April 20, 2024

Two Libraries at NASA Center to Close and Go All Electronic


Two NASA libraries will close their doors on January 1 and transition to a completely digital service model.

Budget pressures, dwindling patron traffic to the physical libraries, and the growth in the use of digital materials are all driving the decision to close the Goddard Space Flight Center Library at the main facility of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Wallops Technical Library, near Chincoteague, Virginia.

“We have been working toward having a digital library for the past 10 years,” said Robin Dixon, the head of the Knowledge Resources and Library Branch at Goddard (also known as the Homer E. Newell Memorial Library). “The use of electronic resources is climbing exponentially, more than 100 percent over the past year, while the gate count has declined by almost the same amount,” she said.

The two libraries have a contract with an external company to staff the libraries with 17.5 FTEs. The transition will eliminate the 1.5 FTEs that presently work at Wallop, whose services will be provided by the staff at Greenbelt. The final count at Goddard has yet to be determined.

“We will have to reduce our contractor staff, but we are still going to have a large contingent that is going to run the electronic piece of the library,” said Marilyn C. Tolliver, chief of the Information and Logistics Management Division at Goddard.

Dixon and Tolliver, while acknowledging budgetary pressures, declined to release budget figures; however, in a joint October 31 memo to the Goddard staff they wrote that “a realignment of resources is necessary for us to continue content and services critical to Goddard mission success.”

The physical collection at Goddard contains about 88,000 volumes and there are about 35,000 at Wallop.

“We have a team of library staff and members of the scientific and engineering community trying to decide whether we will maintain a core collection of physical items that will still be accessible and whether that will be maintained here on center or somewhere off-site,” Dixon said. “The difficulty for the immediate future is in determining what that core collection will be,” she said.

“It will be a merging of library science and the scientific community in deciding what will be in that collection,” Dixon said. “We have always been a model of having everything available just in case, but now we will have as much as we can, knowing that we made a decision about what to have,” she said.

An item’s uniqueness, usage rate, historical value all factor into the decision making. Redundant items will be offered to other NASA centers and to other institutions.

“Some groups, such as the University of Maryland, have said if we have duplicates they would be interested,” Tolliver said.

The majority of the journal collection is already available electronically and the libraries’ ebook collections offer access to over 80,000 titles, according to the October 31 memo. Library subject specialists offer virtual research and instruction services, as well as support for electronic resources.

The news that the physical libraries will close has stirred some concern among the scientists and engineers who work at Goddard.

“Our scientist and engineering communities are the most vocal at this point in expressing their interest and concern,” Tolliver said. “They want to make sure there is access to a core collection.”

“The scientists are very much concerned because they do depend sometimes on serendipity when doing their research,” Dixon said. “They will come in looking for something specific, but they will find something else while they are in the stacks. They are concerned about missing that serendipity,” she said.

A staff member could not be reached for comment, but a number of people have commented on this at NASA Watch.

To capture some of those serendipitous discoveries in a digital environment, enhancements to the catalog, such as including tags and pictures of book covers, are planned. Dixon said.

This is not the first time this has happened at NASA. The library at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, has no book collection and is totally electronic. The center teams with the University of Houston-Clear Lake to provide access to physical items. The library at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is almost totally electronic and has essentially a closed stack collection.

The move also mirrors a recent decision by The Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University.

“In this transition it has been important that we as library service professionals had the opportunity to play a huge role in how things are done. We are not just being given marching orders,” Dixon said. “That makes it a lot better transition than it would be if that were not in place.”

A decision has not yet been made about what will happen to the physical space the libraries occupy.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. Michael Girard says:

    The ebook market is moving quickly from the early adopter phase and is probably beginning its move into the early stages of mainstream adoption. I definitely understand the reservations being voiced regarding research and being able to stumble upon information you weren’t looking for. On the whole this likely has much more to do with budgetary pressures than a decision to be on the cutting edge of ebook adoption. It does suggest that the technology has established itself permanently.

    Michael Girard
    Community Engagement, Radian6