Newsflash: Professor Visits Library

Thomas H. Benton, a.k.a. William Pannapacker, writes lyrically in the Chronicle about what the library meant to him as a student.

My undergraduate research projects were not particularly original, but I did learn that there was a continuing conversation on almost any subject that I could listen in on through books and—in those days—printed journals. The library taught me to take responsibility for my education and to question anyone who claimed to possess the one-and-only correct interpretation of any subject.

His students seem to take information too easily at its word as an unquestioned body of knowledge; he wants them to have the kind of experience he had. But he’s nervous that libraries may be considered by some administrators as a costly anachronism, so has some advice for strategic changes:

For undergraduate libraries, those changes might include, for example, offering even more online resources, providing more-flexible work spaces for students, offering more extensive digitization services, providing local expertise on copyright and intellectual property, training faculty members and students in the use of new media, and, perhaps, providing food services in a collegial atmosphere.

Experimenting with such changes does not mean that libraries need to capitulate to the worst tendencies of collegiate consumerism and techno-boosterism. None of those changes is inconsistent with the traditional mission of college libraries, and all of them can be done in the context of the preservation and study of books and other research materials. . . . There needs to be a stronger alliance between content experts and information managers, between the professors and the librarians, in order to achieve our allied goals in a rapidly changing technological, economic, and cultural context.

Well, amen to that, but I can’t help but wonder when he last visited his library. I’ve been there. The Van Wylen library at Hope College library is lovely, and the librarians there are already doing much of what he proposes – and have for years. In fact, ACRL’s award for Excellence in Academic Libraries was presented to Hope College in 2004 in part because of their collaboration with faculty to build a strong instruction program.

Benton does admit that “librarians are working hard to reach out to the campus community” and faculty haven’t always returned the favor, so he can understand why librarians retreat to their “fortresses of silence, order, and continuity.”

. . . Their what? Dude, you have to get out more. That’s not what libraries are like these days. And we wouldn’t go there, even if it existed.

Though I will give three cheers for his pledge to reach out and engage in collaboration.

[W]e as faculty members can work more effectively with librarians to design research projects and to develop collections that support the undergraduate curriculum. We can design assignments in consultation with librarians so it becomes impossible for students to pass through college without learning how to write a research paper, produce an educational video podcast, or accomplish any other goal that requires the critical evaluation of sources. If we can reconceptualize our teaching as collaborative research with students and librarians, then the library could become analogous to the laboratory in the sciences, and it would become impossible to imagine the future of any college without it.

By working more closely together, and responding to new technology while preserving the traditional culture of scholarship and books, I am convinced, professors and librarians can put the library back at the center of undergraduate education, where it belongs.

Welcome Back, Dr. Pannapacker. I look forward to reading your future columns. I’m just sorry that it’s taken you all this time to discover a place that I suspect Hope College students already call home.

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.

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