The Alvin Sherman Library, Research, and Information Technology Center

The Alvin Sherman Library, Research, and Information Technology Center in Davie, Florida, is a joint-use research center created by the Broward County Board of County Commissioners and Nova Southeastern University (NSU) located on the NSU campus. The library provides services to both academic and public patrons. Broward County funded half of the construction costs and provides ongoing partial support for operational expenses, while the university staffs and manages the facility. It opened in December, 2001.

I visited the Reference Department and spoke with Nora Quinlan, Head of Reference and Access Services. I learned much about the library from Nora, through our meeting, correspondence, and from a paper she co-authored, "Staffing Challenges for a Joint-Use Library: The Nova Southeastern University and Broward County Experience." (2001) The Reference Department website was also a useful source of information.

Nora was kind enough to give me permission to take photographs of the library's reference area. I timed my pictures to exclude patrons, as she requested; the few faces in the images are smudged out. As a result, these pictures do not give a true picture of its usual hustle and bustle. The reference area has always been busy during my visits over the past two years.

Physical layout

The reference area is located at the rear of the second floor of the library. Upon entering the library, a patron walks into an open skylighted atrium extending through the building's five floors. The back right side of the atrium has a curved staircase leading up to the reference section. Access is also available via a bank of elevators located at the rear of the left side of the atrium. The picture above is taken from across the atrium, at the front of the library's second floor stacks. (full view) The east facing windows admit lots of natural light, making for a very pleasant and open environment.

The physical space is divided into clear functional areas. The main areas illustrated above are:

Other areas of note are not obvious from the photograph:

The reference desk itself is designed to be accessible and accommodate the patron. There are four possible work stations, although only two are currently equipped and manned. One workstation is equipped with dual monitors, one for the librarian and one for the patron. The librarian can work comfortably at her desk and describe what she is doing to the patron following along on the second monitor. The second work area has only a single monitor.

Signage was clear; shelves, sources, and functional areas were labeled well. Directional signs were provided for people coming off the elevator or up the stairs. A large sign saying “REFERENCE” hangs over the desk and is visible from the entire second floor. A guide to the Library of Congress Classification was set up on an easel where patrons entering the reference section from the stairs would see it.


Historical perspective: The John E. Seabrook Library c. 1865

A one room library, circa Civil War.
Credit: Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society
(full size)


Patrons and services

As a joint use facility, the library serves both public and academic patrons. Public use is enhanced by a youth center, best-seller lending area, and multimedia (CD and DVD) collection, all located on the first floor. The public has somewhat restricted access to databases; many require the the public patron be on-campus, and a few databases are restricted to academic patrons. The staff, faculty, and students of NSU have access to all the facilities of the library.

The population served by this library is quite heterogeneous. Broward County is a densely populated urban and suburban area with a diverse population. (U.S. Census, 2004)

Nova Southeastern University serves a mix of undergraduate and graduate students:

Service in the Reference Department reflects the mix of client base. Of the total 4,417 questions handled by the reference desk in August, 2004, 2,557 were from academic patrons and 1,860 came from the public. This is roughly a 60/40 split in favor of academic users. 512 (around 12%) of these questions came in on the phone. Individual questions are not tracked, so the library cannot say what percentage deals with one topic or another. The type of question is tracked, however. During the month of August, 2004, the largest categories were reference (34%) and "general or directional" (33%). The last third of reference questions were split between "research or instructional" (17%) and "technology or equipment" (15%). These are typical of the distribution of question type over longer periods of time as well. (N. Quinlan, personal communication, September 10, 2004)

The Reference Department website lists the variety of services performed by its employees:

Other general library services are also available through the Reference Department:

Quinlan’s paper describes the typically different reference goals of the public library and academic library. The academic librarian strives to instruct the patron on how to find the answer; the public librarian often simply tries to provide the answer. One of the staffing challenges was finding staff that enjoyed and had skills in both types of reference service.

As a patron of this library for two years, I've never found the staff anything less than very courteous and helpful, with open and inviting attitudes. The department is busy, and often staffed with two librarians. This allows them time to answer questions thoroughly. I've never experienced "negative closure" at this reference desk. They often take patrons to the stacks to assist in locating material, or to computers or printers to help with technology and equipment issues. While my information needs are a little bit unusual, as there is no LIS program at NSU, the professional staff has always been able to guide and assist me. I wish they had little "Rate our librarian" cards like they do in the public libraries, because I have often wanted to give them recognition for the help I have received.


