Use it or lose it

I’d never even heard of a Math Emporium until six months ago.

For those of you in a similar boat, a Math Emporium is a large computer lab with associated tutoring and supplemental instruction space used to offer remedial and lower-level math instruction via online, self-paced modules. I am not qualified to speak to its pedagogical merits but have reason to believe it is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction (these reasons include the fact that, during the most recent round of non-tenure-track faculty layoffs at BGSU, the department that took the biggest hit was Math).

If a Math Emporium is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction, it is more space-intensive. We have been told BGSU’s developing Math Emporium requires a space large enough for a 180-seat computer lab dedicated for 13 hours a day to math instruction. Following the lead of the universities that have gone before us (including our neighbors at Kent and Cleveland State), the best space for such a facility is, naturally…library collection space.

We welcomed a Learning Commons into our library building two years ago, significantly cutting down space devoted to reference, periodicals and government documents. The partnership is imperfect: the Learning Commons group study spaces are not available to librarians or walk-in users, and no one can sit in their area without swiping their ID card and recording their activity in the space – a policy which, as it violates my professional ethics, prevented me from holding my office hours there this fall. I have collaborated with the Learning Commons, however. I have referred students to their writing tutors and taught joint instruction sessions with them. Their writing tutors also refer students to librarians at our reference desk.

I have trouble imagining the same kind of thing happening with the Math Emporium. I do not understand what connection remedial math instruction has to any part of the library’s mission as an academic unit – and I honestly don’t think anyone is prepared to pretend that there is one. The library is seen as a convenient place to house this kind of facility because, frankly, the people who make these decisions see most of our building as empty space. To them, space housing physical collections is space that is not being used.

During the summer, BGSU sets up incoming student advising in the library, and a group of student workers sits by the front entrance to direct traffic. I once overheard a parent ask one of them, “Is this entire floor of the library the learning commons?” He said, “Yes. Well, pretty much. The learning commons is most of this part over here; that part over there is just library storage.”

Just library storage? I told the student, “No – those are our books – all the materials we collect and make available for people to use to complete their coursework and research!” He clearly felt bad, and he quickly apologized and told me he loved libraries. But it seems like he thought the same thing our administrators do – that everything is online, our stacks are full of things no one uses, and if we cut the library’s footprint for physical collections in half, no one will miss the thousands of volumes that will, almost certainly, just be thrown away.

I bet that to many, and even to many of you, I sound like a Luddite, not wanting to get rid of “legacy print collections.” It’s not that I’m opposed to doing that. (I’m an e-resources librarian – remember that!) I would be especially willing to do that if that work was going to result in spaces that would support the programmatic needs of the library and that would showcase our remaining collections. If it would allow us to create the kind of student and faculty space that makes people want to discover and create knowledge. The kind of space where students could work with our collections (curate, engage, create). But we never made that investment in our own space. We don’t have any processes in place to support those kinds of uses. We’ve just been doing the same things with our collections for years and years and years, crowding more and more volumes into a smaller and smaller space, keeping things for posterity while ignoring the present, and now both are threatened.

I believe we should both try to manage legacy print collections in a way that makes space for new priorities as well as in a way that leverages their use in the broadest possible way. This is going to require a little more nimbleness on our part – more proactivity, more willingness to adopt non-normal procedures, more cooperation, and more imagination. A year ago, a new professor in the School of Art approached me about our library’s space: she wanted her students to engage with our collections, but our collection spaces were “so uninviting.” Nothing about how our books were shelved or presented encouraged the kind of engagement she envisioned. As reimagining our first floor space was under discussion even then, I suggested we pilot something with the School of Art. My dean said she would talk with Capital Planning “when they get to the point of imagining the new spaces on the first floor…I imagine it would involve a lot of stacks shifting to create what we would really like.”

I don’t think a large computer lab for remedial math instruction is what she had in mind when she mentioned creating “what we would really like,” but it looks like that’s what we well may end up with. Regardless, earlier this week, the library faculty passed a resolution stating that we believed the Math Emporium was a “bad fit for the academic mission of the library, and therefore a bad fit for the Jerome Library building.” We’ll see what happens. I think part of the problem was we let Capital Planning imagine new spaces on the first floor of the library instead of going ahead and doing it ourselves. If our collection spaces are not especially inviting, I don’t expect replacing them with a Math Emporium will make them more so. Not for people who need to engage, curate, discover and imagine. Not for anyone except a couple hundred students taking low-level math, and not, perhaps, even for them.

 

About afry

Amy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the instruction liaison for the Art Department. She received her library degree from the University of Illinois in 2003 and has been a librarian at academic libraries in Missouri, Minnesota and California.

One thought on “Use it or lose it

  1. Thanks for this post, Amy, it’s such a thoughtful consideration of the many pressures on academic libraries (both from inside and outside of the library). I’m at a library that’s on the small side with a seemingly ever-expanding student population, and here we’re hoping to expand once a new building under construction frees up space in our part of the college. We’re thinking about other academic support services for students that we may be able to partner with if we can expand, and I was very interested to hear about both your Learning Commons and the Math Emporium. Please do keep us posted, I’ll be interested to hear what happens with the Math Emporium especially.

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