November 24, 2017

What Is a Library? An Attempt at Common Sense | Peer to Peer Review

Last week we welcomed Scott Bennett to our campus for a few days of conversations and a spot of intellectual shock treatment. Bennett, as you may know, wrote a fascinating study for the Council on Library and Information Resources examining how newly constructed or renovated libraries were being used, and how those uses did not match up with planning principles. He concluded that we should rethink the questions we ask when we design libraries. Rather than frame our questions around how we will house collections and provide services, we should focus on designing physical spaces that foster conditions that we know have been effective in improving student learning.

That sounds reasonable. But this shift in perspective requires asking some hard questions, such as “why are we devoting so much expensive space for storing books that are rarely used? Shouldn’t we toss those books if they aren’t promoting learning so we can use the space?” and “is it an effective use of librarian’s time to sit at a desk in the library when, at best, they will be instructing a tiny percentage of the student body? Would librarians have a greater impact on learning if they moved to academic buildings to work closely with the faculty from whom students take their cues?” Pretty quickly, you arrive at a library that is a flexible space where students learn-but a space without books or librarians.

We aren’t tossing our books or looking for office space elsewhere just yet, but the conversations we’ll have for the remainder of the semester will help us answer those questions in a way that will unpack some assumptions underlying our conviction that books still matter and that working with students is an important and effective piece of our educational mission.

Libraries with walls—but no books

Meanwhile, an interesting example of a library that is taking this challenge seriously is Drexel’s Learning Terrace project. The library needed more study space. To create it, they took advantage of space that could be converted in another building to create a branch library, one that will be proudly “bookless.” At a campus meeting, students questioned why it should be called a library at all. The library director responded that currently students go to the library to study, not to use books. True enough, in many cases, but the question remains: what makes a space used by students for learning purposes into a library? Maybe it’s a kind of naming rights. Having just had a conversation with our physical plant director, I realized that even when flexible learning spaces are designed into new building projects, they typically get taken over for programmatic purposes before ground is broken. Maybe the librarians that fight for such spaces have earned the right to stake a claim and call them whatever they like.

Yet “bookless library” continues to make news of the man-bites-dog variety. The Cushing Academy, a private school in Massachusetts, got a lot of ink when its headmaster told reporters he was replacing books with Kindles. The story that news organizations were covering this week is yet another plan to replace a public library branch with a bookless unstaffed space where people can pick up a Wi Fi signal and requested books will be delivered and stored in lockers (a strategy already used in a small town in Minnesota so successfully it had to be expanded).

“By eliminating books and librarians at the building,” one news report stated, city officials “hope to adapt to modern times and save money while providing residents services they’ll actually use.” You may be relieved to learn that the library without books or staff will have a fireplace and a nice view of the ocean.

But, but . . . is it a library?

I’m having the same kind of “whoa” reaction that I had when reading about the fitness machines in the new library-cum-student-center at Goucher College. Goucher needed a student center. They also needed a new library. They built one building to house both, and that makes sense. But that name, it means something-doesn’t it? When you get right down to it, what is a library? Is it a room with a fireplace? Study tables? A collection of books? A service that provides people with the information they want?

There are warehouses full of books. Some of them belong to Ingram and Amazon. Those are not libraries. There are lots of rooms with fireplaces and study tables. You often find them at hotels. You’ll also find people there whose job is to provide information, but you don’t call concierges librarians. There is something beyond books, buildings, and people that defines what a library is, whether it’s a small public library, a research institution’s multi-branch system, or a digital library for distance learners. I think it comes down to something so common we forget how important it is.

A library is a social institution that establishes a common space (physical or virtual, but usually both) for the use of commonly-held knowledge resources. Such institutions require three things: a community, people hired to help the community share knowledge, and commonly-owned information resources.

Shared purpose

Public libraries are a powerful symbol of these fundamentals, so ubiquitous in the United States that we take them for granted. They are places owned by local communities for all members of the community, and the books in them symbolize tangible knowledge that the community has acquired in order to share it. There really are no other public institutions like them other than parks. Parks bring us closer to nature by establishing common ground that all citizens can enjoy; libraries bring us closer to our shared culture by creating an intellectual commons.

When I read about services like the Copyright Clearance Center’s new Get It Now product that offers faster and more efficient direct purchasing of stuff that can be used by one person but can’t be shared, I wonder whether we’ve made service such a virtue that we’ve forgotten our purpose. When we build “libraries” that don’t include librarians or resources, I wonder why we believe something so many communities are committed to-the idea of a library-doesn’t really matter.

The “common” sense of libraries is too important to leave out as we design our future.


Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published last year by Minotaur Books.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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