Category Archives: Buildings

Your Library Needs More Shush Factor

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.

Room of their Own

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 — which is smaller than originally planned — 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.

The Lush and Vibrant Library

Though it likely didn’t get the readership that “The Deserted Library” did, the Chronicle’s Scott Carlson followed up with a good and thoughtful overview of what makes new libraries work and how different libraries conceptualize what they’re trying to accomplish, originally published last fall but featured recently in the Chronicle’s e-mail alert. It’s still a timely piece, well worth reading.

For example, the University of Chicago, in keeping with its traditions, is interested in exposing students to as many physical volumes as possible. They don’t want the library to be a student center. According to sociology professor Andrew Abbott, “The faculty is united in thinking that this building is supposed to be the research center of one entire wing of intellectual life at the campus, and we can’t afford to let it turn into an Internet cafe.”

Hal Shill at Penn State Harrisburg conducted a survey that found fascinating results.

The responses from about 180 institutions revealed surprising patterns. For example, Mr. Shill found that the location of a library on a campus made little difference in its popularity among students. Library size did not matter, nor did the number of study rooms in a building or the availability of wireless access. “The presence of a cybercafe — that was a wash,” he says. “It was not a statistically significant feature, but I would recommend it as a creature comfort.”

More basic comforts rated highly: the quality of natural lighting, the quality of work spaces, the quality of the heating and air-conditioning system, and the overall ambiance of the building. Computer and Internet access — such as the number of data ports, the quality of the telecommunication system, and the quality of the public-access workstations — were also vital to the success of a building.

I recall the collib-l list discussions when the “Deserted Library” article came out. Many academic librarians feared their presidents would read it and conclude “great, we don’t need to spend all that money on a black hole after all.” This is an article you don’t want them to miss. Send it to your president, your provost, your physical plant director, and your advancement office. Right now.

Spending Time, But Not Money

In a New York Times interview, the new CEO of the Borders bookstore chain deftly avoids focusing on the fact the chain is losing money rather faster than expected but mentions this interesting tidbit.

“Our customers on average spend a lot longer in a store than what I’ve been used to,” he said. But, he added, “they like our stores; they’re staying there, but they’re not spending as much as they could.”

Hey, come on over to the library!

Librarians, of course, have noticed there’s a social function that we fulfill – that pays off in ways we don’t have to measure in sales. Though B&N and Borders often get the credit for creating the hospitable book-lined social space, we’re merely rediscovering what libraries have meant to their public for years.

Rory Litwin included an address on this subject in the previous incarnation of Library Juice a few years ago – “The Library as Social Centre” by a fellow Minnesotan, Gratia Countryman.

Many of our libraries are now housed in beautiful buildings, in which case, the building as well as the books becomes a means of social influence. If there is need of a home for social intercourse and amusement, the library may legitimately attempt to furnish such a home within its walls . . . The whole building at all times should be managed in the broadest spirit of hospitality; the atmosphere should be as gracious, kindly and sympathetic as one’s own home. Then do away with all unnecessary restrictions, take down all the bars, and try to put face to face our friends the books and our friends the people. Introduce them cordially, then stand aside and let them make each other’s blessed acquaintance.

This certainly predates the big box bookstore – she delivered this speech at the Minnesota Library Association meeting of 1905!

Making The Case For High Quality Academic Library Buildings

According to a new study about the role the campus physical environment plays in students’ enrollment decision making, the quality of the academic library building is near the top of the list in what factors into a student’s decision. In an article titled “The Impact of Facilities on Recruitment and Retention of Students” that appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Facilities Management, the academic library was second only to “facilities in major” when students were asked what buildings were extremely or very important in the selection decision process. The library was rated higher than classrooms, recreational facilities, and even the residence halls. But the survey results reported in this article also suggest that for most students an inadequate library building might not be a deal breaker. When students actually rejected an institution it was most frequently owing to inadequate residence halls. In terms of retention, the library is also important to keeping students satisfied once they are enrolled.

I don’t doubt that our academic library community has always known that being able to offer an academic library building with quality facilities for research, study, interaction, browsing and learning makes a significant difference in the lives of our students. For one thing, it can make all the difference in the world in whether or not the students actually use the library. A great facility, or even an adequate one, can attract students who might otherwise end up doing their research and writing in computer labs, dorm rooms or even off-campus cafes. Now we may actually have some useful research data to support our anecdotal evidence of the need for high quality library facilities. I hope that some of our colleagues will be able to use this new information to convince academic administrators that an investment in a great library facility is just as important – if not even more important – than those buildings with social or recreational amenities that are often thought to be the ones that encourage students to enroll.