S8E2: What role do libraries play in the digital age?
Libraries are vital resources for many communities, and their services have evolved over time with the advent of new technology and demands. The University of Maine Raymond H. Fogler Library, a more than 150-year-old institution and the largest research library in the state, has adopted several new offerings in recent years to meet the needs of students, faculty and the general public in the digital age.
In this week’s episode of “The Maine Question,” Daisy Domínguez Singh, dean of libraries at UMaine, discusses the latest developments in library services, including those at Fogler, and the role these repositories for knowledge and entertainment play in 2023.
Daisy Dominguez Singh: For academic libraries, at least in the direction I’d like for Fogler, is to continue that movement towards being more open with the community. I am all about holistic creation of things. Moving from a library that’s a purveyor of information to knowledge creation is something that excites me.
Ron Lisnet: That’s Daisy Singh, who’s come on board as the dean of libraries at UMaine. As the person in charge at Fogler Library, she oversees a resource that is physically and intellectually at the center of much that happens at UMaine. I’m Ron Lisnet, and this is “The Maine Question” podcast.
It’s an imposing physical presence in the very middle of the UMaine campus. Fogler Library is the state’s largest research library, serving hundreds of people every day, students, faculty, even the general public.
With more than three million print and digital volumes and hundreds of thousands of digital subscriptions and databases, it’s also the designated state research library for business, science, and technology and is the only Patent and Trademark Resource Center in Maine.
Beyond those physical holdings, the staff at Fogler is there to help patrons drill down and wade through that sea of information to find what they need, whether they want to research a certain topic, start a business, find a good book to read, or just see their yearbook picture.
For Daisy Singh, the image of the library as a place with stacks of books and people reading away on their own and librarians shushing people to be quiet is a bit out of date.
She sees libraries as places where groups can work in teams, take a class, watch a film series, and do many things beyond being a caretaker of printed and digital words.
We recently sat down with Singh to talk about libraries, where they’ve been and where they might be headed, and among other topics, asked the question, “What role do libraries play in today’s digital, connected world?”
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it. Talk to me about how you got into this line of work. I imagine as a kid books were a big deal for you, right?
Daisy: No, actually, it’s funny. Not that I didn’t read, but I’m not one of those bookworms. I think I always felt comfortable in a library, so I did read, but it wasn’t until I went to NYU as an undergrad and I became the assistant for the Latin Americanist.
She was the bibliographer, and I started helping her with checking out books that were on an approval plan and doing the website. It was the mid‑’90s, so I was working on her website with her. I noticed that she happened to work with Latin American collections, and I was doing my undergrad in Latin American studies.
She got to travel through her book collection efforts, etc., and I thought that was really cool to be able to travel as well. I got into the profession that way. I had worked in different libraries up to then. I felt comfortable and I figured, why not get a degree to be able to support this work as a professional.
Ron: What do you like about libraries?
Daisy: Partly, it’s a public space where everyone can come. As a somewhat of an introvert, there’s no need to necessarily interact, but a whole new world is open to you. The materials that I tended to do research on was more audiovisual materials. It’s funny because whenever you think of libraries, people automatically think of books.
In my case, it’s a little bit different. It’s a comfort level, a quiet space sometimes. Sometimes you have spaces where you can be a little more…not quiet. That’s the main thing, maybe the equality of it. Everybody can come in and it’s open to all.
Ron: Many of us grew up with libraries and we think of them as what you alluded to, which is stacks of books, tables with people sitting, reading quietly. You can’t make too much noise. Perception versus reality. What is kept from that history that we think about, and how are libraries basically different now in the 21st century?
Daisy: There’s still that element where people want to be in a quiet space a lot of times to study. It’s a space for people to congregate, to study or to relax, to be with friends, etc.
There’s different environments now within the library maybe that accommodate different type of collaboration. The stereotype of the shushing librarian, where everything has to be quiet, and you can’t hear a pin drop, is different.
Now there’s study rooms when people want to collaborate, and there’s a lot more of that. There’s a more sensitivity to the fact that different types of learners might need different types of spaces, with some level of noise, or some level of at least a feeling that people are near, even if they’re not interacting with them. That’s one staple that has modified some.
I would say that libraries in general are being more open. Academic libraries, which is where my experience lies, so some listeners may be more accustomed to dealing in a public library sphere. With academic libraries, traditionally it’s been a closed environment for academics only.
In the last few decades, it’s been opened up so that the academic research could be made available more readily to the public where there’s more collaborations between a library and different disciplines, so that they’re putting out information. It’s not just an information repository ‑‑ although it is that ‑‑ but it’s also a knowledge creator, or a collaborator. I’d say that’s another difference.
