Behind the scenes of GS: CERN’s beating heart

Founded at the same time as CERN, the library has followed, and sometimes even moved ahead of, the changes in the Organization. Today, far from being a simple book depository, the Scientific Information Service (SIS) that manages CERN's library is increasingly digitising its material and investing in innovative projects, such as Open Access.


Ever since it was set up in Building 52 on 1 September 1957, the library has played a vital role in the Organization.  “Our only official task is to provide a complete list of the publications by CERN researchers, but, in fact, this place is the memory bank of the whole Laboratory,” emphasises Tullio Basaglia, head of the Library Section within SIS.  “The role of the library and archives is to preserve, document and disseminate the knowledge produced at CERN.”

Sixty years after its creation, the library today contains 90,000 books, two thirds of which are available in a digital format, 1,500 subscriptions to scientific journals and 370,000 published scientific articles, including 60,000 CERN publications.  The space allocated to the library has been increased and reorganised over the years in order to preserve this material and make it available to users. However, since the advent of the internet, the need for disk space has become a priority. Since 1996, scientific journals have gradually become accessible in digital format and are no longer available in print. “Today, the library is much less paper-based," explains Jens Vigen, head of SIS.  “How information is managed has changed thanks to the internet. We used to need staff to take receipt of publications, put them on the shelves and make them available to library users.  Indeed, the printshop originated as an internal service of SIS and a large part of the budget was allocated to reproducing documents.”

Today, this enormous amount of information, whether in print or in digital format, is managed in a very modern way. “We’re constantly updating our computer systems," confirms Vigen. “Now, thanks to our collaboration with the IT Department, users with a CERN account have unlimited access to almost all of the material available in the library as well as the material we are licensed to use. We have just digitised the CERN Courier and soon the Bulletin will also be fully accessible online. Our librarians personally check the quality of the digitisation and create links between different materials, such as photos, that may have been archived in other CERN databases.”

This Herculean task involves not only publications, but also photographs. "We have approximately 150,000 black and white photos in our archives, as well as thousands of colour photos," emphasises Basaglia. “During the digitisation process, we realised that over 60 years of history, many well-known faces have visited CERN. For example, we know that Che Guevara, during his time as Minister of Industry for Cuba, visited CERN in 1964. I’m sure that we’ll find a photo of his visit in our archives!”

With its roots firmly planted in the past, but its eyes fixed on the future, the library has always been a motor for change, aiming to improve the dissemination of information. SCOAP3 is the most recent example of this. “Thanks to this initiative, a substantial number of scientific articles in the field of high-energy physics will be freely accessible and published free of charge, while the author retains authors’ rights over the content,” explains Vigen.  “This initiative was launched in December 2013, after a consensus was reached by all parties: libraries, funding agencies and publishers. Today, SCOAP3 is the largest initiative ever launched concerning free access to information world-wide."

If you are among the hundreds of users who pass by the library every day, even if you just pop in to ask for a pair of scissors or some general information on CERN, you can attest to its relaxed, warm and welcoming atmosphere.  CERN’s librarians have conducted a study on their users: 57% of those who consult books are less than 35 years old. So you still have plenty of time to enjoy this magical place! 

by Antonella Del Rosso