Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

C’est ne pas une Bibliotheque

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:



  1. Carl Grant, president of Ex Libris North America, also observes that college students are not using their academic libraries. He offers a suggestion for making library services more meaningful to them.

  2. Dances With Books says:

    The sad thing about me for me is that it is just the thing Dr. Campus Prez here on campus might consider doing. He is already on record asking Boss With a Fist (our director) if we “really need all these books?” We recently added a nice fountain and garden in the front (thanks to some donor who prefers to make things pretty on the outside), but otherwise. . .you get the idea. “Athenaeum?” That is clearly as pretentious as you can get to say any place but a library. Obviously they have no idea what the word really means or where it came from. *Sigh*

  3. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    A library is not a library when the patrons and staff no longer treat it like a library. Some people continue the fight to keep libraries a place where knowledge is stored, others argue its a place where it is shared, still other say knowledge eh, I have patrons and food with a WII. The question is this does Goucher have plans in place to support the operation of the library in the athenaeum or is it only a minor part of the operation that can be written off? I think in the end the patrons and staff will make that call

  4. “How pretentious!” is all I can say.

    A unisex shower? A hissing espresso machine? A gym?

    Why even go to class or go home for that matter? The Athenaneum seems like the perfect venue for fulfilling at least the very first three steps on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if not all five.

    Thank goodness this trend still hasn’t caught on in the world of public libraries. I hope it never does. Cuz you know who’d end up doing shower cleaning and happy ending massage parlour shifts–the poor librarians. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

  5. “an old gym and a keg are all you need.”

    One Keg? Now who’s delusional…

    As a side note, I’d actually like to work in a place like that. Might actually get a workout in during that lunch break. Do the librarians get free access to the equipment? You people clearly don’t see the upside to this. I bet this plan would increase their book circulation by 50 to 100 percent. When I was in college, I hated going to the library because it was the furthest away from anywhere I wanted to be. If I had been a campus librarian at the time, I probably would have jumped on a chance like this.

  6. I Like Books says:

    Students may not be using libraries any more, but I’ve seen in a number of places that since students started relying on the internet for their research, the quality and originality of their research papers has been going down.

    Besides, where do you do the research for all those internet articles? On the internet? Check the references of a few good articles and see how many books are listed.

    As for the Athenaeum, I suppose it’s too much to hope that the library didn’t shrink significantly in size and its holdings. Otherwise I don’t care where the put the treadmills and the espresso machine.

  7. Ben Franklin says:

    Who needs an old gym when you’ve got e keg of beer?

    Lucky for me, I got a masters degree from a “School of Athaneaum Sciences” so I’ll be a shoe-in for their new directorship.

  8. Unisex showers? Show me the way! (Unisex bathrooms – this is an ill thought idea!)

    Quite honestly our library isn’t always used for research and who is at fault? Faculty. Back in my days (and those days weren’t that long ago), some professors that I had *required* an actual, honest-to-God, bibliography from paper sources, or else you would not get a passing grade (they may not even have looked at your paper if the bib was not there). Now? It seem to be a free for all – use whatever you want, even if it ain’t credible – so long as it has truthiness ;-)

  9. They could have just built a big computer lab. Students can print what they need from the giant pile of hearsay we call the internet, pull it into a word document, and turn it in.
    Well, Ok. I do see your point about needing a keg after all that hard work is done.

  10. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    At least here faculty got fed up with shoddy research. More and more provide explicit guidelines as to what can or cannot be used in a paper. And some (even those without tenure) are giving failing grades to the papers of little snots who think they can ignore the guidelines. They’ve come down hard on plagiarism, too, and they often ask library staff to help track down the students’ sources.

    If your faculty aren’t backing the library and its staff, your library may well become an “Athenaeum.” Get out there and round up some faculty support – it’s not as hard as you think. Many cannot abide the administrative types and their stupidity. We actually had one speak out in a faculty forum about freedom of speech – we shouldn’t have it because we might inadvertently offend a student.

  11. Poisson Radieux says:

    Hello AL,

    Thanks for your blog. I enjoy it for a really long time.

    However, as a French native speaker, I would object to
    “C’est ne pas une bibliothèque”
    and would suggest the correct sentence
    “Ce n’est pas une bibliothèque”.



  12. I Like Books says:

    No freedom of speech for fear of offending a student? Are they the same people who give everyone A’s for fear of making a student feel bad?

    I started using the scholarly journals as an undergraduate physics student. My thermal physics text had a good number of homework problems taken from the literature, and provided references. And it’s quite a difficult subject, so I was happy to look up whatever help I could find. In retrospect, the author had a wonderful tactic.

  13. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    I am sure we all get the feeling that something is going terribly wrong. I think the scary thing about this whole mess is we know the school is not going to support the library. my biggest fear still is what happens when the google generation becomes the professors, administrators and city managers. This is one libraries will be doomed.

  14. Cincinnati NAMjA says:

    Did they ever hear the old addage, “If you build a library, they will come”?.

  15. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    Well, I Like Books, it was an administrator type who thought faculty and staff should be muzzled. A notable idiot here and roundly ignored.

  16. Goucher-foe says:

    “U.S. News and World Report ranked Goucher college #111 in its annual rankings of national liberal arts colleges, down from #93 a year ago.”

    Nice work, Dean Peterson. Maybe next year you’ll be down to #150.

  17. Thanks for the laughs! This was hilarious! And insightful, as always.

  18. Kaylin Boehme says:

    I think whether students and educators think of the library as outdated or not, the majority of work is being done online. I know some people who didn’t enter the library for their entire undergraduate degree until it came time to write their capstone paper.

    If the library is incorporated with other services the students are interested in and is located in a place they frequent, at least the university has a driving chance that they will wander in there now and then!

  19. Un certain Plume says:

    The title of this post annoys me.

    Why did you, the Annoyed Librarian, annoyed when others make mistakes like this, not do this right? Radieux already told you, so just change it now.

    Maybe you wanted to show how much you know about art and hinted at the classic ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ by Margritte. Alas.

    Keep up the good work. Regards. P.

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