Historical perspective: 1950 Reading Room

Credit: University of Sydney Library
(full size)


The reference department offers a large collection of information guides to a variety of topics. Almost all are single sheets with double sided printing, and two are stapled two-pagers. Each is printed on its own unique color of paper.

Guides are available in several locations. As one entered the reference area from the staircase, a display containing most of them is quite accessible. A second display case containing all the database descriptions is located behind the reference desk, between the desk and the computer area. A third set of literature is arranged on the counter of the reference desk

The guide illustrated to the right is an eight page staple bound 4" x 9" pamphlet printed on card stock. It has four sections. "Discover" is a two page layout describing floor by floor locations of library offerings. "Connect" is a two page layout providing overviews of the catalog, the periodical collection, audiovisual materials, and databases. "Learn" is a two page layout describing how the collection is arranged (LC), a grants and foundation collection, the opportunities for library instruction, and the document delivery and ILL services. "Interact" describes policies regarding SEFLIN, printing, copying, borrowing, renewals, overdues, loans, holds, reserve, the cafe, and the "Circle of Friends" library support group. Service hours, parking information, and contact information are on the back cover.

Database guides

These are generally titled “DatabaseName Help Sheet” or simply “DatabaseName”; the titling is somewhat inconsistent. Each opens with a description of the database. Additional content is very specific to the database or service being described. Common elements include an explanation of basic search, a result screen, advanced search capabilities, and special functions like emails references, saving searches, or printing results. Databases for which guides are available are:

Operation guides

These information guides instruct patrons how to use library facilities in general:

Subject guides

These are guides to research resources for various topics. They don’t follow a common format.

Front desk

The front desk offers another selection of information for patrons:


Historical perspective: The Lexington Library Company, 1821

A catalogue of the books, belonging to the Lexington Library Company; to which is prefixed, a concise narrative of the origin and progress of the institution; with its charter, laws, & regulations. (full size)

Credit: The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820,
Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.




The reference collection

The collection of around 13,700 volumes is ordered by Library of Congress Classification. It is strong in Florida, tropical, and Caribbean topics. In many different sections, one would see titles with those words. It is also strong in addressing the information needs of the ethnic diversity of the South Florida population. Many encyclopedias and other reference works provide information about different ethnicities. There were large collections in literature and the sciences, although I’m not familiar enough with the reference literature of the fields to say they were “strong”. Biology, anatomy, and other resources relating to medicine seemed well represented. As befits a new library, most of the collection consists of new books; one feels like a pioneer in opening some of these pristine volumes that may have rarely been opened before.

The reference collection seemed weak in a few ways. There were very few sources in any language other than English; a few Spanish titles were present, but not many. Many series did not seem complete, especially in the business collection. Engineering did not seem very well represented, not surprising since there is no engineering school at Nova. The law section was weak; there is a separate legal library on campus so much of the law reference material is not located in this section. The computer science reference section was not strong, but the collection in the stacks is excellent.

I found interesting titles that surprised me. Two large volumes provided information about tattoos. There was an encyclopedia on vampires. There was an abundance of gardening books, cook books, and other items I did not expect. The last book on the last shelf was ZA 5075 .G68, “The United States Government Internet Manual 2003-2004” edited by Peggy Garvin, a 768 page finding aid describing online government resources. It included flow charts of many government organizations and departments, with URLs in each chart box. Very nice information representation!

The stacks seem less than 50% full. The top and bottom shelf of each five shelf unit is empty, and few of the middle shelves are totally filled. There is ample room for expansion of the collection within the existing shelf space.

Historical perspective: Harvard (undated)

Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
Museum Library, stacks, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
(full image)


Excellent research department, excellent library, excellent staff! The residents of Broward County are fortunate that their Library Director, Samual Morrison, and Donald Riggs, Vice President for Information Services and University Library at NSU, had the vision to create this joint-use center. It makes the resources of an excellent research library available to all residents of Broward County. The Reference Department provides all its patrons, both academic and public, with excellent resources and services.


MacDougall, H. & Quinlan, N. (2001). Staffing challenges for a joint-use library: the Nova Southeastern University and Broward County experience. Resource Sharing & Information Networks, 15(1/2), 131-150.

Nova Southeastern University. (2004) Services: about the reference department. Retrieved September 10, 2004 from

United States Census Bureau. (2004). Florida quick facts. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from