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UZH Journal

“Libraries Are Popular Venues for Studying”

Brigitte Schubnell und Wilfried Lochbühler

We may live in a digital age, but student demand for libraries is hotter than ever, according to Brigitte Schubnell and Wilfried Lochbühler from the University’s Main Library (HBZ). We sat down with the HBZ’s two directors to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this indispensable institution.

Interview: Stefan Stöcklin; translated by Gena Olson

Ms. Schubnell, Mr. Lochbühler, your library was founded 40 years ago. How has the Main Library (HBZ) changed since then?

Wilfried Lochbühler: The library has changed enormously since it was established in the Strickhof building in 1980. At that time it was known as the Main Library at UZH Irchel. Digitalization is the key word here: It has completely transformed how libraries are used. Over the years we have both supported and shaped these technological developments and were often trendsetters when it came to implementing state-of-the-art library management systems. With regard to collections, over the years we gradually integrated the libraries of the different natural science departments and now serve as the specialist library at UZH for the natural sciences and medicine. Recently we have added university-wide services dealing with electronic media, open access and data services and research data management.
Brigitte Schubnell: Over the past 40 years we have grown to be a library with three locations. Today our physical book and journal collections are primarily available in digital form. Along with these technical changes, the significance of the library itself has also changed. It has become an important venue for studying that is used and enjoyed by students more than ever before.
Lochbühler: This trend of using the library as a place to study and prepare for exams sharply contradicts prognoses of the 1990s that said that the internet would make libraries obsolete. We have reacted to this development and increased the amount of workstations available. The Main Library alone has 1,000 reading desks that are used regularly.

A bit of paradox, isn’t it? Students could also read publications online at home. Why are libraries in such demand?

Schubnell: The need for shared reading and studying opportunities is related to the Bologna reform. One consequence of the reform was more streamlined study programs with lots of exams and group work. The need to work together with classmates rose accordingly: Studying together, working on group assignments, trying out new study methods.
Lochbühler: Libraries today provide a venue for a kind of learning that has become critical: a quiet place to read with physical proximity to reference works and the possibility to interact in group study rooms. And we also offer break rooms as a place to take some time out and relax.

The Main Library is also the specialist library for the natural sciences and medicine. These fields have seen an enormous rise in the number of publications over the past several years. How do you keep up?

Lochbühler: Every year the global total of academic publications grows by around three to five percent, with particularly strong growth in Asia. We haven’t noticed any counter trends toward increased focus. What this means for us is that we simply cannot offer everything but rather have to curate a selection together with library specialists. Of course our main goal here is to give researchers access to as much relevant material as possible.
Schubnell: This flood of information also means that librarians have a new job when it comes to knowledge sharing. We offer training modules and coffee lectures for different subject areas in order to give students and researchers the tools they need to cope with the growing amount of information.

How important is it to work together with other libraries?

Lochbühler: Regarding cooperation with other libraries, the most important one to mention is the Zentralbibliothek Zürich. The ZB is an important partner of our University, and when it comes to the social sciences and humanities, their collections complement ours perfectly.
Schubnell: For technology and natural sciences we work together with the ETH Library, which deals with a lot of the same subjects that we do. However, since we are a cantonal institution, we have different sources of support than ETH, which means that UZH members can’t directly access the full text of ETH’s digital content.
Lochbühler: The UZH Main Library also works closely with other Swiss university libraries. Examples include group licensing via a consortium, cooperations within the Network of Libraries and Information Centers in Switzerland (NEBIS), the Kooperative Speicherbibliothek Schweiz (national external storage library) and major joint projects like the Swiss Library Service Platform (SLSP).

The University Library Zurich (UBZH) project is visible on the horizon, with an opening planned for 2022. How will the University Library Zurich change the Main Library?

Lochbühler: Once the University Library Zurich opens its doors, the Main Library as an organizational unit will cease to exist. The new library will house the collections of the Main Library and the nearly 40 departmental libraries. We have always been proponents of the new University Library and have had a leading role in the project. I believe that the Main Library and its broad range of services will be able to integrate well into the new organization.
Schubnell: There will certainly be a number of organizational changes even though the Main Library’s physical locations will stay the same. I think there’s a good and open-minded general attitude here, even though a lot is set to change two years from now.

So this year’s anniversary could be seen as kind of marking the end of an era.

Lochbühler: We had intensive discussions about the 40th anniversary and consciously decided it was worth celebrating, even though we will do so on a small scale. We have an exciting past to reflect on and are looking to the future with great expectations.


The evolution of the library

1980: The Main Library at UZH Irchel (HBI) opens its doors in the Strickhof Building on Irchel campus with a total of six staff members (five full-time positions). The collections total 7,000 books and 300 journals.  

1983: The first publicly accessible online catalog (OPAC) is installed.

1995: The Main Library is divided into research and teaching sections, both physically and operationally. The library’s first website is launched.

1999: The library management system is switched over from DOBIS/LIBIS to ALEPH. The network becomes a member of the Informationsverbund Deutschschweiz (IDS).

2004: The HBI now houses the library of the University Hospital on Careum campus, bringing the total number of library locations to three. It is officially renamed the Main Library of the University of Zurich (HBZ). The HBZ has three locations: the aforementioned medical library on Careum campus, the Irchel research library and the Irchel students’ library.

2006: A special coordinator is tasked with building up the Zurich Open Repository and Archive (ZORA), an open-access documentation and publication server.  

2013: The University’s IDS library catalog is integrated into the NEBIS network of ETH and the Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

2014: The Strickhof building location unveils a learning center with 350 student workstations. The Irchel locations receive new names: Main Library – Science, Main Library – Study Center and Main Library – Medicine Careum (the medical library).

2017: The first journal collections are moved to the Kooperative Speicherbibliothek Schweiz storage library in Büron, near Lucerne.

2018: A dedicated department for open access is established (Data Services and Open Access), and is expanded to focus on the management of research data.

2020: The Main Library celebrates its 40th birthday. Around 60 people (40 full-time positions) are employed at the library. The collections total in 2018 is 400,473 print publications, 38,593 electronic journals, 169,332 e-books and 618 databases.



Weiterführende Informationen


Brigitte Schubnell and Wilfried Lochbühler ensure that visitors to the Main Library have access to everything that they need.
Image: Frank Brüderli

«We have an exciting past to reflect on and are looking to the future with great expectations.»

Wilfried Lochbühler, Director of the Main Library

«The need for shared reading and studying opportunities is related to the Bologna reform.»

Brigitte Schubnell, Deputy Director of the Main Library