Libraries have served as campus hubs for connecting people and ideas since the first students began studying at the University—yet the role of campus libraries is changing, and with it, the role of librarians.

The original library is older than the Duke name itself. In 1887, when the University was still known as Trinity College, Trinity President John Crowell established the first campus-wide, general research library. Since then, the University’s has continuously expanded and improved its library system—establishing Perkins Library in 1928, Bostok library and von der Heyden Pavilion in 2005 and adding the David M. Rubenstein collection in 2011. The Duke University Libraries are now home to more than 17.7 million manuscripts, 1.2 million public documents and tens of thousands of films, videos, audio recordings and computer files. 

The main function of the library, however, is no longer to just house books—much of its selection now resides digitally—and those who work within the halls of Perkins, Lilly and the five other branches of Duke Libraries are adapting to the times as well.

“The role of librarian is rapidly changing,” said Jean Ferguson, head of research and reference services. 

She added that librarians offer a variety of core skills—understanding the needs of the research community, selecting materials to support their work, describing these materials, making materials accessible so they can be easily discovered by a wide range of people and teaching researchers how to find information on their topics. 

Whereas librarians of the past focused mainly on history and print media, contemporary librarians’ knowledge spans the physical, conceptual and digital worlds. 

“We have many library staff who work in specific areas—such as data, digitization, copyright and publishing and digital scholarship—who are blurring the lines of the traditional role of librarians,” Ferguson said. 

At their core, librarians are still performing the same job, but with a new and expansive set of resources, said Ernest Zitser, librarian for Slavic and Eastern European studies.

“Librarians are trained professionals who help to connect researchers to the information they need when they need it,” Zitser said.

Although librarians formerly aided students in finding sources for information, the Internet has made information extremely readily available to students, said Lee Sorensen, librarian for visual studies and dance. This, however, has presented new problems by creating an overload of information.

“Now, as often as not, we help users ignore the ‘white noise’ of information to choose the best source,” Sorensen said. “The difference between a book collection and a library is people. That hasn’t changed with electronics. As sources become more numerous, thoughtful answers to questions become harder to find. The free Internet so often just parrots the same quotation or opinion a myriad of places.”

Librarians are increasingly becoming information consultants, said Kevin Smith, director of copyright and scholarly communication. Because they spend so much time familiarizing themselves with the resources they work with, librarians are being asked to serve a role as a distributor of knowledge.

“In the digital age we are called on more and more to become involved in unique research projects—not just in locating information resources, but also in describing unique works that are created at Duke, disseminating those works to a broad audience and preserving these unique, born-digital creations,” Smith said.

Librarians are responsible for a wide variety of services that expand far beyond the typical eight-hour work day. From the ‘Ask a Librarian’ service—which allows students to send text messages to librarians until two in the morning during the Fall and Spring semesters—to consultation hours, the job of a librarian is multifaceted. To accommodate the schedules of students, many departmental librarians offer office hours in the buildings of their respective departments.

“We provide a large range of services, including everything from helping with basic reference questions to digitizing books on demand, assisting with data visualizations and archiving the records of student organizations,” said Aaron Welborn, director of communications for Duke Libraries.

According to research published by Duke Libraries, 14,410 questions were asked by students at the library desks between June 2012 and May 2013. An additional 14,725 questions were submitted via email, text message and instant messaging. Over 4,338 individual research consultations were completed by librarians as well. 

The current Duke Libraries strategic plan, developed in 2010, outlines five goals for the library system moving into the future—to improve user experience, develop new research and teaching partnerships, support University priorities, enhance library spaces and provide digital content, tools and services.

Because libraries offer such vast resources, many students do not use the library system to its fullest potential.   

“The Duke University Libraries offer such a wide range of space, materials and services that I think it would be difficult to take advantage of everything we offer,” Ferguson said.

She added that most undergraduates tend to use library spaces, particularly Perkins and Lilly Libraries, for studying and group work. Graduate students, however, often utilize libraries, especially as they are do research for their dissertations—taking advantage of library materials, document delivery and research consultations from subject librarians who have deep subject knowledge.

“Many students bring both questions about resources and larger questions about how to create and manage intellectual work to the library,” Smith said. “Many students will use some of our skills and expertise, but few are likely to take advantage of all that we offer—our staff is too multi-talented for that to be likely.”

Beginning in July, Perkins and Rubinstein Libraries will undergo renovations to work toward Duke Libraries’ goal of improving studying spaces.  The shifting, storing and reorganizing of materials will require some adaptation from librarians, but for most, the benefits of their work outweigh any inconveniences or challenges.

“I love libraries because you can see ideas take form in our spaces,” Sorensen said. “You literally watch as students or researchers make media and notions collide. People take resources and make them do things the designers never intended—and new projects develop.”

He noted that one of his favorite aspects of his job is when he helps students early in their research process because he then helps them form their research question and can lead them through every step of the investigative process.

“It is always inspiring to me to talk with students and learn about their passions and then to have even a small role in helping them create something from those commitments,” Smith said. 

He added that one especially satisfying experience in his time as a librarian was helping a student get permission to adapt some famous short stories into a play.

“For me it was an almost routine matter, but for him, it was a deeply held love of the works that motivated him,” Smith said. “He invited me to the wonderful production he put on, so I got to see the fruits of his labor and my small part in it.” 

Amongst the books in Duke Libraries are unique collections worth exploring, Sorensen said. The novelties include a book of original Star Wars designs, an extensive set of graphic novels and a collection of photography books. He added that the Music Library contains a CD collection that ranges from medieval sounds to popular rap music.

From well-honed myths of a ghost in the library to discovering a secret library-based drug-selling ring at the University of Arizona, Sorensen said that he has had a lot of interesting moments working in collegiate libraries. The most memorable, however, occurred in a quiet moment in Lilly.

“I once found the most beautiful love letter I think I have ever read tucked into a book. It was old, in gorgeous pre-war handwriting and so personal. I left it in the book because I didn’t feel I had the right to possess such a thing, and in the hopes another person would discover it in another 20 years,” he said.