Allan L. Pollchik
Although abundant examples appear in the literature describing how public libraries are building social capital, there are few descriptions of academic libraries acting similarly. Academic librarians discuss their future as if it is only an internal university issue, but Quinn Library on the Chillicothe campus of Ohio University made the choice to turn outward, physically and philosophically, and act as an anchor institution in order to build social capital.
Acting as an anchor institution means engagement not outreach. Outreach is when the university offers a class to the community. Engagement is working with the community to shape the offering from the university. Collaboration between the university and the community is a mutually beneficial process, and we have found that the university benefits in unexpected ways. After engagement, an anchor institution cultivates innovation, which results from tolerant discussions within an egalitarian space.
The women who bucked their social status to host the European and American salons of the 16th through early 20th centuries provide an excellent example of an egalitarian discussion space, and we attempted to follow in their tradition with the Salon@Quinn Library, which was born out of a desire to engage our community and provide a crucible for the alchemy of innovation.
When the students first heard there was going to be a salon in the library they thought they were going to have their hair styled. Learning that a salon was a hosted discussion disappointed them, until they learned that they would be participating in its design. Since they are the largest proportion of our campus community users, ownership by the students was primary.
Faculty is the second largest on-campus group of library users and, unique among university units, the library has contact with faculty from all disciplines. University staff also receives library services, and by including them in the design process, we were later able to tap their talents and use them as session leaders in our Women’s History Month salon.
Most academic libraries delineate their service community as students, faculty, and staff, but as an anchor institution we also needed to have ownership by our off-campus community. One feature of that community is the large number of people who attend houses of worship. The salon that evolved was a discussion of religion vs. science. Because the library has contact with all faculty, we were easily able to enlist one of our biology professors for the panel. Our guest panelist was the founder of the Clergy Letter Project which promotes the coexistence of religion and science. The third panelist held the position that the world was created in six days. As expected, the discussion was rousing and enlightening. Often the salons are staged in the library, but the amount of interest for this topic caused us to employ our auditorium. Media arts students ran along the aisles with boom microphones, allowing audience members full participation in the discussion.
In addition to engagement and innovation, leadership and partnership are hallmarks of an anchor institution. Leadership can mean dollars when the university-as-a-whole partners with a community, but since the library does not have that kind of budget, our leadership came in the form of staff dedicated to engaging the community. Partnership means both parties profit.
For example, the Chillicothe campus has a first-rate art gallery, but art department faculty or art students were the only exhibitors. This is classic university outreach – the university choosing what they offer and hoping the community will attend and sign up for classes. With only a limited number of artists able to exhibit there were periods when the gallery was empty. For a small town in southern Ohio Chillicothe boasts a large number of artists. The local art associations were engaged, and the salon for artists has become an annual event. The public library has been a key partner in these salons. They already had an identity as a space that belonged to the whole community, but like most academic libraries, we had to rebrand ourselves. Once the artists were engaged, the library was approached about sponsoring art exhibitions at the university gallery.
Quinn Library has a world-class special collection on religious tolerance, and we sponsored exhibitions with tolerance as the theme. Local artists profited from the extra exposure, and the university increased visibility and profitability by attracting more people to campus. This collaboration also brought unexpected benefits to the university. The possibility of new exhibitors inspired staff to organize an art show for non-art-department faculty and staff, revealing an unknown side of our co-workers. Extra exhibitions meant that rather than walking by an empty room, our on-campus community gained the opportunity to take a moments respite during their day in a gallery full of art.
Another unexpected benefit occurred with our students. They became more participatory in class discussions and in directing their education in general. In a salon, as opposed to a classroom, the students felt freer to express their opinions. Their comments at the salon were not being graded, and there was no pressure to parrot their professor’s viewpoint. There is no distinction between attendees at a salon such as university staff receiving more air time than community members, or even within the hierarchy of the university – administrative staff, classified staff, maintenance workers, senior faculty, junior faculty, and students – all of them have an equal say in the discussions.
We are not sure if the salons opened up the lifelong learners in our community, but they certainly unleashed our students.
Allan L. Pollchik is the director of the Quinn Library at Ohio University Chillicothe. Submissions for Backtalk should be 850 to 900 words and sent to Michael Kelley at email@example.com