Hillman Library: Leading a Digital Revolution

Issue Date: 
July 11, 2016

It is a spectacularly gorgeous day—the kind that makes you want to play hooky. But if Hillman Library is missing any patrons to the compelling weather, it’s hard to tell. On the ground floor, clusters of students sit in circles of comfortable chairs, leaning toward each other, conferring about shared class projects. Their discussions are peppered with personal chitchat. Across the room, a whiff of fresh-brewed coffee drifts over from the Cup and Chaucer Café to long wooden tables, equipped with built-in power strips, where students work at their laptops in pairs or alone, but all are engaged in a community of enterprise. Upstairs, the high-tech study rooms are all in use. An ant-farm busyness is everywhere in the five-level building.

From left, Jeff Wisniewski, Aaron Brenner, and Tim Deliyannides.

The idea of libraries as still, quiet repositories for print books—declining relics of the 20th century—is a miscalculation, says Pitt librarian Jeff Wisniewski. “There was a narrative that went something like this: With the ascendancy of Google, and the ease with which people can access information, libraries were going to become increasingly irrelevant in this digital era.” Instead, he says, business is booming.

In Pitt’s University Library System, more people are coming through the doors now than ever in its history. Last year there were 2.1 million visits throughout the system. The stats for September 2015 cite 30,000—30,000!—visits above the previous September. That increase doesn’t show any signs of abating. And it’s not just because of the on-site coffee bar—although there’s nothing like a little caffeine to grease the wheels of academic endeavor.

Some of the increase in foot traffic has to do with the library’s eagerness to meet the coursework needs of students and their professors. But that’s only a slice of what is happening at Hillman, the University’s largest of 14 libraries. The big story is that in this age of digitization, there’s a transformation going on. Hillman is not only keeping up. It’s leading the way.

“Libraries are doing vastly different things than people realize,” says Wisniewski, a web services and communications librarian. “Things that, in the past, would have taken hours or days or weeks of expensive computing time, as well as expensive storage space, can now be done almost instantaneously.”

 In fact, Wisniewski describes this moment as a digital revolution for the library. Fundamentally, the transformation is about connecting people to ideas rather than bytes to bits.

 “We are actively seeking partnerships with students, with graduate students, with faculty—all with the goal of trying to apply new tools, techniques, and services to remain indispensable parts of the intellectual life of campus,” says Wisniewski.

 One result is that Pitt’s library system has become one of the nation’s leading publishers of academic journals. In 2007, a few Pitt professors involved with editing several different academic journals approached Hillman Library staff. The faculty editors were struggling with the high costs of their journals’ print production and wanted to move to a digital format. The roughly 30,000 peer-reviewed academic journals produced in the world today are essential to the dissemination of scholarly ideas and the creation of new knowledge in many fields.

 In a move that is characteristic of the library’s embrace of the digital era, Tim Deliyannides, head of information technology, and his staff readily ventured into the unknown. They identified a good open-source software platform and got to work, collaborating with the faculty editors to develop a digitally based editorial workflow system with useful tools and features for readers and authors to share research online and to track impact through online metrics.

This early approach to digital publishing not only saved money (by forgoing paper and printing costs), it also increased the potential to reach scholars globally while improving efficiencies through online submissions and vetting.

Word-of-mouth buzz was so positive that Deliyannides started fielding inquiries from journals outside the University, and Hillman now provides this academic publishing service not only nationally but internationally, too.

“We were motivated by the desire to make scholarly research more accessible worldwide,” says Deliyannides. “Now we publish 40 peer-reviewed scholarly journals. We’re growing each year, and we will take applications or proposals from anybody wanting to publish in an open-access format and willing to follow our selection criteria, which include a solid peer-review process and an internationally recognized editorial board.”

Pitt is a leader in the recent trend of “library as publisher,” says Deliyannides, and the University is a founding member of the Library Publishing Coalition. “We’re also the first and only North American library to be a member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association,” Deliyannides adds. “It is a very valuable place to help set standards and to have a voice.”

Open access removes cost and access barriers so that research—and emerging ideas—can be shared among global communities of scholars and even among the general public. “It’s the underlying principle for all that we do in our publishing activities,” says Deliyannides, who is also director of the library’s Office of Scholarly Communication and Publishing.

The University Library System initially got its feet wet in open-access publishing when creating Pitt’s first global subject-based digital archive. In 2001, the Departments of Philosophy and the History and Philosophy of Science—both consistently ranked among the best in the world—approached Hillman Library to assist in setting up an “electronic repository” to share new research and theoretical manuscripts with other scholars. At the time, the first step of peer review by fellow scholars typically took a year or more before initial ideas and theories were deemed ready to share with a wider scholarly community. A digital repository would enable scholars to time-stamp an idea as well as disseminate it rapidly for feedback and critical analysis.

