Library as Place-With-Books

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.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

6 thoughts on “Library as Place-With-Books”

  1. Off topic, but am I the only librarian out here who found that article a little upsetting and reductive? I think the Prelinger Library is really an interesting place/project, but i also don’t think it is a library anything like the libraries I have worked in. They do not, for example, have to think about the needs of patrons. And it isn’t as if we have chosen to be the only public institution charged with addressing the digital divide (at least for people who aren’t in public school anymore). The author claims to have read widely in the professional literature, but I thought his arguments about libraries and librarians suggested otherwise.

  2. No, not off topic – I had a similar feeling, echoing the experience of reading another critique of the modern library by Sally Tisdale published in Harper’s in March, 1997.

    I would say the characterization of libraries and librarians as totally uninterested in books (or libraries – note the quotes around ‘information science’ as if that’s a horrid neologism we just coined) is reductive, and certainly the librarians he described in the article who visited were politely critical of the fact that this unusual library is not often open and currently requires mediation of its curators since the organization is not geared to self-directed discovery. And you make a great point about our taking on a social need that nobody else was embracing by providing free Internet access to all.

    But this bears out the OCLC Perceptions report’s finding that when people think of libraries, they think of books – quite fondly. And it makes me think that we should not inadvertently dismiss some patrons’ interest in books as we advertise new services or design libraries to respond to non-bookish interests. We do often act as if books are so last year. (Remember, a hundred years ago we thought some books were likely to rot people’s minds and had a duty to push more elevating reading material when they asked for novels.)

    Of course, this print/digital either/or dichotomy is a false one. But I really am interested in knowing if “library as place” gestures are drawing students to the resources, or simply to the ambiance and amenities.

  3. I should clarify something I said in my last comment – unlike many archives and special collections, this library is open stacks and people are free to browse on their own and make their own discoveries. In fact, the article says “The brilliance of this library is that it represents some midpoint between directedness and freefall.”

    Though many of us don’t have the visually-rich collections that this library has, that phrase describes the best of libraries of all types. They’re organized a certain way, but invite people make their own associations – or as Alberto Manguel says in his History of Reading, the organization we impose asks the reader to “rescue” books from their categories.

  4. Barbara’s pondering “I really am interested in knowing if “library as place” gestures are drawing students to the resources, or simply to the ambiance and amenities” seems like a research project (or an entire research agenda!) very worth pursuing. Simple correlation studies would be a start but even more I’d appreciate factor analysis, etc. I don’t have the skills to do this work but would definitely be an avid reader!

    One thing I would think important would be to keep separate the effects of “ambiance and amenities” from “access and tools for use.” I don’t think adding new technologies is about “place” as much as “use.” My own observation is that enabling use – through tools, hours, services, etc. (and good furniture) is really important to actually make the connection with library resources. Of course – natural light, comfort, etc. aren’t without their value!

  5. Barbara wrote “when people think of libraries, they think of books – quite fondly.” This is what would be known in the marketing world as the library “brand” and we would do well to both preserve and capitalize on it. I meet many students who are book lovers, even if in a frenzy to complete an assignment they won’t use anything that’s not in electronic full text.

    Facilitating browsing of our print collections – books and serials – will keep our patrons coming in for that hit of traditional library flavor. In my opinion this should be a key aspect of library as place, and also serves to caution libraries about relying too much on remote storage in favor of other uses of our buildings.

  6. Given the number of times we’re asked at the reference desk, “Can I take this upstairs to the computer lab?” (by students with stacks of books in hand) and “Do you have novels?” I don’t think that the book is in any danger of dying in the library. For those who are rushing from place to place, electronic articles are a blessing, but I see not just the identification of library with books, but of books with scholarship. “No, no, no, I want a book on it!”

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