we collaborate with the campus Information Technology Services as well, so if you look at research data management services, data curation, or data preservation, a contemporary research library needs to know how to provide those kinds of services such as advising a faculty member how to curate a large set of data. You can learn about that in a library science program, but you may need to collaborate with somebody in IT who knows how supercomputers work or how to set up storage systems for vast amounts of data. 

DTH: Or how to do natural language processing or automated indexing.

SJB: I think library science programs are changing to realize that you just cannot teach people all the technology skills they need to have in a year or two. They will be learned on the job. We need to prepare students to have the soft skills and the critical thinking and learning skills so that they know that they are a work in progress and still have a huge amount to learn to be an effective librarian, technologist, or educator. That is where continuing education will be critically important in the future for people coming out of library schools. 

I am currently an instructor for San Jose State University teaching design thinking, which is something they were not teaching in library schools even a few years ago. Increasingly, librarians are presented with very challenging problems that don’t have obvious answers, and you can use a technique like design thinking to create a design challenge with your colleagues, so that you have a more sophisticated way of arriving at a good thoughtful solution to a problem. Very few library schools teach design thinking. It is an example of those kinds of soft skills, leadership, and knowing how to work in more diverse environments that you will need in a library science environment, as well as organization of information and how certain technologies work. Library science must change, and there must be a clear path to continuing education for future skill development. It is not like 20 or 30 years ago when you could graduate like I did, and your skills were fine for five or ten years because nothing changed that much.

DTH: If there are other things you would like to discuss, please mention them now.

SJB: I would always advise librarians that if they have questions about the design and nature of this library to come and visit and experience it for themselves. I think it is interesting that many of the students and new librarians that I encounter want to know how to learn about the nature of this profession and industry, and I tell them that you learn what is happening by going out and visiting libraries and librarians. If they come here and experience it for themselves, they will see where innovation is happening. This library is not designed just for today’s students, but to be in a position to serve people who will be here two or three generations from now. We can hardly imagine what skills library workers will need in that future, but I suspect that design practice and design thinking will always contribute to our professional success.

DTH: Speaking for myself as one who has been in this industry for many years, it certainly has been a fascinating experience to come here, tour this library, see the technology, and have this conversation.

We often close these interviews on a personal note. What do you do for downtime, relaxation, and spare time (if there is any!)?

SJB: I try to get to the gym several times a week and stay physically fit. I think that is really critical, especially when we have a lot of stress in our life. Staying fit and eating healthy is very important to me. When I am teaching like I do now, I do not have much spare time. People who know me know that I do a lot of writing—two columns a month for Library Journal which I have been doing for 10 years now. Writing gets you to think about things carefully, and it forces me to stay current with what is happening in librarianship, higher education, and technology. I also like taking walks, going camping, hiking, gardening and taking care of plants, and spending time with my family as much as I can. I probably do not pay as much attention to the work-life balance as the people coming into the profession now do; I came in at a different time and am part of a different era and a different culture. I seek to understand the new colleagues coming in to the profession; they have different ideas, different interests, and different lifestyles. At TU, we offer flexible work arrangements to allow staff a better way to manage their lives, which can be complicated now.

Donald T. Hawkins is an information industry freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. In addition to blogging and writing about conferences for Against the Grain, he blogs the Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian conferences for Information Today, Inc. (ITI) and maintains the Conference Calendar on the ITI Website (http://www.infotoday.com/calendar.asp). He is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our
Digital Heritage, (Information Today, 2013) and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits (Information
Today, 2016). He holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley and has worked in the online information industry for over 45 years.


  1. “New library is Temple’s most compelling work of architecture in decades,” Inga Saffron, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 19, 2019, Page 1 (also available at https://www.inquirer.com/columnists/temple-university-library-inga-saffron-architecture-review-snohetta-20190919.html).
  2. “Making and Community Engagement in the Library,” Donald T. Hawkins, Information Today, Vol. 32, Issue 8, Page 1.
  3. http://tupress.temple.edu/
  4. https://projectblacklight.org


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