New University Librarian builds on the past, looks toward the future

Author: Carol C. Bradley

Diane Parr Walker

“Responding to the many demands and challenges of supporting our vision of being the pre-eminent Catholic research university will require a forward-looking University library system that is prepared to meet the future research, scholarship and teaching needs of faculty and students.” — Provost Thomas G. Burish

During her first six months on campus, Diane Parr Walker—appointed University Librarian in July 2011—spent time introducing herself to people and listening.

Now she’s ready to move forward with a vision of a library system prepared, as Provost Thomas G. Burish has said, “to meet the future research, scholarship and teaching needs of faculty and students.”

And here’s something she wants to be clear about: “I have no intention of getting rid of books.”

It’s a question that comes up—is there really a need for physical libraries anymore? Isn’t everything online?

Walker suggests that there’s a lot more to a library than that. A new vision for library spaces will encourage intellectual activity, with areas for both quiet work and collaborative work. And a library, she adds, is still the easiest way to interact with knowledge experts.

“You’re with folks who can navigate masses of information and save you time doing it, who can tell you about things you wouldn’t find on your own.”

Walker’s vision focuses on three main areas: knowledge resources—print and physical collections, as well as development of digital resources; services, including knowledge of disciplines and languages, as well as technical expertise; and the development of creative, inviting and inspiring spaces that will foster intellectual engagement.

The Hesburgh Library, Walker notes, is 50 years old (the cornerstone was laid in 1962, the building opened in the spring of 1963 and was dedicated in 1964).

“It’s a wonderful representation of Father Hesburgh’s vision of what a library should be,” she says.

Talk about renovating the library has gone on since the building was opened, with most of the plans focusing on the first and second floors. Walker and others have reviewed all the past planning documents. Now, she says, plans are being made for the whole building, a programmatic master plan.

“We’re thinking about the 21st-century library, and strategies for moving forward.”

The need is becoming more urgent—Father Hesburgh had a vision of filling the library tower with books, and that’s just what happened. Fifty years later, the shelves are full to overflowing. Within two years, Walker says, there will be no more shelf space. In the works is a plan for a remote shelving facility, with materials still quickly accessible via document delivery.

The space created, Walker says, “will give us an opportunity to think about the tower as an intellectual crossroads.”

The first-floor current periodicals area, highly visible from the concourse, offers an immediate opportunity to experiment with new ideas.

“I want it to become a visible scholarly laboratory—a space that’s active and engaging, so people will want to come in,” she says. “We’re using some of the ideas that had been developed for the first and second floors. There will be a video wall, so people can share their work with others. We’re imagining presentation space for visiting lecturers, as well as soft seating, and flexible, movable furniture. The point is to give us room to experiment, to explore the possibilities for renovating the entire building.”

The potential addition of a full-service café in the area where vending machines are currently located is high on the list of ideas to explore. The surface of the library mall between the building and the reflecting pool will be replaced over the summer, and the idea of expanding tables and seating to the outdoors may also be considered.

In addition to the challenges of updating a 50-year-old building, the library is facing a number of staff changes, with nearly 10 percent of the work force retiring this spring.

“Some longtime colleagues are moving to the next chapter in their lives,” Walker says. “Internally, we’ll be reconfiguring and making changes in the way the library is organized.”

The Hesburgh Libraries, says Walker, “have some fabulous collections, good staff and the resources to help people do their work. We’re aiming for a strong partnership with the campus community to ensure that the library grows to support the future research and scholarship needs of faculty and students.”