Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Thoughts on Libraries

This weekend I got an email from a librarian/blogger taking me to task for paying insufficient attention to librarian blogs.

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?