Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Thoughts on Libraries
The objection struck me as unfair – I have a day job and young children, people – but it's certainly true that libraries have changed in ways that reward close attention. Since I haven't been able to pay that kind of attention, I'll cheat and ask my wise and worldly readers to fill in some blanks.
I'm old enough to remember card catalogs, microfiche, periodical rooms, and photocopying journal articles from bound volumes for interlibrary loan. (For reasons I've never understood, bound compilations of journals were always really tight, and with no margins at all, so photocopies always lost several letters on one side of the page to the black stripe of death. Readers of a certain age have probably had the experience of trying to piece together the meaning of a badly photocopied article, mentally filling in the gaps created by that black stripe of death. Good times...) Back then, libraries were all about paper and desks. At Snooty Liberal Arts College, seniors writing honors theses got individual assigned library carrels, which became status symbols of a sort. In grad school, carrels in the graduate student reading room were almost totemic in their significance. Libraries were places for quiet study, though occasional undergraduate couples used them as makeshift hotels.
With the advent of electronic databases, laptops, social networking, generation Y study habits, and Starbucks, though, libraries' missions have changed in some pretty fundamental ways.
At my cc, the culture clash between the young techies who study in groups and always have, and the (largely older) students who use libraries as havens of quiet study, is getting worse. The younger group-study crowd isn't just shooting the breeze; it's doing the kinds of things that previous generations did more quietly, and often in other places. On a commuter campus, the library is often one of the only places (along with the cafeteria) where students can meet in neutral territory. The old 'shushing' model isn't a good fit here.
But by the same token, students with children at home, or from crowded homes, often need a quiet haven in which to study. I'm still enough of a throwback to think that sometimes, it just comes down to a student, a math book, some paper, and a whole lot of focus. If that kind of uninterrupted quiet isn't available at home, the campus library seems like a fair and reasonable place to look for it.
The encroachment of electronica into the library also brings noise issues. Everything beeps, or plays ringtones, or vibrates loudly. For libraries that still provide student computer labs – these seem to be fading, but they're still around – issues of noise, and space, and temperature, and tech support, and the inevitable pornography abound.
(A college librarian I used to work with mentioned once that the library saved thousands of dollars annually on toner and paper by instituting a penny-a-page charge for printing from the computers. The savings weren't primarily from the increased revenue, which was trivial. It came from the deterrent effect that even a nominal charge had on often-inappropriate printing. Some skin in the game meant much less skin in the printer. There's a lesson in there somewhere.)
When I wander the library now, which I've been known to do from time to time, I see plenty of students at tables and desks, a fair number in the lobby, and absolutely none in the stacks. It still gives me pause.
I've heard of libraries selling coffee and all the fashionable sorta-Italian offshoots of coffee as a combination revenue-enhancer and traffic generator. Back in the day, such a thing would have been unthinkable. At SLAC, the only place you could drink coffee in the library was a poorly lit back room in the basement, with furniture I would describe as 'hostile.' Nowadays, we reserve that kind of treatment for smokers. In the post-Starbucks world, though, the idea of mixing caffeine with laptops and/or books has become normal. For the record, I'm thoroughly on board with this change. Close reading and caffeine go together. This is all to the good. And if it makes a few bucks on the side, even better.
At the cc's I've seen, 'information literacy' and its subset, 'bibliographic instruction,' take up huge and increasing amounts of library staff time. I don't recall any of that happening twenty years ago. Anybody else remember index cards? (I'm feeling especially old this week.)
I know I'm just scratching the surface, and that the focus of a library at a community college is likely to be different than one at a research university, for perfectly valid reasons. But I'll throw this one out to my wise and worldly readers. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you're suddenly in a position to have some say over the future direction of the library at your cc. Given the directions of things, what positive changes would you support?
I'd love to make it possible for students in a digital media art class to be able to check out Photoshop, etc. for a night, using a copy that would automatically expire on the due date. It would overcome the biggest resource gap my students faced - that between those who had time to use the open computer lab, and those who didn't.
Perhaps software and other digital materials could even be made accessible through a remote desktop like the Citrix desktop.
(I'd also put unremovable direct links to databases on that desktop, with little notes that research is actually bigger than Google.)
Actually, at Vague Company Research, we still have our own library and recently they've been rearranging things. I guess due to my regular appearance and interest they've asked me to be on the advising committee for the social science content.
So partially my input has come through already, i.e. making stacks more inviting by giving people a hint of what's in them and getting more up-to-date content.
What I would really want though, is for everybody to get a refresh course on how to use our available databases once a year (google scholar does not have everything, yeah). And incoming people (be they students, staff or other temporary workers) immediately get an introduction, they shouldn't have to ask for an introductory course, they should just be enrolled.