Of course, it’s a place where we hold materials that are physical ‑‑ physical as in books or microfilm ‑‑ but there’s also a lot of digitization efforts both within the library and in terms of our subscription to journals and even ebooks that not everyone…Some people feel more comfortable with the print, but there’s a lot out there that isn’t print also. That’s another difference.
Ron: We’re well into the digital age where basically any text, any word, that’s ever written, you can pull up on your phone, but too much information that isn’t focused isn’t useful, right? Do libraries serve the purpose of collecting, collating, focusing information to help people learn what they need to learn?
Daisy: To step back a little about what you said in the beginning about everything being available, I’m not sure that’s…It’s the impression. The world has been opened to us through digital collections, but I would say there is a lot of things that still aren’t available digitally.
There might be different presses, unique presses in other countries where ‑‑ especially as a Latin Americanist ‑‑ you can’t necessarily get a book approval plan for some of these things.
In my background, libraries tend to work with book dealers ‑‑ in Latin America, for example ‑‑ who are more the experts in going into the communities, whether it’s native communities or other types of communities where these unique resources are available that aren’t in print.
I guess I just wanted to make sure that people don’t get the impression that everything is online.
You’re right. There’s been a switch in the last few decades into librarians helping people to find information, or even the catalogers, who are including the metadata to make things more accessible or discoverable.
I think it was always important, but it’s different now that there’s digital materials and there’s such a proliferation. We have the reference librarians doing information literacy workshops to help people not feel so overwhelmed by all the information and trying to use their critical thinking skills in order to find that information.
There’s a lot of nuances to how we do library work now.
Ron: It’s tough to drink from a fire hose. You want to just turn that down a little bit, right?
The University of Maine recently achieved the status of being an R1 research university which means they’re in the top 146 research institutions in the country. How does Fogler help support and promote that?
Daisy: I would say, first, the traditional way, through the publications that we provide, whether monographs or the journal packages, which, of course, is difficult because of…We can’t have it all.
Sometimes, to supplement what we don’t own or subscribe to, we have services like inter‑library loan which allows people to request physical items from throughout the state and throughout the country. In some cases, maybe even internationally.
Also, there’s digital objects, or articles for the most part, where people can request and get them with a turnaround of less than a day typically. That’s one way.
I would say the other is through some of the workshops that we’ve been providing related to the Pivot database, which is a database that allows researchers to find funding opportunities, and also, in some cases, create profiles for themselves, so they can learn the network out there to collaborate with.
We have mostly one librarian focusing on efforts of that nature. She’s running…Let me remember the name. I wrote this down because I knew it might come up. Publish and Thrive Challenge which is coming up in March of this year. It’s an asynchronous program open to all, particularly for early scholars.
There’s a Research Impact Challenge coming up in April helping all types of researchers create scholarly profiles, measure the impact of their research, and promote their work to new audiences. There’s a lot of publications that are becoming available, open access, and so just helping lead people to that work. That’s another way.
With the Pivot database, there’s an online grant writing workshop on March 14th as well, so you can find all those events coming up on the Fogler Library website.
Ron: If you walk through the stacks or the different floors in Fogler Library, but you’ll see a lot of students in their cubicle or at a table, studying on their own. Like you alluded to there, people are using libraries in a lot of different ways. You also see teams of students working together or groups interacting with each other.
Can you talk a little bit more about the different ways people are using libraries that just, there’s a lot more ways to get your work done there, right?
Daisy: Yeah. There’s different levels in Fogler, of course, and some are more for quiet study. There’s like different, I call them like the bunk beds, but they’re bunk cubicles, I guess. I know if I was a student here, that’s where I would go because I’d feel a little comforted by the height of the ceiling and a little protected.
There’s study rooms that the students can reserve. Aside from just collaboration or independent study, I would say it’s also a place to refresh. I’d like for Fogler to be like an anchor site where people don’t necessarily have to leave.
We allow food in some areas, so if they don’t necessarily have to go somewhere to like have a coffee, although we’re working on providing some level of coffee service in the Oakes Room. Students…there’s all types of ways they can be using the library through inter‑library loan services I didn’t mention, which that’s one way.
We have a federal government depository library. We’re a regional library for Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont since 1907. Potentially, they can be using government documents if they’re doing research on that.
There’s microfilm collections, and there’s an area in the library for that. I’m trying to think. Special collections is another thing, especially if their classes are making use of primary resources and they can make use of that.
We have the digital commons that store some of that material also, or archives, some of that material. They can also visit the special collection staff because one thing I want to note, as I said earlier, is that not everything is online. If you find the list of materials through digital commons that you’re interested in, there might be more that hasn’t been digitized yet.
