February 16, 2018

Expanding the Library-or Redefining It? | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

I remember last year reading about the plans for Goucher’s new library, dubbed an Atheneum, and thinking to myself "that’s going too far."

I’m all for allowing students to eat in libraries, and not in those "refreshment rooms" of my youth—dingy basement corners with chipped linoleum floors, flickering fluorescent lights, and a row of vending machines selling bad coffee and packets of stale snacks. I’m all for comfortable furniture and areas where students can be noisy and social. While there must be quiet study areas, and access to lots of books that can inspire contemplation as well as research, I don’t want the stacks to be dark, dingy, a maze of industrial metal shelving holding decaying books that occasionally have a new book slipped among them.

Too many libraries look as enticing as a warehouse and offer study spaces that look more like a solitary cell at a correctional facility than a Cistercian idea of monastic simplicity. Cistercians at least had an eye for design and kept the place clean. Too many academic libraries are simply unwelcoming, uninspiring, shabby, and poorly adapted to learning.

But is a fitness center the answer?

The learning library
Libraries should have public gathering places where the conversations that go on inside the books can spill out and be engaged in real time and out loud. That’s what the September Project is all about, and today at my library we’re having a political science professor who teaches constitutional law lead a conversation about immigration rights and the U.S. Constitution—to honor Constitution Day and to tie into our Global Insight program focused this year on Mexico.

While we’re at it, it connects nicely with our Reading in Common book for this fall, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, the account of a Honduran teenager who took a harrowing journey north to find his mother, a dangerous trek undertaken by tens of thousands of children. It seems as if the constitutional issues around immigration are something we need to talk about, and the library is a good place to do it.

Libraries should allow food for the stomach as well as the soul. They should encourage fun and noise while preserving places for quiet study. Goucher’s new library, as described by Scott Carlson in the Chronicle of Higher Education, will have all that and more: stacks that are open not just to browsers but to view, through glass walls, making the books a visible symbol of learning rather than a hidden and dingy warehouse of books with carrels here and there. It will have social gathering places. A restaurant. An art gallery. An auditorium that seats 700. Sounds studios. And a fitness center.

That last amenity was my moment of "no más!" I’m not sure why. I’m not against fitness. I have a treadmill at home, a particular model chosen because it has a book rack. (I’m one of those lucky few who can read while walking fast and not feel seasick. A half hour to read is the only bribe that actually works.) I realize that students working on a complex paper for hours at a stretch can benefit from an exercise break, and they’ve come to expect exercise equipment as an amenity of college life. But for some reason I balk at them taking their exercise break inside the library.

Apart from exercise equipment, Goucher’s new library not only has a place where people can hold discussions, but a huge auditorium. Not a café, but a restaurant. It begins to sound like a student center.

And that is, in fact, what it is. The campus needed a center, and it also needed a renovated library. Instead of separating those two needs and raising money for each, it incorporated the idea of a student center with the idea of the library as the heart of the campus. It took all the needs that a student center fulfills and said "hey, let’s do that at the library!" That really puts the library front and center.

And yet . . .

The defining tension
There has always been a tension between the library as a stern teacher and the library as a fun place, an asylum run by the inmates. That tension is particularly acute in the public library, where a hundred years ago librarians debated whether reading fiction should be discouraged because it led to a drug-like addiction to make-believe stories rather than encouraging educational works that would better the masses.

More recently Sallie Tisdale, in a 1997 Harper’s article, pleaded for silence in the public library. She resented the fact that the all-purpose community center, complete with games, events, computers, and noisy children, had overtaken her refuge, the only place where in a hectic world she could engage in contemplation.

In academic libraries the tension is sometimes characterized as a face-off between books and data, between knowledge and information, between learning and socializing. Discussions of renovations often include the caveat, "but we don’t want it to become a student center." A July 2006 report on the future of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein library states as its first "particular principle" that "The main purpose of Regenstein is research and should remain research."

The committee seemed concerned that the library’s vast collection might be reduced, some of it moved to remote storage in order to create social spaces, an issue that caused controversy when Ohio State University (OSU) renovated its main library as a mixed-use facility. Some faculty fretted that as many as 700,000 books were being removed to off-site storage, a banishment that usually means few books will ever return from exile. The controversy is not really over those books so much as the identity and purpose of a library.

Finding the right balance
Personally, I doubt the reduction of OSU’s browsable library collection to a mere 1.5 million volumes will adversely affect student learning, and faculty use of libraries has changed enormously since the advent of online catalogs and full-text databases. Providing browsing access to books that get little or no use is arguably a poor use of space. No matter how valuable books are, the library that is a joyless and grim warehouse with a few stingy carrels stuck in corners is not a cultural institution that will invite students to become inquisitive life-long learners.  

Goucher decided to solve two problems with a solution that makes the library a centerpiece of the campus, a student center with learning included.

But I’m still having trouble with the idea of exercise equipment in a library. Is that taking self-indulgence and recreation just a little too far? Is that making the library a fitness center for the mind, with librarians as personal trainers? Does that turn the public sphere for civic engagement and an encounter with great ideas into a place devoted to personal improvement and better abs?

Given a choice between a dingy book warehouse with scarce and uncomfortable furniture and Goucher’s gleaming stacks that just happen to offer a view of sweaty students running on treadmills, I can’t say Goucher made the wrong decision.

Maybe what I really need to know is this: do those treadmills have book racks?

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

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