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.
Interesting piece in the Chron about how “Library Renovation Leads to Soul Searching at Cal Poly.” A lot of libraries are looking for ways to add more space for students to do the multiple things they want to do in libraries – study, socialize, write papers, do homework, daydream, and even occasionally use library materials. One way to do that is to build a bigger library. Another, more practical way is to renovate the space you have and pare down the print collections. And until an addition is built, that’s what the director at Cal Poly is doing.
The project, now under way, will add an attractive glass entrance and space for computer rooms, study areas, classrooms, and socializing to a dull 1960s box.
But the renovation and addition â€” which is smaller than originally planned â€” may leave less space for books, journals, and other printed materials. That has some campus librarians and professors wondering if the library has forgotten its core mission.
Because this change has led “the library to hastily discard tens of thousands of little-used items and to send hundreds of thousands of books to a storage facility at which they will be inaccessible to library patrons” – people are debating the purpose of the library. Is it a collection or is it a place for things to happen?
It’s too bad the faculty and library staff weren’t involved in the decision, or at least well informed of the tradeoffs, so that they bought into this in advance. Any “weeding” project can become a PR nightmare without a lot of advance process work with all the stakeholders.
But to my mind, we can’t all save everything. Storing print runs of JSTOR titles just in case seems to me to be a poor use of expensive space if your students have nowhere to study in the library. Decisions about how little-used but unique materials should be retained need to be wider than any one institution. In Minnesota, we have a shared storage facility open to all libraries in the state, the Minnesota Library Access Center. It’s an amazing place if you ever have a chance to tour it. It’s easy and quick to get things delivered from the “cave” – and though you can’t just bump into them by browsing, most undergraduates will have a better browsing experience with a more select and well-tempered collection than a huge one full of unique and little-used items. MLAC gives us enlightened Minnesotans (aren’t you jealous?) the option of jointly retaining materials that have value – but that at the moment have less value to our students than a library where there’s room for them, too.