Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 7, 1994

The Way I See It: Old and New Make Libraries Worthy of Help 

     When Steve Nichols was a boy during World War II, he looked
forward to his frequent hikes across the Cape Cod countryside to
get to the community's quaint 19th-century library. He still
recalls fondly the library's musty, familiar, inviting smell. To
him, it was the fragrance of books. Now he knows that the lovely
smell was of books crumbling in decay.
     This rather harsh realization is all part of his learning
curve since accepting the provost's request to keep Homewood's
Eisenhower Library moving forward in the period between the
departure for Yale of director Scott Bennett and the hiring of
his replacement sometime next year. Since he started the job as
acting director on Oct. 1, Nichols also has learned that looks,
as well as smells, can be deceiving. 
     As one of the country's pre-eminent French scholars, Nichols
has always been an avid user of this and other university
libraries. But he, like most people, saw only their smooth
operation. He appreciated that when he wanted a book it was
either on the shelf or easily could be tracked and brought to
him, usually in good physical shape. 
     As director, he now knows that all that seamless efficiency
costs money. Lots and lots of money for crucial, but largely
unseen, things. For example, Nichols says that by the time an
average $60 book is identified for acquisition, shipped in,
cataloged into the computer, put on a shelf and tracked so that
its whereabouts are known at all times, it costs closer to $100.
That's a low estimate on both ends and does not even account for
repair when someone breaks the book's spine to save a place, or
pulls it off the shelf by its binding.
     Other examples: In his first month, Nichols has had to press
ahead on the ongoing project to create quality and convenient
off-site shelving to ease the pressure of trying to squeeze more
than 2 million books into a building designed to accommodate 1
million. And the library acquires about 40,000 new books each
     He was tossed into the midst of the process to select a new
library management system to take the place of what we know as
Janus, because there are better, more efficient and friendlier
ways for students, faculty and staff to find out where books and
materials are located.
     And he has been drawn into the effort to find funds to
expand MUSE, the cooperative venture among the library, Homewood
Academic Computing and the Johns Hopkins Press to make the 42
Press journals available on a wonderfully flexible computer
software program capable of being sent electronically anywhere in
the world.
     The sweeping undercurrent of all these projects is the need
for money. Nichols celebrated his first day on the job with
Hopkins alumnus Champ Sheridan and his wife, Debbie, who pledged
a gracious $20 million gift to the library. But Nichols knows not
every day will be like that. In the 30 years since the library
opened, its biggest gift had been $2.5 million, also from the
Sheridans. In an average year, the library raises about $1
million. Its annual operating budget, though, is $10.8 million
with other costs pushing expenditures to more than $13 million. 
     Perhaps it comes as no surprise that raising the kinds of
funds necessary to maintain current levels of quality and to
press ahead for future growth is not the easiest of all
development tasks, in part because nobody graduates from a
library. No one has that nostalgia for a building and a service
the way they might for their department or their professors.
     Complicating funding matters further is a generation that is
growing up in front of a computer monitor or a TV screen and is
not imbued with the wonder of reading and the magic of holding a
book in one's hands. Libraries could become cultural relics.
     Steve Nichols does not think that will happen, and he
insists that there should be room for both a 500-year-old Italian
manuscript and a journal accessible only on Mosaic software.
People, he thinks, will always want to sit under a tree, or curl
up on a sofa, or lie at the beach with a book. It's kind of hard
to do that with a computer, even a laptop.
     In a sense, it's this romanticizing of books that may ensure
their survival well after the information highway is paved and
trafficked regularly. I love to wind my way along the Internet
and access information from around the world. But it is still
more wondrous to walk into the Peabody Library and marvel at the
cathedral of books that towers up from the shiny black and white
tiled floor. I get swept away gently leafing through a folio of
newspapers from 1789 France. And I absolutely could live right in
the Garrett Library at Evergreen House.
     But we lovers of books and maps and magazines, which we can
touch and turn, cannot rely on good intentions and warm feelings
to keep our libraries secure and thriving. Those of us who are
struggling for computer literacy, because we can envision the
ease with which we will be able to access and manipulate
information for our work, need to become friends of our
libraries, friends with deeper pockets.
     Steve Nichols is pleasantly surprised at the diversity of
people at Hopkins who do support the library. And he is slightly
unnerved when he hears someone wonder why the library should get
a very big gift.
     Perhaps he can remind those people that the answer may come
to them if they stop and smell the books.

--Steve Libowitz, Editor of the Gazette

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage