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California Institute of Technology, the Sherman Fairchild Library: A New High-Tech Library

California Institute of Technology, the Sherman Fairchild Library A New High-Tech Library


Located in Pasadena, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a small, coeducational university dedicated to exceptional instruction and research in engineering and science. The student body is composed of 900 undergraduate and 1,100 graduate students who maintain a high standard of scholarship and intellectual achievement. With an outstanding faculty of about 300, including several Nobel Laureates, and such off-campus facilities as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Palomar Observatory, and the W. M. Keck Observatory, Caltech is one of the world’s major research centers.

The Caltech Library System was founded in 1891 and currently has a staff of 61. The library’s holdings include 550,325 book titles and bound periodicals, 543,000 microforms, and a selective U.S. Government publications depository. The library consists of two central facilities: (1) the Millikan Library, housing Millikan collections and Library Administration, Circulation, Document Delivery Services, and Technical Processing; and (2) the Sherman Fairchild Library of Engineering and Applied Science, housing the engineering collections, the Library Information Technology group, and the Digital Media Center. The Sherman Fairchild Library was dedicated in January 1997 and has a staff of one director, three librarians, and three support staff who serve 85 faculty members, 400 graduate students, and 325 undergraduates. In addition, the Sherman Fairchild Library houses the five information technology staff members for the whole library system. The director of the library is also responsible for all science and mathematics library services and staff in other locations on campus. In addition to Millikan and the Sherman Fairchild, the library system includes five branch libraries: Astrophysics, Geology, Public Affairs, Earthquake Engineering, and Management.

Funded by a $9.6 million gift from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, the Sherman Fairchild Library was created to meet a need, perceived by both faculty and library staff, for increasingly complex and expensive electronic resources. The engineering collections were housed comfortably in a number of departments-they were, in effect, department libraries-but to offer electronic resources to users in the most cost-effective manner, the libraries needed to be consolidated.


The Process

Planning for the library began long before the groundbreaking ceremony in March 1995. In 1988, the head of Caltech’s library committee and the librarian realized that the university needed to consolidate its collections to provide additional information resources. No money was available at the time, but when the Sherman Fairchild Foundation expressed interest in making a gift (continuing a long history of donations to Caltech), the idea for the new library was presented and accepted. A planning committee of engineering faculty and librarians was formed, and together they articulated what the library was to achieve. Brad Sturtevant, Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and chairman of the committee, led a consulting process that relied on heavy input from the computing center staff. The recommendations ultimately persuaded six academic departments, with collections in seven different sites, to consolidate their resources and give up the convenience of their local libraries.

Library staff members described Sturtevant as the moving force behind the creation of the Sherman Fairchild. It was clear from their comments and those of faculty members that a shared vision of what the Sherman Fairchild could do for the work of Caltech, a vision that Sturtevant ably and energetically advanced among all constituents, was critical to his success. The planning committee took a broad view of the library needs, rather than focusing more narrowly on the applied sciences. A key decision during the planning process was to develop the plans for the library that Caltech needed, even though the estimated cost exceeded what the Foundation said it was willing to give. In the end, the Foundation, persuaded by the vision of the new library and the planning process, provided full funding.

The committee agreed on three main objectives for the library:

  • to consolidate the resources of six engineering departmental libraries to exploit new technological advances in information delivery;
  • to maintain the responsive service that the former departmental libraries had traditionally provided to engineering faculty, students, and staff; and
  • to provide an aesthetically pleasing environment conducive to productive study and research in engineering and applied science.

At first, many faculty members were unconvinced of the need to consolidate the libraries and feared the move would compromise the responsive service they relied on. The libraries had been conveniently located within the departments and, understandably, many staff members resisted the idea of having to travel any distance to use their libraries. Here the leadership of the library faculty committee proved critical to advancing the project.

The toughest part of the process for the planning committee was gaining the support of the faculty, who seemed to feel that nothing was broken and so nothing needed to be fixed. But most faculty members now agree that the Sherman Fairchild is a boon to Caltech. This is because the library staff has been largely successful in providing the additional resources the faculty wants with the same quality of service as before. The planning committee secured a guarantee that staffing levels of subject specialists would stay the same for three years, and the Sherman Fairchild Library continues to be staffed with librarians with expertise in the diverse fields represented in the Engineering and Applied Science Division.

Another reason the library is regarded as successful is that the architects were able to meet the third objective-creating an aesthetic and inspiring environment-despite great difficulties in shrinking the desired building program into the space available. After agreement about building plans was reached on campus, the librarians struggled with the timing for decisions about technology. Kimberly Douglas, Director of the Sherman Fairchild Library, explained that they “held back on decisions long enough to get the latest technology and yet open the facility on time.”

The completed Sherman Fairchild Library is a 29,540 square-foot structure designed by the architectural firm of Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica. The design, influenced by the work of Bertram Goodhue and Myron Hunt, reflects a fresh, appreciative interpretation of Caltech’s architectural tradition. At the same time, the building has the infrastructure to support the substantial technological needs of the facility. The library has 100 study spaces with laptop ports (of which 50 are currently live), 18 seated workstations, and a number of lounge chairs. Two floors (ground and second) are outfitted with compact shelving, motorized with optic safety sweeps and aisle access controls. The facility accommodates 48,960 volumes of monographs, 46,656 volumes of bound journals, 67,500 volumes of technical reports, 5,616 volumes of reference materials, and 760 titles of current journals.

