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The College Library–Think About It: What’s It Really For?


College libraries are important centers of the campus.  Ideally, we might want to think of the campus as the academic focal point of the campus.  The repository of knowledge.  The temple of wisdom.
Or a place to store a bunch of stuff.  Or a social center–with a nice coffee shop attached.  And a few days ago, a major ethnographic study of how college students actually use libraries for research and learning demonstrated the degree to which students make use of libraries and librarians:  not much.
The fact is, college libraries now serve multiple purposes. If I take a college tour, and the tour does not include at least a cursory look at the lobby of the library, then I double back after the tour and try to figure out why.  Some of them are palaces for the studious. The library at Grinnell College has tiered study carrels that all face the windows, each with its own comfy study chair and lamp.
Libraries also do store a bunch of stuff. But as the world goes digital, some of that stuff can be stored off-site, away from campus, and held for those who really take an interest in 16th century mining techniques in Serbia.  Some libraries, like Widener Library at Harvard, are gigantic, with many sub-basements and tunnels connecting to other libraries.  Being something of a geek, I always enjoyed studying in a library.  Something about the smell of all that ancient paper, the binding glue, the leather-bound volumes that helped me take my task seriously.
But libraries have always been social spaces, too.  Some of the rooms in large libraries are places to meet people, pass a few pleasantries, or to make eyes at one another.  At my alma mater, it was the ’02 Room where the more social interactions took place.  The stacks (yes, that’s where I hung out) were a sort of solitary confinement that people enforced upon themselves to get their work done.
The last decade, however, has taken the social aspects of the library to new levels.  At most places, you will find that each floor–or parts of floors–that are designated as “high volume,” “low volume,” and “silent” work places.  At some, you can barely hear yourself think above the roar of the cappuccino machine, which has become de rigeur on an increasing number of campuses (and parents wonder why college costs keep going up…we’re all addicted to lattes).
Anyway, I have begun to ruminate on the place of libraries on college campuses, and I did this short little video at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on a recent trip there.  Libraries will continue to evolve. This video points to the fact that the digital age may actually allow some colleges to recover beautiful common spaces that had to be refitted to hold “stuff.”
Have a quick look. Or yo can read the transcript below, if you are so inclined.

Right now I’m on the campus of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I’m in the library. It’s a very nice space, but I noticed a couple things that were kind of interesting.  This room is a vast, old room.  Architecturally, quite nice, but you can see here behind me that these metal shelves were put in here—this is the periodicals room—and to shelve periodicals; so there’s a copy of the London Times, Le Monde, La Stampa from Italy, Die Zeit from Germany; all these newspapers and then periodicals, including scholarly journals.
An interesting phenomenon happening on campuses today is that all of these periodicals are being eliminated because everything is available digitally.  There are some libraries that are actually moving their entire book collections off-campus so that they can repurpose some of the buildings and the storage spaces.  So you can see that this room—I don’t know how many years ago, but not all that long ago—was divided up, and they put these metal shelves in to actually create more storage space.  Well, now the storage space is all on a computer chip.
It’s going to be interesting to see what colleges do with their space—if they repurpose it and if so, what are they going to repurpose it for?  I’ve talked before about the fact that a lot of common spaces on campus are not used that much because students are connecting via Facebook and text rather than actually congregating in particular places as they used to.  So I think college campuses will make a pretty rapid evolution to repurposing the spaces that they use.  It’ll be interesting to see.
Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant and Library Connoisseur


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