It’s always good to check with either a reference librarian or special collections, an archivist or librarian, depending on what your need is.
Ron: I want to ask you about special collections in a minute because I know there’s some pretty cool stuff in there. Back to what you just said, reference librarians. What do they do? How can people best leverage their expertise?
Daisy: The reference librarians have shifts at the reference desk. Patrons, whether it’s students at UMaine or the UMaine community, as well as the public, can come in and ask questions. That’s one way of like ad hoc, just spontaneous service.
Librarians teach standalone information literacy classes for different courses. We also teach, the librarians teach four‑credit courses with the LBR, I think is the coding. They’re teaching information literary skills that way. They also have a really nice program for information literacy workshops.
I think it was last month they had a Dungeons & Dragon‑style Information Literacy workshop. Those things are really cool to connect with the communities already within UMaine who are into something like D & D. We have, I think, a conversation coming up, a discussion on banned books.
I’m forgetting the last one, but they have an innovative program that seeks to connect, especially with the undergraduate population because we try to reach all the undergraduates, but because of the setup, it hasn’t thus far been possible to reach every single student. If you were to poll the community, I’m not sure if everyone has had a library class because it’s not an easy thing to catch everyone.
There’s many different ways. I didn’t mention, but we have services within the library, like the Maine legislature has designated us as the main business, science and technology library. For example, our business librarian runs that with a team of librarians in the sciences for the most part.
The whole state of Maine, anyone who resides in Maine can make use of that. There’s free digital resources accessible apart from the resources that the UMaine community has access to. They, as reference librarians, are providing reference help in all types of business‑related questions about commercial fishing or PFAS or things like that.
I’m starting to get into the bigger question of what else do we do? So maybe I should leave it at there.
Ron: That’s a lot right there. Some folks may not know that Fogler Library is open to the general public. It’s not just UMaine students and faculty and staff. Anybody can go into the library and get what they’re looking for.
Daisy: My understanding, I come from the other day because I almost couldn’t believe it. My husband has a Bangor Public Library card, and I said, “I think you can come to our reference desk or the circulation desk and check something out with that.” We also have, for example, the Patents and Trademark Resource Center also run by the business librarian.
He’s trained by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Those things are administered there. Anyone with questions regarding that can also come to him with those questions. He does training in collaboration with the Bangor Public Library and other associations.
The other thing that may not be so apparent to library patrons are the workings behind the scenes. For example, we have the Maine Shared Collections Cooperative if I got the…MSCC, I think it is.
That’s librarians throughout the state working behind the scenes to ensure that our collection efforts are collaborative so that if some libraries decide to weed items for their collection, there are still other items and other collections that hold them within a certain time frame, and then they revisit the collections afterwards.
Things like that that the average person might not be thinking of, but we work a lot in consortium, especially in this state. I think it’s a leader in that regard. One of my direct reports is the executive director of Maine InfoNet, which is like a resource consortium.
It’s like a very big culture of sharing resources and talking about collections and how best to meet the needs of various…the residents of Maine as well as the UMaine community.
Ron: Let’s talk a couple of statistics. Fogler is often described as the largest library in the state. Do you have any idea how many people you serve on an annual basis? How many holdings are there, both digitally and physical, and any numbers you could throw at us?
Daisy: I don’t remember the annual, but I know that on a daily counts ‑‑ because the circulation staff does daily counts ‑‑ there’s probably an average of about 200 people at the height of the day within the library. It fluctuates between the early morning and the late evening.
In terms of the collection counts, we have 1.5 million titles within the collection, physical titles, but that includes also federal depository items, not just regular books. We also have 1.5 million ebooks. We also have over 160,000 e‑journals or electronic journals and over 300 databases.
Ron: Wow. Now you talked about the business, science and tech services and the Patent and Trademark Resource Center. Those can be used by people that are trying to start businesses, grow businesses. Just talk about how people can access that expertise and those resources to help promote Maine’s economy.
Daisy: Yeah. I think that for the Patent and Trademark Resource Center, the business librarian fields questions from all types of people interested in those and there’s certain information that he can’t provide. He’s not a lawyer, for example, right? But there’s some guidance that he can provide and he’s trained for it.
Also, I should say that he does presentations. I think one of them is called SCORE, and I’m going to forget the…There’s a lot of acronyms in the space.
Ron: Yes, there is.
Daisy: Ever since I came to Maine we’re acronym happy. SCORE is one organization that he collaborates with, but if anyone listening is part of another association, they might get in touch with him, John Hutchinson, in order to potentially provide a presentation and that way reach a lot of people at once. They can also get in touch with him personally, and with the Maine’s Business, Science, and Technology Library.
