Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Spikes, Stacks, and Spaces

What should a campus library look like when enrollments are moving increasingly online?

I’m old enough to remember when college libraries were all about books, microfilm, and microfiche.  (Anyone who worked with microfiche will be immune to talk of the “good old days.”)  Over time, the emphasis on paper volumes -- whether books or periodicals -- has gradually receded, in favor of access to all sorts of electronic databases and resources.   That’s particularly true, my layman’s eye tells me, in the area of reference materials.  I haven’t seen the Big Wall of Encyclopedias in a while, and I’m not sure such a thing would even make sense anymore.

Simplistically, one would expect the shift to more online enrollments and more electronic materials to mean that increasing fractions of library space could be repurposed.  After all, if students are logging on from home, they’re using their own space.  If the physical footprint of the “stacks” is shrinking, the recovered square footage could be used for something else.

But it doesn’t seem to play out that way.

Instead, students seem to have greater expectations of libraries-as-physical-spaces than they have in the past.  But the nature of the expectation has changed.

(I should clarify that I’m writing about commuter campuses.  Residential campuses may see these issues play out very differently.)

Tom Friedman and Richard Florida have famously sparred over the spatial implications of the internet.  Friedman made his name arguing that “the world is flat,” since production can theoretically happen anywhere someone has internet access.  Florida has countered -- convincingly, in my view -- that in fact, the new industries and new wealth are geographically concentrated to a greater degree than the industries they succeeded.  (He calls the world “spiky,” rather than flat.) The reasons are many and complicated, and subject to debate, but the underlying trend is pretty clear.  Technologies that would seem to make spaces irrelevant have actually made them matter much more.

In a much less dramatic way, that’s what’s happening with campus libraries.  The library as space is becoming more important, even as students are able to log on to databases from wherever.  

It could be read as a paradox, or it could be read as a sort of specialization.  Instead of the physical space of the library serving multiple purposes, each of them only so well, it can focus on fewer and do them better.  By freeing up physical space that used to be devoted to, say, periodicals, we’ve been able to create new dedicated study spaces.  One is for group study, complete with computers that share multiple keyboards.  Another is decidedly low-tech, with a focus on quiet individual study.  That one has been gratifyingly popular.  Sometimes you just need the basics: student, table, chair, lamp, book.  It’s an old formula, but it still works.

Databases can be accessed from wherever.  But if a student has an hour or two between classes and some work to do, library-as-place serves a function that only it can.  

A few years ago, if you had asked, I would have envisioned the future directions of libraries as full of screens.  Now, I see it as full of students, some with screens, but many without.  And I’m happy to have been proven wrong.