The Academic Library Is Certainly No Place For Fun

Are there days at your academic library when it appears that a war is going to erupt between the students who just want solitude and quiet and those who want to do…well, whatever they feel like doing? And what they feel like doing just might be socializing (probably loudly), playing cards, using computers to watch a soccer match or anything else that disrupts the work of those who seek peace and quiet. And of course, since the students are totally incapable of policing this themselves and cooperating to create a workable environment for both groups, guess who gets to be the referee to help make sure everyone plays nice. Are you having fun yet? This is by no means a new issue, but with the proliferation of cell phones and multimedia digital entertainment – along with a growing societal trend toward a public lack of sensitivity to and respect for others’ needs for privacy and quiet – the severity the issue has rapidly escalated.

In addition to this student penned article (the inspiration for this post’s title), the quiet versus noise battle brews daily in my own library. In my new position I’ve had to calm down a number of students who were ready to go ballistic over the noise level where they were attempting to study. What I hear is the same tone as the article. “Don’t students know that the library is a place for quiet and study. It’s the only place on campus we can find that”. You see our dilemma. We need to satisfy everyone! One’s ability to do that depends, to a large degree I think, on his or her library facility. Abundant study rooms may allow those seeking isolation to find it, or they may be the perfect place to send that talkative group watching a DVD on a public PC. Well laid out areas for socialization can be kept at a distance from those designated for quiet study. Food and beverage consumption, which often generates conversational noise, is kept in check in designated areas. The last thing we want is for librarians to be perceived as noise cops. But I don’t doubt that some of our aggrieved patrons would like nothing better than to see little old Mr. Librarian pull out a big baseball bat to deal out some corporal punishment to a bunch of chatterbox undergrads.

There are no easy answers on this particular problem, so it just may be a matter of trying different strategies and sharing them (I’ve seen at least one article on dealing with cell phone noise) within the profession. One can only hope that library users will soon recognize the importance of refraining from loud conversation while others attempt to study (or do other kinds of work) or that both camps will gain the ability to self-police these noisy situations – or at least learn how to compromise. So what’s happening at your library?

A Top Twenty Academic Library List From The Same Folks Who Rate Party Schools

Though it is probably not as eagerly sought after by prospective (and even active) college students as their top party schools list, the folks at Princeton Review may have noticed this and decided that students would also want to know more about the best libraries. You can get to the list via a post at LISNews (they supply an account so you don’t have to register – thanks LISNews) if you’d like to see which libraries made the top twenty. Apparently there is but a single criterion for making the list. The Princeton Review makes it clear at the top of the list that the rankings are based “on students’ assessment of library facilities”. I haven’t visited nearly all of these libraries, but I could understand why Valparaiso – which I have visited – would make the list if it is based on how much students like the library building.

Tp be sure, any of the libraries on this list is an example of an academic library that is doing good work and is, in at least some specific area(s) (collection, facility, service quality, etc.) a standout. To be sure, there are many others that are equally good and would deserve to be in the top twenty. I suppose that is the primary reason why a list like this is bound to irk many academic librarians. But I thought I’d check to see if The Princeton Review’s methodology for rating academic libraries would actually identify truly excellent academic libraries – according to the real experts – academic librarians. So I visited ACRL’s web page that lists all the winners, present and past, of the Excellence in Libraries Award. It was first awarded in 2000. Of the Princeton Review’s top twenty, four academic libraries have also won the ACRL award. They are Cornell, Loyola University New Orleans, Mount Holyoke College and University of Virginia. So four out of twenty isn’t great, but I have to admit that I didn’t think there would be any matches between the two lists.

Perhaps next year The Princeton Review list will have a little footnote that provides the link to the ACRL Award page – just to give their readers another perspective on which schools have the best libraries. Of course, the students may be too busy checking out the top party schools to take much notice. And in case you are wondering, West Virginia University, this year’s top party school, also takes the number five spot on the best libraries list. They must have some awesome parties at that library.

Seekin’ An Answer ‘Bout The Commons

While preparing for this week’s class I was reviewing some old and new material for a discussion of the library as place. I think I used to understand the “commons” concept, but now I’m not so sure I do. On one hand you’ve got the information commons. It’s got computers, cool technology, fun furniture for collaboration, probably a cafe nearby, possibly a librarian or a technology consultant hanging around. Seems pretty straightforward. On the other hand you’ve got the learning commons. It’s got computers, cool technology, fun furniture for…wait a minute. I think they are the same place, but perhaps the learning factor is what makes a difference. Students are learning over at the learning commons while they are finding information. At the information commons students are just gathering information, but not necessarily learning while they do it.

To compound matters I recently came across a journal article describing the new learning commons at a large research university. They decided to call it the learning commons because students learn there, but there was no articulation of what they learn or who they learn it from. But we know they learn there because there are loads of computers, devices, collaborative furniture and…you know. Then I got the newsletter from another large research university with a big page one story about their new information commons. The two commons areas described seem to be virtually the same facility. Now I’m really confused.

I think you see my dilemma. I sort of feel like that person in the old Who song, The Seeker. One verse goes…

I asked Bobby Dylan
I asked The Beatles
I asked Timothy Leary
But he couldn’t help me either

So I’m seeking an answer. What’s the difference between a learning commons and an information commons? Here’s what I used to think the difference was. The information commons was primarily a computer center/lab in the library that brought a full-time information technology worker into the library to support all the computers – while librarians answered questions and helped users navigate databases. The learning commons on the other hand had grander visions. The big difference is in “co-located services”. The learning happens at the learning commons because multiple academic support services are located there; tutoring, the writing center, educational technology and others are invited to share space in the learning commons or they have scheduled hours there.

I do see there is going to be a program at ALA on this topic. It’s called “Is the Learning Commons Enough?—Asking the Better Questions” and it’s on Monday the 25th at 1:30 (wouldn’t you know I have a schedule conflict!). LAMA and RUSA are bringing together four experts who, I guess, will try to figure out the difference between the different commons – or they may have more in common then we know.

But it seems like these two have become interchangeable. So if you can set me straight with your interpretation of the difference between these two commons that would be most helpful. But if there is no clear cut difference perhaps we can all decide which term we like and stick with that one. Or maybe we should just drop it all together. “You want a computer, cool technology, fun furniture where you and your friends can drink lattes and work together – just go over there where you see all those computers – and make sure you learn while you’re there”. Yeah, that could work for me.

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.

How Deserted Was The Library

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.