/back to lurking
The last school I worked at was a big public research school. Our library had many of the things Doug Gentry describes, and was also a "humming place." Those initiatives certainly did pay off with more library attendance. But I imagine they're not always feasible for a cc, for the usual budgetary reasons. Especially since it's hard to quantify what good students are getting out of the library. There isn't sort of any direct payoff that one can track in the budget, but there are many costs associated with late hours (staffing, utilities, etc.) and extra software.
Well, you can track sales from the coffee shop, that much is true! At my big research school, the little coffee shop they installed in the library a few years ago was ALWAYS packed. Always! It was also sectioned off from the rest of the library in a glass enclosure. Which made a lot of sense in some ways - they still didn't want food or drinks anywhere near the books, and this way the caffeinated students could talk and study group and use their cell phones to their hearts' content without bothering the much smaller "needs silence" crowd.
It was clear, even by the time I left in 2006, that the use of space needed to be reversed. There were maybe 10 tables in the coffee shop area when the demand could have easily filled 20; students would often resort to sitting on the floor. I do wonder if they ever figured out a good way to do that without putting the stacks in danger of crumbs and coffee spills.
My local public library - which is brand new - allows covered drinks (like coffee) in almost any part of the place, and has but one medium-sized room of carrels reserved for quiet study. And it's a good thing they have it, too, because the people in the rest of the library clearly feel no need to be quiet. That system is probably the wave of the future, even for academic libraries. But amusingly, the Quiet Study room is the one that is almost always packed at my public library; you need to get there first thing upon opening to get a seat. I imagine that library serves an audience more like the usual cc audience, but I think it is a very hard balance for any library to strike. In a lot of ways, libraries are more important than ever due to the sheer amount of information we throw at students, but bringing them into this century isn't always a clear endeavor.
It also helps that there are multiple libraries on campus. If you really want quiet, head to the law library.
And I still have lots of the photocopies with the black line of death :)
The CC where I started my own education had an interesting approach to the group study/quiet study problem. The library there had group study rooms on floor 1 and carrels on floor 2. Floor 1 was where the microfilm, computer bank, and periodicals were, as well as some of the main stacks. Floor 2 was where most of the stacks were located. The carrels often were assigned to one or two people, but when vacant anybody could use them. Because they were on the second floor, and because the second floor wasn't a social area but a book-retrieval or study destination, it stayed fairly quiet. The group study rooms on the first floor functioned not unlike giant carrels: they could be assigned and they were open to anyone when unoccupied. Each group held about 4-8 people, with a central table, shelves, electrical outlets, etc. We could reserve them as individual students or our instructors could book them for a block of time during the week and set up a small library (not unlike a reserve shelf) inside for the class to use. When they were empty they were available to be occupied by anyone who wanted. I know that at exam review or group project time, we very much appreciated these rooms--they offered us a neutral territory, without the social distractions of meeting in a restaurant or meeting in someone's home.
This system seemed to work pretty well from my perspective. My classmates and I complained about the library, as students are wont to do, but I don't remember that we ever complained about the lack of quiet space or group study space.
I firmly believe that libraries' great challenge for the next ten years or so is to re-explain to students, faculty, and staff why they still need the library. Not all information is available online at all, and that which is is often in a form accessible through your library's online resources but NOT through a search engine like Google. But this is a tough pitch to make to students who've grown up with the internet, who can't really understand in their hearts that not everything is "googleable".
Faculty members who are reading this blog: Please talk to your librarians today and arrange for library instruction! These are the points we can make in an instructional session. Your students really need to hear them. And once they have, their research for your classes should be much better.
Like several posters here, my institution had group-study rooms in the library, which were great: you could get a very lively study session going without disturbing anyone else. If that's not an option, try designating one floor as a quiet zone, and allow conversational noise elsewhere. I think that the modern idea of libraries as something other than a silent cloister is a good one, and even incipient old-timers like me are often pretty good at tuning out moderate noise, or use "study music" over headphones to concentrate. (I have entire playlists for writing, creating paper figures, and programming.)
The one problem with online access is the loss of library serendipity. Ever been wandering the stacks looking for something, and come across something only tangentially related but seriously neat? Hard to do when you're using a good search engine. I've thought it would be fun for library catalog db's to have a "stumble upon" window for each search, which showcases the book that would have been on the next shelf over from the top hit in the search.
meteechart: call your adobe sales rep and ask them about your idea. What you're describing can be done. Alternatively, talk to your library about having laptops that your students can check out with the software that they need on the laptop - you could probably get by with just a few systems and create a great resource for the whole campus (we have this and it works wonderfully). You might even be able to do this as a department through a grant or with the help of adobe through their corporate giving program. Techsoup would be another place I'd look for low cost software donations (these are for non-profits but most schools qualify) - you might be able to get software for your students that way.
