Digital Library, Virtual Place?

All of our academic library services and resources have their origins in the physical world, but many of them can be and are replicated online fairly easily. Access to collections in multiple formats (text, image, audio, video), reference services, and library and information literacy instruction all have digital variants, and examples of each are out there in the academic library universe (though not all libraries may implement an online version of every physical service or resource that they offer). Of course any service or resource can be improved, but there are lots of well-understood and tested models for moving these kinds of services and resources from the physical to the digital world.

But what about another important reason that students (and sometimes faculty) come to the library: a place for academic work and study? There’s lots of recent research on (and speculation on potential) student uses of the library as place. We all grapple with issues around these uses of our buildings: quiet vs. noise, group work vs. individual study, technology-enhanced workspaces, etc. If your college or university is seeing lots of growth in student enrollment the way mine is, you may be noticing some of these issues increasingly often.

The library is different from other spaces students might choose for study and academic work. In my own research I’ve often heard this from students: how they sometimes struggle to find a spot in the library with the ideal combination of light, sound, and space for them to work in, and that they find it challenging to create a space for study in areas outside of the library: at home, on the commute, etc. Some students describe specific college libraries in my university system as “serious” and prefer to work there rather than their enrolled college library. Space for academic work matters to our students, very much.

Is it possible (or even advisable) to replicate or provide an online alternative to the academic library as a place to study? As Laura’s recent post pointed out, our libraries can be spaces for all sorts of productive conversations and collaborations, both formal and informal. But I’m in a small library in a large commuter college, and on urban campuses like mine it can be difficult to find locations to expand our physical space. I tend to view adding online services and resources as a strategy we can try to address some of the limitations of the physical world.

Is there an analog to the library as place in the digital world? Should there be?

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

One thought on “Digital Library, Virtual Place?

  1. You end with two very interesting questions! I was reading some students’ comments about our own library and the physical library space was so important to them. We are a small residential campus, but I think we are just as stuck when it comes to expanding our physical space as you are in your library.

    To answer your questions: I think I’ll be bold and say there isn’t really an analog to the “library as place” in the digital world. There is no online equivalent of a cozy chair, quiet space, or great window seat. When you need to escape your dorm room or find a space away from home where you can concentrate, I don’t think an online space will ever fill that need.

    Although some people would say that there is/can/should be an online equivalent to a group study/collaboration space, I’m still going to say not quite. I love online collaboration tools, but all the Facetimes and Google Hangouts in the world aren’t going to elicit the same emotional response as studying with your friends into the wee hours of the night at the library during finals week.

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