Category Archives: Buildings

The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!

My College Advice? Learn How To Do Research

The New York Times recently asked 7 academics to offer advice to students entering college. If they had asked me, my advice would have been to learn how to do research, to practice it, and get really good at it.

Of course, as an academic librarian, I may be biased. But as someone whose academic interests tilted toward some not so obviously useful humanities disciplines, the one practical life skill I’m supremely grateful to have is the ability to find and use information. Try going on a job interview without researching the employer and you will not get the job. Try buying a house or a used car without doing research and you will pay more than you should. Try raising a child without being able to research everything from health issues to schools and you’ll be even more lost than most parents. In almost everything I do, I continue to be surprised at how crucial information is to getting a good outcome. If you spend the time and have the patience to ferret out a small but crucial bit of information, you will often find that you will get the job, get a better price, and have better experiences.

Having access to a college or university library is a great privilege; its power has changed many lives. When I was 18 I thought I knew everything. Then I walked into my university library and looked up. “Oh my god, I don’t know anything!” I realized. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.

Or, as a poster to McSweeney’s puts it: Dudes! Did You See The Library They’ve Got Here?

I tell you what, though, dudes—you only get a chance like this while you’re in college. After we graduate, we’ll have to figure out how to fit studying into our work schedules, make time to get to the city library branch and its crappy little collection. Yeah, while I’m here on campus, my life is totally going to revolve around that library.

Library As Place – For Air Conditioning Books

Here’s an interesting vision for the future of academic libraries from Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Sannier was the keynote speaker at the Campus Technology 2008 conference, and you can watch the video of his presentation, “A New American University for Next-Gen Learners” at the Campus Technology website. In his talk Sannier discusses strategies for putting in place groundbreaking plans that will serve the next generation of students. But in his vision, next-gens apparently don’t need physical libraries and the books they offer. He says:

If you were starting an educational institution right now would you build a giant air-conditioned building to house books? Is that what you would do? That’s what you did if you founded a university in the previous century. You made sure you could have as many books as you could possibly have. In fact that’s how you measure universities one to the next. How many books you got? If you were starting one today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.

Later in the talk when Sannier is discussing his six ways to transform higher education he provides further advice on how to transform the academic library:

Here’s my favorite one. Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized. Burn the thing down. Change it into a gathering place, a digital commons. Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial. Enough. And let’s spend some more time making those things [Note: not sure if he means library buildings or collections] level, flat, transparent, so a single search turns up everything…Let’s just start releasing the stats…How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for…

Keep listening and you’ll hear Sannier attack the traditional scholarly publishing system next. He’s with the librarians on that issue. Now, do I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying? Do I really think he advocates universities with no books and no library building? Yes, to an extent I think he’s really serious – not the part about burning down the library. If you can get past the objectionable hyperbole about the library Sannier has some messages we need to hear. As hard as it may be to believe that the top IT professional at a major research university could be so completely and utterly misinformed about the state of digitized libraries, I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying about book digitization. He also seems to have a poor understanding of how higher education works if he really believes that all 4000 U.S. colleges and universities have curriculums that are so alike that no student or faculty member will ever need any book other than the ones that Michigan and Stanford have digitized (and let’s not even get into his lack of knowledge about how Google Book Search really works or that academic libraries share their resources at cost-saving levels that would shame the gross inefficiencies of most campus IT departments).

But if I can put aside his anti-library rant for a moment, no doubt delivered to be intentionally controversial, I think he makes some good points. Academic libraries, as operated today, are increasingly unsustainable. None of us has the room or budget to meet all the just in case needs of our user community, and trying to get there is an exercise in futility. And he’s dead on when he says that we use the size of our book collections to judge who has the best library; in the age of outcomes assessment those traditional measures seem to grow more pointless. I’m actually glad that Sannier is sharing his views in public forums with his IT colleagues because it should serve as a warning to all academic librarians that the folks who control the networks and the technology may very well have it in for us. If academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.

But rather than make up your mind about Sannier and his radical vision for academic libraries based on my post, take some time and watch the video. There is no denying that he’s a dynamic speaker who will command your attention – and get you thinking about the future of higher education. Heck, you’ll probably still be in “WTF – did he really just say that” mode when he tells the audience to burn down the libraries – even after you heard it here.

And the Back of the Envelope, Please . . .

The winners of the Chronicle’s “back of the envelope” contest to design the Bush library are in. Some of the submissions were imaginative, others were satirical or angry. Some played off the resonances between the idea of a library and the Bush administration. One went beyond the confines of the envelope and attached a “signing statement.”

One of our librarians taught a January term course on The Library as Place; it was fascinating to find out what students (some of whom were not heavy library users) thought a library should look like. They tended toward the traditional, with an affinity for dark woodwork, study tables with lamps, and lots of books.

If you had a design contest for your library, what would your students submit? Your faculty? Would they reflect frustrations or dreams? It might be interesting to find out.

Designs on the Presidency

Do you have an eye for design? Do you at least have a pencil and a used envelope? The Chronicle is running a contest and wants your ideas for the Bush Presidential Library. Send in your literally back-of-the-envelope sketches. Certain themes have already been overdone, but there’s plenty of room for more.

Let’s just say that Mr. Bush should be less worried about the test scores of America’s children and more concerned about their imagination. How are we going to compete with China and India if our people can’t think outside the box (or outside the outhouse)? . . .

One more thing: We’ve heard that some architects and architecture firms are reluctant to send in designs. They don’t want their libraries to run alongside crude pictures of toilets, we’ve heard, and they don’t want to be associated with a George W. Bush Library, even a make-believe one.

We have some responses to this: Regarding your peers in the contest, we have made clear that we’ll winnow the entries; the outhouse designs probably won’t make the cut.

Regarding the PR repercussions of designing a library for a not-very-popular Bush, just be courageous. (Your entry will be anonymous during the reader-voting process, anyway.) Great architects have been known to be brave, proud, and even pugnacious, not intimidated by even the most daunting projects. Mustering courage for an imaginary building can’t be that hard.

Sharpen those pencils. Fire up your imaginations. The deadline for entries is February 1st.