He leads it, but there’s a team of librarians mostly in the sciences, so they collaborate, there’s questions that he can answer on the business end, and then if he gets a little more detail into research, he hands it over to them, so it’s a nice team.
Ron: You’ve mentioned a couple times digital commons. Let’s make sure people know what is that and how can people use it.
Daisy: Digital commons is our institutional repository. I would say most academic institutions have one now. The material that we have in special collections for the most part is digitized and is archived there. We have, for example, the theses and dissertations that come out of UMaine will be there.
We have special items, there’s a Maine Music Box. Let me remember what the…
Daisy: Maine Music Box collection. There’s mostly scores, but there’s other material in there, including a small number of mp3 files related to those collections.
There’s a Maine postcard collection from the early 20th century, for example. When I visited the special collections, the archivist, they pointed out to me that during the Vietnam War, there was a blood drive. There was a 15‑minute clip of people being interviewed with respect to that. Something like that is there and it’s pretty cool to listen to.
Things tend to get, in some cases, digitized by request. There’s other efforts with different staffers at the library that are putting whole collections on there as well.
Ron: For people that are alumni of the University of Maine, that’s the other thing, all the yearbooks are there. You can look up your picture from when you were in school or your parents, your grandparents, whatever you like.
Daisy: I recently visited the annex. We have an annex side for Fogler on the campus. I was really impressed. They showed me a physical copy of Prism from, I think it was 1963. When they showed the pictures, there was some kind of ball. Duke Ellington was there and I heard that Bob Dylan was also here. It was one of those things that I didn’t expect.
Whether you find it digitally or with the physical item, it’s pretty cool.
Ron: Special collections, you’ve referenced that a couple of times. What are the most interesting and popular items that are held there? There’s some unique things there.
Daisy: Yeah. I’m trying to think. I know that there’s 2,000 collections and they range from one sheet of paper to dozens of boxes. One of the unique ones is a William S. Cohen paper. He was a representative, US Senator and then he went on to be Defense Secretary. You probably know this because you’re a UMainer. That’s one huge collection. That’s the biggest one.
The one that I was interested in, which we recently featured on social media, was a letter from Booker T. Washington to the then‑president of UMaine asking if there were any African American ‑‑ although he uses the term colored in the letter ‑‑ graduates who might be willing to teach at the Tuskegee Institute. He got a response, a two‑page item that I was shown.
Other interesting things are, there’s, I believe, a Hispanic Society, Sigma Delta Pi. Don’t quote me on the name. Apparently, there’s an institution in South Carolina, I believe, that needed a few copies and we had them, and we were able to serve them for their use.
Things like that, that have interested me. With this there’s actually is a staff pick section on Fogler. You’ll see some of the archivists and other special‑collection staff have picked items as well.
Ron: Wow, that’s great. How do you see libraries evolving and changing in the coming decade? What other new areas, services might be offered that are particularly exciting to you? Where’s all this going?
Daisy: For academic libraries at least, and the direction I’d like for Fogler, is to continue that movement towards being more open with the community, invite…Since we are open to everyone, so that people don’t get the feeling that we’re just academic and we’re not here for them.
Ideally, I’d like to create an open scholarship and digital scholarship section or unit in the library in order to promote the open access publishing efforts within UMaine, and also to promote more collaborative efforts with different faculty doing digital projects on different platforms to showcase primary resource materials that we have in the library that they’re using for classes or any text mining projects.
Things that I don’t have an expertise on, but I like the idea of a holistic library where there’s the collaboration between the faculty, the librarians, the archivists, the other staff, because there’s a lot of staff in the library who really do great work. I’m all about holistic creation of things.
Moving from a library that’s a purveyor of information to knowledge creation is something that excites me. Generally speaking, being open to different types of users. It’s cool.
I have some background with indigenous film, that’s the research I used to do. It’s cool that there’s this connection with the Penobscot and the Wabanaki community here. It’d be nice to have more events.
We recently rechristened, I guess, the former university club as The Salon. It’s still in the Lynch Room. It’s a place that I’m hoping people will retire to after a formal function to have a coffee there or something. We’d also like to inaugurate a salon series to have different luminaries or…Whoever we can get.
We know there’s a limited budget also, but someone we can get that has interesting conversations. Just to bring the community and more involve them. We’ll always be an academic library, but there’s a way to be an academic that’s still open to others.
Ron: Right. Well, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. Appreciate it.
Daisy: Thanks so much, Ron.
Ron: Thanks as always for checking us out. You can find all our episodes on Apple and Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and SoundCloud, UMaine’s YouTube, Twitter and Facebook pages, as well as Amazon and Audible.
Send us a note with a question or comment if you have any, firstname.lastname@example.org. This is Ron Lisnet. We’ll catch you next time on The Maine Question.