Repositioning Library Space

By Barbara Fister

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 Scott Carlson’s 2001 story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Deserted Library,” kicked off a heated controversy. Were libraries as spaces becoming obsolete as their collections moved online? Would administrators, reading that startling headline but not the body of the story, think libraries were now irrelevant and costly white elephants? Were our libraries really deserted?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 These questions, raised just as libraries were looking to bookstore models to rethink their spaces (Coffman, 1998; Feinberg, 1998) were timely ones, and throughout the next decade the “library as place” was a hot topic as librarians reconsidered how the library as a physical facility could shed its functional identity as a warehouse for collections and better facilitate student learning. Library cafes replaced prohibitions against food. Stacks were moved to make room for information commons, which in turn became learning commons as a technology focus gave way to partnerships with learning support offices such as writing centers, advising, tutoring, and (yes) tech support. Many librarians looked to sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the “third place” (1989) to inspire their thinking, seeing libraries as a place that is neither home nor workplace but a space for self-directed community engagement and a sense of belonging. Ethnographic approaches to research in the field blossomed as librarians at many institutions embraced qualitative methods to understand student perspectives (Foster & Gibbons, 2007; Duke & Asher, 2012; Connaway, Lanclos, & Hood, 2013). Librarians began to seriously consider the library in the life of the user rather than the user in the life of the library.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Changing librarian roles also have space implications. The number of support staff has shrunk relative to librarians (State of America’s Libraries, 2014, p. 36). Technical services now requires less space, both in numbers of staff and room required to process materials. The reference collection in many libraries has gone largely digital and reference services may no longer be offered at a desk but rather at a common service point with related services or by consultation appointments. Unique materials found in archives and special collections are becoming increasingly visible and valued by library constituents, and using these materials in courses requires new kinds of classroom space. Assisting students and faculty with digital scholarship requires flexible workspaces and equipment that can accommodate group projects. Embracing visual formats may require space for film editing and production as well as spaces appropriate for displaying and viewing work created by students and faculty.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Creating space for these new activities often requires hard choices, and the decisions that libraries make are not always popular. Faculty and students at Syracuse University, the University of Denver, and other institutions have protested the move of collections to offsite storage, arguing that access to printed volumes remains a function more valuable than additional study spaces, conference rooms, digital labs, and student learning support offices. Some libraries have partially alleviated this concern by using compact on-site storage with automated retrieval robots that provide fast service and entertainment value. However, storage (whether onsite or off) will often set off heated defenses of the purpose and identity of libraries as places where books should matter and open stacks should foster curiosity and serendipitous discovery (e. g. Schuman, 2014). Though some dismiss this resistance as nostalgia, Heather Lea Jackson and Trudi Bellardo Hahn (2011) studied student responses to the idea of an academic library using methods drawn from the psychology of religion, finding that libraries are positively associated with “sacred spaces” that inspire in ways hard to measure through standard analytics. Their qualitative study concluded that “spaces deemed as “sacred” or “sanctified” produce affective benefits for people that extend beyond attitudes and into the realm of behavior . . . being around the books makes them feel more scholarly and connected to the institution’s educational mission” (p. 436).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 As librarians reduce their printed collections and open up more space for students to use or for new programming, campus leaders often rush to take it over for their own purposes. Rick Anderson (2014a) has advised librarians to be judicious about welcoming external services and offices into the library when space is freed up for programming or new services. Any vacant space in a library will attract external interest like a sponge. Anderson cautions, “the pressure on the library to make room for other services and programs will be strong and constant, and the library administrator will be continually faced with difficult political, practical, and strategic choices.” A wise library director will say “yes” to hosting offices and programs that will benefit from synergy with the library’s programs. Saying “yes” without being defensive also gives a librarian sufficient political capital to say “no” when the relationship is not a good fit or when the space that was vacated has already been dedicated to planned library programs.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Scott Carlson (2009) returned to the issue when he profiled Goucher College’s new library-cum-student-center, dubbed The Atheneum, which made a newly constructed library building also the site of a much-needed student center. He opened his profile of the new facility with a general statement about academic libraries:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Today’s academic-library buildings, more than any other campus structures, have to be all things to all people—places where social and intellectual pursuits collide, places that serve the community and the individual simultaneously. Dig into a book. Get a latte. Collaborate on a project. Nap during a study session. College libraries are a destination for those activities and more.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Goucher’s new library, as he describes it, went even further, making it a true center for the institution by preserving the identity and functionality of the library while including in the same building the amenities a separate student center would normally provide.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at North Carolina State University, opened in 2013, extrapolates the changing face of academic library spaces and services, with its visualization labs, technology rooms, and robotic book retrieval system. A survey of library buildings called it “an experiment in what to do with an abundance of space and a mandate for technology and collaboration” (Agresta, 2014).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In 2013, Scott Carlson revisited his “deserted library” question, reviewing the way that academic libraries had proven the value of their place on campus, arguing that the only libraries that were deserted deserved to be, by virtue of being “outdated, unimaginative, and sterile places.” Vibrant libraries, which he believes are plentiful, offer a lesson for higher education as a whole at a time when it is beset by anxiety about MOOCs and other distance learning, funding, and other economic and technological disruptions. He writes, “will campuses and traditional teaching disappear because we now have MOOCs? No, because that defies the human yearning for meaningful places and the real benefits that come with them. We see it in the migration to cities and in walkable neighborhoods. We see it most of all on college campuses.” In his view, the library as a physical place is a part of the campus landscape that has firmly asserted and renewed its value during the first years of the 21st century.

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Source: https://acrl.ala.org/newroles/?page_id=251