 “This was a way to speed the cycle of knowledge production,” says Deliyannides. “It was new territory for libraries, but we approached it as an extension of the work that libraries have always done to support researchers.”

 What resulted from those initial conversations was the PhilSci Archive, a digital “preprint” server containing early versions of new work by philosophy of science scholars worldwide. The content is accessible online and widely indexed by major search engines.

 The archive set the standard for vetting emerging scholarly work, and it remains highly successful. “It has become the world’s go-to place for preprinted manuscripts in this field,” says Deliyannides. Another shining example of online scholarly gems is Pitt’s Archive of European Integration. “This now contains almost 50,000 documents,” notes Deliyannides, “and it is the largest online repository of European Union documents outside of Europe. Very heavily used.”

The early successes with online repositories at Pitt for subject-specific communities led to the University’s Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETD) program, which offers access to the vast scholarly work produced in graduate and PhD programs. Pitt ETDs now number close to 7,000. That, in turn, was followed by D-Scholarship@Pitt, an institutional repository, meaning that anyone with a current Pitt computer account can upload the fruits of their scholarship—not only articles, but data sets, book sections, video and audio segments, even performances and exhibitions.

These early forays into digital scholarship have paved the way for a culture of innovation in Pitt’s University Library System. “We’re armed with a whole suite of tools, including good supporting technology infrastructure and organizational skills, as well as respect for the content and for the academic process, which really helps us to serve the community,” says Deliyannides.

 A clear sign of the times can be found toward the back of Hillman Library’s ground floor. The Digital Scholarship Commons occupies the space where the microform collection used to be. (Don’t worry, inveterate microform users. They’ve been moved, not discarded.) It’s an open space, designed with flexibility so that classes, small groups, and individuals can all work there at the same time. 

 Situated within the Commons is the office of Digital Scholarship Services, with a specialty team headed by Aaron Brenner. He joined the library in 2001 in what he calls a “back office” role, building digital collections from the library’s archives and special collections. Today, those collections include Documenting Pitt, Historic Pittsburgh, Audubon’s Birds of America, and many more that are accessible through the library system’s website at www.library.pitt.edu.

In 2014, Brenner was tapped to do an audit to help the library determine present and future needs to support digital scholarship. Specifically, with all of the changes in the way that people use and access information, what kinds of tools and support would be needed, looking ahead?

So, Brenner went out into the University community to meet with scholars and other researchers across the disciplines who were using digital methods in their work. What he learned became the white paper that has guided the library forward.

“Libraries were never meant to be just warehouses for books,” says Brenner. “They always had a role in helping to support scholarship, preserving and stewarding culture and cultural memory, supporting all of the systems around publishing and scholarship—classification, indexing, catalogs, literature searching, and scholarly publishing.” Those roles are still relevant in the digital age.

“Now we have faculty whose scholarship involves creating online resources. And those faculty are as interested in having that kind of scholarship preserved and sustained and made accessible as they are their books and their journals,” Brenner adds. 

With the storage of print collections occupying a less primary role for libraries at Pitt and elsewhere, the nature of support that libraries and librarians offer has shifted and continues to change. “We have different relationships now with people coming into our space,” says Brenner. For instance, scholars who once focused on research with texts now are likely to have access to those texts online and don’t need to visit the library physically. “But they might still need support in how to organize those texts for analysis or might benefit from guidance on how best to analyze them for their research purposes,” notes Brenner.

Librarians are also getting out of the library to where the work is happening. Hillman’s Digital Scholarship Services group welcomes collaborations that take place outside of the library building, including a recent project to create a regional data portal in partnership with Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research and the city and county governments. The Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (see related story on pg. 7) offers a shared technological and legal infrastructure to make public information easier to access. The center supports research, analysis, decision-making, and community engagement involving regional data.

“That project is a lot like what libraries do—taking information, storing it in a centralized way, making it accessible, taking care of it, describing it,” says Brenner. “But the library is not the center of that project. We have been a part of the project team. And, as a result, we end up working with people who wouldn’t otherwise be walking through our door.”

Much has changed in this new era of library services and support. Instead of lone individuals studying in isolated silence, today’s Hillman Library is all about the collaborative exchange of ideas and wired scholarship, aided by the latest digital technologies. It is, in fact, an extraordinary hub of activity.

Here, in the end, is how Jeff Wisniewski looks at it: “The library has gone from a place where people simply seek knowledge to a place where knowledge is actively being created.” And that is a revolution indeed. 

Excerpted from a story that appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Pitt Magazine.