A member of the ILI-L discussion list pointed out an interesting article in the May issue of Harper’s that I finally got around to reading. It profiles the Prelinger Library, an idiosyncratic personal collection made public that provides its own classification system and allows for unexpected discoveries. (Here’s the non-digital link: “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Harper’s [May 2007]: 47-57.)
In passing, the author criticizes librarians’ devotion to all things technical, especially slamming the “roomy and bookless” SFPL in which “reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degreed ‘information scientists,’ stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printers to work.” Hey, they haven’t ditched the reference desk – that sounds positively old fashioned.
Anyway, the conclusion of the piece raises an issue I’d like to see discussed more by academic librarians.
The executive director of the digital-library initiative at Rice University is quoted as saying that “the library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared.” This is odd. Most people might suppose, to the contrary, that a library is exactly a space where books are held. There are many, many places on a college campus where ideas are shared: lecture halls, seminar rooms, computer clusters, dorm lounges. The library happens to be the only where ideas are shared precisely because books are held.
So here’s my question: as we pay attention to the “library as place” and try to demolish the “warehouse for books” stereotype of libraries, do we have any evidence that what’s in the library is contributing to the conversations we hope to foster? That is, as the library becomes a better place for students to do a variety of things, are they making better use of the collection itself? How well do collection development, information literacy, and “library as place” work together? What assessments have been made that can establish some causality – a better place means better learning using what libraries have to offer?
Apart, of course, from computers, comfy chairs, and good coffee.
It was so deserted “You could shoot off a cannon and not worry about hitting anyone.” That’s how Jay Schafer, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts, described the conditions of the ground floor of the library, prior to a recent building renovation, in an article published in the Boston Globe. This is one “library as place” project that has gotten some attention lately. In addition to the newspaper article, NPR carried an interview with Schafer about the library’s renewal after the renovation project.
Du Bois library, at 28 stories, is one of the tallest academic library buildings. But prior to the renovation, “it was so creepy”, said one student because “there was no one there”. In the NPR interview, Schafer said that the library’s cafe, named The Procrastination Station, serves more coffee than any other location on campus. The facility is now open 24 hours a day, but just 5 days a week (students are probably already asking for 24/7). The lesson of the Du Bois Library renovation is, once again, that the solution for the deserted academic library building is a renovation or construction project that creates an inviting social, cultural and intellectual space that provides the amenities desired by today’s campus community. Build it and they will come.
I had the good fortune to tune it to the EDUCAUSE ELI Web Seminar “Assessment of Learning Spaces” this afternoon. The archive is online for ELI members. Particularly interesting to me is that the University of Dayton has not only done assessment of learning spaces but has used the results to make changes in how their spaces are configured. Not all of the findings are particularly surprising (particularly those that relate to libraries) but it is good to have our own conventional wisdom affirmed by research. Even better though to hear an institution taking the information it has gathered, making determinations about the gap between the findings and its goals, and then taking action. Actually closing the assessment loop by putting data into decisionmaking is not an easy thing to do – even in one’s own classroom, much less at an institutional level. In the back of my mind this afternoon is all the data I’ve been involved in gathering over the past years and the question of whether it has really been put into action as it should be.
I’m a long time fan of the comprehensive and well-researched annotated bibliographies/research overviews that come out of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These occasional research reports are cumulatively referred to as the UI Current LIS Clips series. Well they’ve just issued a new “clip” on “library as place.” This is an excellent report that covers a great selection of significant articles and research papers about the library as place issue (excepting perhaps Bill Miller’s fine essay for Library Issues from the January 2002 issue) from the last few years. What I really like about these reports is that they go beyond giving a mere abstract and instead really summarize the key findings of each document that is included. This is actually a two-part report of which part one is about public libraries and part two is about academic libraries. If LIS Clips is new to you take some time to check out their past reports. I’m sure everyone will find something there of value – and while you’re there sign up for their e-mail alert service to be notified when new reports are published.
I tend to be in agreement with most of the opinion pieces that show up over at The Irascible Professor. That’s probably because most of them are written by curmudgeony old academics like myself. But even I had to raise an eyebrow when I read “You Can’t Take That Away From Me“, the latest commentary by Jane Goodwin. In essence, it’s a nostalgic tribute to the quiet library of yesteryear where “Back in the day, the librarians kicked people out if they chose to behave like barbarians.”
Granted, the noise level in many academic libraries (Goodwin is mostly reminiscing about her childhood public library) has definitely gone up a few notches, but I don’t recall having had to eject any barbarians just lately. I wonder if in fact the author is simply overreacting to the changes that libraries have experienced as we move from quiet book warehouses to places where students gather to see and be seen while they tap away on keyboards, congregate to go through presentations and occasionally annoy us with their cell phone calls. But would any of us trade our somewhat noisy but busy libraries for the silent, tomb-like library of yesteryear? Only a month ago it was one week before students returned to campus and the library was so empty and hushed as if to seem it served no purpose whatsoever. I was delighted to have the voices, cacophony and frenzied action return. There may even have been an act or two that bordered on the barbaric – but we embraced it just the same.
But let’s not overlook, in our haste to make the library more fun and exciting for the users, the value of quiet study space. For many students the library remains a solitary beacon on campus where serious study in an intellectual atmosphere is conducted. We needn’t return to the days for which Goodwin longs, when librarians mostly excelled at shushing people and maintaining a peaceful sanctuary. But we should continue to maintain a dual-purpose atmosphere in which those who want to make a little more noise, which sometimes includes librarians, can co-exist with those who seek silent space. To really serve the true meaning of “library as place” it is necessary to be equally inviting to both crowds while alienating neither of them.