Technological and Service Innovations

A multimedia classroom, which also serves as a conference room, contains a modular presentation system. For the audience, the focus of this system is a 70-inch rear-projection television screen. The image on this screen is controlled by the speaker from a touch-screen controller installed in a speaker podium. From this screen, the speaker controls a video recorder to play back (and record) videotapes, a slide-to-video converter to project slides onto the TV, and a document camera to project written and printed material. The different sources can even be mixed. In addition, the modular presentation system is integrated with a two-camera video-conferencing unit. The library staff decided it was crucial to provide users with technologies that allow them to take data with them. As a result, the Sherman Fairchild Library has numerous scanners, beginning with the Minolta EPIC 3000 book scanner. The library also offers several flatbed scanners like the HP ScanJet 4c, which scans in 24-bit color images at a resolution of up to 600 dpi. After two years, the original Minolta scanner was moved to a staffed service point where its capabilities could be better exploited.

Eight laptop computers are available to faculty members, students, and staff to check out from the circulation desk. A significant investment in improved access to online resources, they may be used in the library up to four hours at a time. Groups may request the use of up to four of these laptops. More than half of the seating in the Sherman Fairchild Library has active network connections and power. The remaining seats all have power, and network cable has been put in place throughout. Only the network system would need to be expanded to give online access to all the seats in the Sherman Fairchild Library.


Interviews with a variety of users confirmed a high level of success with the three objectives that the planning committee articulated. Students from several departments noted that the consolidated libraries are actually more convenient for their research than the departmental libraries were. While they would prefer more study rooms, they appreciate the new, inviting atmosphere and the abundant technology. The students mentioned the value of centralized access to print materials and some expressed interest in more print resources, especially reference works.

Faculty members report that they continue to experience excellent service from the new facility. Some even conceded improved access. One faculty member in applied mathematics attributed some of the increased use of technology in classes to the establishment of the Digital Media Center. This center, located in the Sherman Fairchild Library but staffed by Information Technology Services, provides a central resource for the exploration, creation, and use of digital media and interactive technologies.

The role that the Sherman Fairchild plays within the Caltech community underscores how well the planning committee identified its three main objectives. When asked how important the library was to their work, some faculty members said that they didn’t use the library because all the information they need is accessible from their desktops. Of course, they understood that it was the library that had acquired and made available much of what they use at their desks, and they continue to think of the library staff as key resources. There were also those who said that they like going to the Sherman Fairchild to read because of the sheer attractiveness of the building and the pleasure of working in “a scholarly environment.” Several admitted that the aesthetic appeal of the library had done much to win them over. The fact that their relationship with specialist librarians-“the people who know their business”-had survived the transition intact was also mentioned as key to the new library’s reception in the community. Students, on the other hand, were quick to praise the library as a place to gather and as a place to use the print and electronic resources vital to them.

The newly consolidated collections leave the Caltech library staff well-positioned to serve a scientific and engineering community whose needs change rapidly. Caltech is not a highly centralized academic culture, and many library collections have developed within a single discipline. But as the nature of science itself changes, so do the tools that scientists use to discover. Certain groups of scientists at Caltech, such as those working on fluid dynamics or air pollution studies, had been disadvantaged by the specialization of the departmental library system. The ability to find a variety of resources in a central location is a boon to those working at the borders of older, more traditional disciplines. The Media Center, in particular, is designed to meet the needs created by the radical new ways that science is carried out and promotes cross-disciplinary research. Although this facility is not a training center per se, the focus is on meeting the research and teaching needs of the faculty. Here they can get help with presentations, developing curricular materials, and prototyping and test bed services.

Library staff were pleased that they were able to provide their clients with the resources they need, but also noted that the expectations of their patrons have grown accordingly, and this places high demands on the staff. However, they seemed to be comfortable with the fact that the students are often more technologically sophisticated than they are.

The original vision of those who created the Sherman Fairchild Library was that the new technologies would extend to the entire library system and the research programs it supports. That vision has largely succeeded. As noted by Vice Provost David Goodstein, responsible for both the libraries and information technology services, the Sherman Fairchild has given Caltech the leverage for building an infrastructure for the delivery of information resources campus-wide. The Millikan Library is now scheduled for technology upgrades, modeled on those of the Sherman Fairchild. The vice provost has expressed his commitment to building on the investment of the Sherman Fairchild to spread these new library services across the campus. University Librarian Anne Buck recently appointed a new member to the library team, Eric Van de Velde, director of library information technology. A respected scientist himself, Van de Velde brought much credibility to the position. His appointment is viewed by faculty and library staff alike as a significant sign of Caltech’s commitment to providing faculty and students with the information resources they need.

Library staff members are already developing a digital library infrastructure for Caltech, and they believe that the Sherman Fairchild Library provides an excellent base on which to build. They are pleased to have a new level of technological integration that makes their own work easier. They are aware of the faculty’s expectation that they will set standards for many aspects of the digital library, including how faculty work will be preserved if it is created in electronic formats. Because faculty members at Caltech are highly productive scientists, they are naturally interested in the changes under way in the electronic dissemination of information. The library will be active in publishing and plans to use Web and database technologies to disseminate Caltech research to the widest possible audience.

What has made Caltech a successful innovator in technological integration is the way it has forged productive partnerships with all the stakeholders in information resources. Though well-funded, the institute was faced with a problem that could not be solved by money alone. The chief obstacles to consolidating seven library collections into one were those faced by many institutions: lack of space, many competing interests that claimed precedence over library needs, and the sheer forces of inertia: the natural resistance of faculty, staff, and administration to change. It helped that Caltech is small and its faculty members, students, and staff know each other well. The atmosphere is, as one senior administrator put it, “respectful and unsuspicious.”

The ability to think through the problems of delivering new services and to focus on what the library needed to be, rather than what it could afford to be, was an important step in the planning process. As the vice provost said, “The Sherman Fairchild was worth the extra money spent on it.”

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