When is a library not a library? No, that’s not quite the question I want to ask. When does the word library become absolutely meaningless? There are probably lots of times, but the latest example I’ve seen is the discussion over the new Goucher College "Athenaneum." A kind reader sent me an article, so you can read a bit about it here, but for subscribers the Chronicle of Higher Education article on the topic has a lot more information.
It seems that Goucher College needed a new library, but the president decided that a library wasn’t worth raising money for.. The library wasn’t "dynamic" enough. "Even renovated, it would still be an old-school library,” he says. ‘It was always going to be a renovated problem.’" He might be right. Students don’t need books or a place to study. They just need places to drink and hook up, from what I read. You don’t need a multimillion dollar renovated library for that. And old gymnasium and a keg of beer and you’re set! Or another way of looking at is that if no one was using the library, it’s because the professors and their students weren’t doing much research. If researchers don’t use the library, there’s no point in having one. So, again, an old gym and a keg are all you need.
Anyway, to justify raising the money, they turned the project into a student center with a library inside, more or less. They have a cafe, a unisex bathroom with a shower, treadmills and exercise bikes, the campus radio station, an art gallery, a gigantic forum, and a massage parlor where students get a discount on happy endings. (I’m kidding about that last part, of course. There’s no student discount.)
Then Goucher decided to call this student center the Athenaeum, because they’re pretentious. "Its name was chosen to reflect the various activities it would house. ‘I started doing research on the athenaeum of classical times,’ says Mr.Ungar , ‘and it was a central gathering point where people came for a variety of purposes—serious, frivolous, cultural, artistic, and social.’" Athenaeum means a temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and has in its 2,000+ year history almost always meant a place to gather for education and cultural purposes. But, um, sure, athenaeum can mean whatever you want it to mean, just like library.
The Chronicle article tries to turn this in a philosophical question. "Is it a library? A student center?" is the title. It concludes with this exchange:
"During a tour while the building was still under construction, Ms. Magnuson, the librarian, and Linda Barone, Goucher’s facilities project manager, negotiated how to answer that question.
"I would argue that the library of today is more than what one might think of as a traditional library," Ms. Magnuson said.
But it’s really much more than a library, with the commuter lounge, the art gallery, the radio station, and the forum, Ms. Barone said.
Ms. Magnuson finally shrugged. "It’s the Athenaeum," she said."
Why harass the poor librarian, though? It’s not her fault the college president doesn’t think libraries are "dynamic" enough to justify raising money for. The library of today being "more than one might think of as a traditional library" is a valiant effort to toe the party line. That’s a talking point librarians tend to use when they want to turn their libraries into arcades and party lounges and such. Those sorts of librarians have no coherent use of the word library, though. They just use it to mean whatever they want. If libraries become arcades to bring the kiddies in, then there’s no rational excuse for them not becoming day care centers.
I’m glad this librarian saw through that flimsy argument and bypassed the pseudo-philosophical question and just stated the truth. It’s a building called the Athenaeum. Nuff said.
But why was the question even asked? The only reason to even think this "athenaeum" is a library is because the college president used what was originally a library-related renovation plan to raise money for a student center. The building may serve all sorts of useful and necessary purposes, but it’s no more a library than it is an athenaeum. A shopping mall with a Barnes & Noble isn’t a bookstore.
The comments to the article are varied. Some think it’s great. Some deplore it. Some deluded archivist used the comment section as an excuse to rant about how librarians are going to be obsolete because everything’s going to be online and the only people employed in libraries will be archivists and curators of "unique collections," as if anyone is going to use those things unless they’re online. That commenter obviously has issues.
A serious question is, why would anyone have a problem with a student center that also contained a library? There are a number of public libraries around the country in shopping malls. It doesn’t make the mall a library, but it doesn’t make the library a mall, either. Goucher seems like it’s just doing what mall libraries do, going where the users go. Logically, they should have added the campus bookstore and a gift shop.
From the description and comments, it seems the library is walled off from the more social or unscholarly or just plain noisy functions. It’s not like they’re serving food in the stacks or set the treadmill up near the reference desk (which might not be a bad idea, actually). The radio station isn’t broadcasting from the circulation desk, and the commuter kitchen and shower aren’t part of the reserves area.
If anything, librarians should be pleased that a president who thinks a renovated library would be merely a "renovated problem" would devote so much space in a student center to an actual library, with books and librarians and everything. Given the mistaken belief so many have that everything’s online and students don’t really need libraries, everyone should just be glad Goucher didn’t get rid of the library completely.
Contact the AL: firstname.lastname@example.org