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Despite a dwindling state budget, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh librarians and support staff have revitalized Polk Library as a center for scholarly pursuit.

In the past year, library staff members have harnessed new technology and modernized work spaces to meet the needs of today’s researchers, adopting a strategy that focuses on doing more with less.

In some cases, that means drastically redefining what a library is — a challenge for libraries everywhere.

“The old ways of operating a library — for example, having information on hand just in case someone needs it — doesn’t work anymore,” said Patrick Wilkinson, Polk Library director.

For the past decade, the library’s budget for collections has remained flat, even as the cost of scholarly sources outpaces inflation. To maintain quality and accessibility, the library increasingly turns to the electronic versions in lieu of print materials, a smarter, streamlined approach to purchasing.

If that means fewer books on shelves, so be it.

“Real academic information is expensive,” Wilkinson said. “UW Oshkosh’s desktop delivery service for faculty, graduate students and upper-level undergraduates has become a model for UW System.”

Switching to electronic format also improves accessibility, since scholars can request and receive the information from anywhere with an Internet connection. Such accommodations become ever more crucial as more students enroll for distance-education courses.

“Many of Polk Library’s regular users never walk through the door,” said Sarah Neises, head of information and instructional services at Polk Library.

High-tech connections

In their mission to improve the library as a learning environment, the staff knew the first step was to understand the needs of the campus community, including how to connect with scholars.

“Librarians need to reach scholars through new means. We have to go to where they are, not bring them to where we are,” said Emerging Technologies Librarian Maccabee Levine, whose position was created specifically to find new, cutting-edge methods for connecting researchers to the tools they need.

The library’s technological initiative goes beyond creating a Facebook account and linking to Google search tips on Polk’s home page (www.uwosh.edu/library). For instance, UW Oshkosh has partnered with libraries across the nation to provide 24-hour assistance via Ask?Away Chat.

Another new resource is the Course Pages tool, which currently is in beta-testing mode.

“Course Pages are accessible from the University’s Desire2Learn software and connects scholars with roughly 120 databases and search resources related to course topics,” Levine said. “Faculty can edit as much or as little as they want using point-and-click technology.”

The customizable Web pages are linked directly to the dashboard that faculty, students and staff use for managing their classes, giving instructors the ability to add reference databases or tools as well as post general comments in a quick and easy fashion. Course Pages also shows students at a glance whether reserve items are currently available.

Caryn Murphy, assistant radio-TV-film professor, has taken advantage of Course Pages for two of her courses that have research projects, adding database suggestions and rearranging the order to emphasize the best resources first.

“Neither of these classes is a composition course. The Course Pages make it possible for me to assist the students without spending a lot of class time teaching them how to do research,” Murphy said. “I certainly think these pages are a great idea.”

Polk 101

In addition to revamping online resources, the library has made improvements to its facilities. In response to students’ needs and suggestions, Polk Library staff worked with the Oshkosh Student Association (OSA) to transform the first-floor reference room into a state-of-the-art research space to accommodate collaborative scholarship.

Polk 101 opened its doors in fall 2008. Upgrades included bigger workstations, tables with easy access to power for laptops, comfortable furniture, a small coffee shop and wireless computing and printing.

The redesigned reference room’s popularity was immediate, and the library has seen a 20-percent increase in the number of visitors.

“Students are still raving about the renovations, even those who recently graduated,” said OSA President Thomas Wolf. “The library is doing a fantastic job with very little.”

While administrators hope to remodel more of the library in future, students already are clamoring for more time in the existing spaces.

“We knew that students wanted the library open earlier and longer. Last semester, OSA conducted a survey on library hours,” Wolf said.

As a result of the poll, the library increased its hours of operation by two hours as of spring 2009, with the doors staying open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekdays.

Polk Library’s employees — comprised of 12 librarians and about the same number support staff — also connect face-to-face with roughly 6,500 students every year through more than 250 in-class sessions. Students also can schedule an appointment with a reference librarian through the Research Advisory Program, a three-year-old program that receives about 50 requests each semester.

The steady increase in traffic speaks volumes of the library’s successes, when considering obstacles such as limited financial support and a generation more apt to go to a search engine than visit a brick-and-mortar building.

“In spite of budget cuts, Polk Library remains a vital component of research at UW Oshkosh, perhaps more so today than ever before in its 46-year history,” Chancellor Richard H. Wells said. “Polk is a center of excellence on this campus, setting the example of how to be creative and innovative during difficult economic times.”

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