Libraries are invaluable cornerstones of college and university life, say guest columnists Betsy Wilson and Erika Linke. By equipping the next generation of engineers, teachers, doctors with the training and research tools needed to compete in the global marketplace, library professionals make a vital contribution in today's challenging economic times.

As students prepare for future careers that will demand top-notch research skills, critical thinking and a savvy eye for finding information, academic librarians are stepping up to meet those needs.

Library professionals are equipping the next generation of engineers, teachers, doctors — and jobs yet to be imagined — with the training and research tools needed to compete in the global marketplace. This is a vital contribution in today’s challenging economic times.

Libraries are invaluable cornerstones of college and university life. They have become vibrant spaces where students can access digital information or pull classics from the shelves. In 2006, nearly 1 billion students used the library as a modern meeting place to exchange ideas or to take a study break at an in-house coffee bar. At the University of Washington, students can be found in the Learning Commons or in Suzzallo Espresso sipping lattes while deeply engaged in collaborative projects and, in response to its popularity, Seattle University’s Lemieux Library is expanding and will soon have innovative learning spaces, a cafe and more spots for Internet access. Or, libraries can be a resource to tap from the convenience of a dorm room or faculty office via the Internet 24/7.

Today there are valuable collections of scholarly research available to users at the touch of a button. Keeping up with the latest technology, librarians are preserving and extending access to information that comprises our cultural, scientific and intellectual heritage. They are doing this through a variety of digital projects and initiatives. Librarians are meeting students in cyberspace via Second Life, Facebook and Twitter. Many libraries also provide students with around-the-clock information and reference service, wireless environments, compelling data sets and curriculum-based video games.

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Libraries and archives have digitized important and unique collections and made them publicly available. Many academic libraries have established open-access digital repositories of freely available works to stimulate the sharing of information and advance discovery and the creation of new knowledge. Millions of books from university libraries and publishers have been digitized by Google and the Open Content Alliance, changing the way consumers can view the material. By paying an institutional subscription to digitized Google books, libraries can provide users greater access, further underscoring their critical role to the community.

Access to information in the Internet age has expanded the educational role of librarians. Even with information widely available online, academic libraries remain the best place for students to discover quality information for learning and research. Librarians partner with faculty to educate students, developing their research expertise and helping them learn how to assess the value and reliability of electronic and print materials. Helping students overcome the mistaken idea that if a resource doesn’t appear online it doesn’t exist, is a key role for librarians.

To avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism in the copy-and-paste world, librarians teach students to use information resources ethically as a steppingstone to develop their own insights and ideas — abilities that are highly prized in our entrepreneurial world.

To better serve their communities, nearly 3,000 librarians, staff members and leaders in higher education from 21 countries will converge in Seattle next week, for the national conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries. Attendees will explore the exciting opportunities and challenges facing today’s academic librarians. Portions of the conference will be accessible on live interactive Webcasts, discussion boards and blogs, underscoring the transformative power of technology to extend the reach and influence of librarians.

Betsy Wilson is chair of the ACRL National Conference Committee, and dean of university libraries, University of Washington. Erika Linke is president of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and associate dean of university libraries for collection and user services, Carnegie Mellon University.