The one problem with online access is the loss of library serendipity. So very true!
You really hit on one of the biggest requests from our students: quiet study space. I had students of all ages tell me that they had really noisy, unpredictable living situations and needed a quiet place to study. However, group work is becoming more and more important at every level of education. So space it a real issue in CC libraries -- if I were designing one from the ground up, I'd include multiple floors or other architectural details to allow strict differentiation between quiet and group study spaces.
You also note that the library is one of the few "neutral" spaces on campus students can meet. I'd take advantage of that by having rigorous events programming (visiting authors, book discussion groups, etc.), encouraging students to come together in a way that focuses on the life of the mind. It's hard to build community at commuter schools, but important to offer students the chance to participate in these kinds of extracurricular activities. There seem to be a lot of pressures trying to make community college (and, heck, all of U.S. higher ed) solely about job training. A vibrant intellectual life on campus can help counter-act those pressures, and the library seems like a natural place to host such events.
The book stacks at my CC were always very crowded, such that we had a hard time keeping things re-shevled and in proper order. We had a small-ish collection, but one that was (I think) very on-target with the curriculum. It obviously helps if profs discuss the importance of research and assign papers requiring "outside sources", and if profs are very active in making recommendations for the collection itself.
We also had a very active instruction program, based around information literacy principles. I daresay that this is *especially* important at the CC level, where some students' high school experiences may not have been very challenging. Sometimes our CC writing courses were the first time students had *ever* been asked to do research and consider quality of source. Librarians have been gutted from the K-12 system, so a lot of "intro to research" sessions in high school have just disappeared. Faculty buy-in is, again, essential. Your nursing faculty have to believe that it's vital for their students to be exposed to nursing journal literature, and design assignments around this.
Our students faced the double-whammy of not being just inexperienced with the concepts of information flow and scholarly communication, but also inexperienced with the technology itself. So a robust support system for basic computer tech was vital. We were asked basic tech questions all the time, and after getting a student started, it helps the librarian to be able to refer a student to a free email/word processing/courseware/spreadsheet class.
The big elephant in the room is, of course, money to fund collections and staff. But everyone already knows that.
Just some thoughts on positive directions for CC libs. Glad to see the topic.
You can get food on the bottom floor. There are library stacks on floors 2 and 3 (you carry the books back down to check them out). There are also computer labs, a media training center and a load of other program offices and stuff. Once, on a 20 minute break from an Access class, I wandered through the stacks eating a sandwich and picked up a book I needed for later that night. Doesn't get much better than that!
meteechart, that absolutely can be done and I think probably should be done with some of the money going into physical labs. Yes, you still need some physical labs, but increasingly, placing the expensive software on more expensive hardware hiding in a server room (i.e. blade server setup) with cheap hardware in the labs designed to merely connect remotely to the "real" systems (or to the Internet) seems like a way to get more efficient use out of your software licenses. Even when the physical labs are full, most of the people are simply surfing the Internet anyway, rather than using Photoshop or SPSS or Matlab.
Oh, we still need to get the library director (a Dean)to "sign off" on any new degree programs. The last one needed absolutely zero library support beyond what was already available throguh electronic resources. They estimated a $27,000 annual cost for buying books (?) and magazines and such to support the program . . .
Yeah, maybe the libraries *do* need to get into the whole panem circusem thing now that they are pretty much obsolete . . . but isn't that what our Student Union is supposed to be doing?
In the humanities, much (most?) monograph scholarship isn't even published in an online format. So, yes, for some, books are still important.
- Signs of the times!!! Somehow, I feel like a dinosaur.
Babycatmama, you might consider asking that your study group submit a recommendation for several discrete study rooms rather than a single partitionable meeting room. We've got a ~1800 sq. ft. partitionable meeting room in our library. It's been a magnet for overflow classrooms and space-hungry administrators in non-library service centers.
Service in any type of library is a three-legged stool: collection quality (including database access), staff quality, and the quality of the library's study environment. Of these three, study environment is the one most likely to affect any patron's overall experience of the library, as even users that don't access the other two will still take away some experience of the library as "place."
It also happens to be the hardest variable to improve, as true environmental service improvement (i.e., soundproofed small group and individual study rooms) is expensive, and not easy for library administration to sell to campus decision-makers. It doesn't make the situation any easier that it's also difficult to quantify the results of this improvement.
Oddly enough, even noisy groups of patrons value quiet; they are nearly always compliant, and often surprised as well, when a librarian reminds them that their chatter can actually be heard by other patrons.