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UZH News

Library Modernization

"An important factor for the success of our university"

The Executive Board of the University has approved the “University Library Development” project. The aim is to modernize UZH’s library provision and implement the latest technologies. In an interview, Vice President Christian Schwarzenegger explains the decision.
Marita Fuchs


Reading, meeting people, studying: Impression of the library in the planned FORUM UZH. (Picture: Herzog & de Meuron)


Libraries around the world are adapting to the digital age. In addition to maintaining and protecting cultural heritage, academic libraries nowadays also have to ensure open access to publications and provide new forms of searching for and accessing information. They have to keep useful printed book and journal collections available for researchers and students, and at the same time enable the use of new digital resources and methods of analysis. In addition, they should provide social areas as well as spaces for studying, reflecting and, of course, for reading.

To meet these challenges and requirements, the Executive Board of the University has decided to combine all UZH libraries into one central university library (UBZH) in the future. The board is convinced that the current system of disparate individual libraries is no longer suitable to meet the requirements of academic information provision now and in the future.

In advance of the decision a concept with the title “UZH Library of the Future” was developed as part of a preliminary project. The concept was put out for consultation before being submitted, together with the consultation results, to the Executive Board of the University  on 21 May. The Executive Board weighed up the pros and cons and heard expert opinions before granting approval for the project. It will now be implemented as a main project with the title “University Library Development”. Vice President Christian Schwarzenegger is the Executive Board member responsible for the main project.

In a conversation with UZH News, Christian Schwarzenegger explains what has been decided and why he sees the project as an essential condition for cutting-edge research and teaching at UZH.

Christian Schwarzenegger
“A modern library infrastructure is an important factor for the success and competitiveness of our university”: Vice President Christian Schwarzenegger.


Mr. Schwarzenegger, UZH currently has around 40 separate libraries. Until today they have been run independently. Now the Executive Board has decided to combine these faculty and department libraries under one roof with a common strategic and organizational structure. What were the considerations that led to this decision?

Christian Schwarzenegger: “The fundamental role of the library is not to provide books, it is to provide information,” says Eileen Abels, Dean of the Simmons School of Library and Information Science at Harvard University. In a time in which ever more data and media are available, the methods of keeping, analyzing and distributing information are also changing. This has consequences for research, teaching and studying. Libraries are therefore obliged to update their methods to make sure they are adequate for the needs of researchers, teachers and students in the modern age. This is not about doing away with printed books, but in addition to this traditional medium, the library of the future must also include many other information sources. Increasing mechanization also plays an important role.

A central infrastructure with a clearly defined list of services has clear advantages over the current model of many individually-run libraries: It will make it possible for us to refine the profile of services provided, enable staff to develop their skills, expand and improve services for research, teaching and studying, and cooperate more easily with other libraries, such as the Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

Would it not be possible for each individual library to do these things?

Library provision in general is in an era of massive upheaval. What is needed is increased flexibility in a changing culture. To be active participants in a changed future, libraries need resources and skills, broad cooperation and decision-making structures and centrally-coordinated collections.

The nearly 40 different subject libraries cannot achieve that alone. It is therefore urgently necessary that they adopt a joint position on how to adapt to future needs. That is why we need to organize ourselves and coordinate processes together.

What are the advantages of the new library structure for students and teaching staff?

A big advantage for researchers is that they will be able to call on support from experienced and expert librarians. 

In addition, there will be new possibilities for publishing academic work. In the long-term we will be following the Swiss national open access strategy: When making a research application to the SNSF, researchers have to demonstrate that they will make their work publicly available – libraries can offer this infrastructure. 

Last but not least, having a modern library infrastructure is also an important factor for the success and competitiveness of our university. Against this backdrop, it is our responsibility to actively further develop and shape information and media services for researchers, teaching staff and students in a way that is sustainable long-term.

What advantages do you see for students?

There will be consistent and longer opening hours. Spatial plans for the City Campus and Irchel Campus will see more study spaces created for students’ use. We want to create spaces that are conducive to learning, but also foster interaction and creativity. Technology will enable new formats such as makerspaces and virtual creative spaces. I could also imagine students browsing a virtual bookshelf of the type that already exist at several universities.

We want to be able to offer our students and postgrads the latest software-supported methods for their research work, as indeed is already offered by other top universities.

The criticism that many books could be removed and housed in a storage library has been taken on board and addressed in the building project FORUM UZH by Herzog & de Meuron. We will thereby ensure that the demand for a modern reading room and quick access to the printed collections is met.

There was a consultation period for the project at the end of 2018 in which some participants advocated for keeping the present system.

We must be quite clear about this: The consultation showed that a large majority of UZH members see great advantages in the library of the future. In the consultation there were some people who voiced concern that books were becoming a media format of the past. That is not the case at all. Especially in the arts and humanities, it is important to be able to consult original source material in context.

That will still be possible in the future, but digital humanities will also expand the range of opportunities for consulting sources. Academic libraries continue to have an important role in protecting cultural heritage by providing and ensuring the long-term usability of printed monographs and journal collections.

Libraries have experienced surges of innovation many times before. Such surges present opportunities to be grasped, and we need to step up to the challenge.

How will the new university library be organized?

Operationally, the university library will be run by one management team to which all employees in the library system will report. The budget for the university library will be allocated by the Executive Board in the university’s annual development and financial plan. A library board will serve as the interface between the faculties and the university bodies on one side and the university library on the other side, and will act as a strategic steering committee. Budget distribution and necessary innovation projects will be discussed by the library board. The board will also have the important task of ensuring the various interests of the faculties and university bodies are taken into account in library planning.

What role will the departmental libraries have?

The departmental libraries will continue to play an important role. As part of the building plans to implement the two-site strategy, there will be a reduction in the number of library locations. The locations will be combined by subject clusters comprising departmental libraries as well as media and user services.

What are the advantages of centralized management?

The director of the university library can make strategic decisions concerning the direction of the whole university library system. In contrast to the current system, internally and in conjunction with the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, acquisition profiles can be defined that will enable synergies in the ordering and processing of new books.

How will library staff benefit from the new set-up?

The profession of librarian is changing radically. Information dissemination and access and technological information formats are posing more and more of a challenge. We would like to integrate the staff from all the university libraries into the new UBZH. They will report to the UBZH management team. Staff employment conditions will be made consistent, and there will be no need for enforced redundancies. Library staff will have good training and development opportunities – giving them an advantage on the job market.

What is the time line for the project?

The founding date of the new university library will be set out in the project mandate. We are aiming for 1 January 2021 or 1 January 2022.