Honor Your Campus Library

Kinder campuses have kinder libraries, Maria Shine Stewart asserts.

September 30, 2011

Academic librarians -- and libraries -- don’t need me to defend them. In fact, they don’t need to be defended at all. But I think they sometimes might be more clearly celebrated on our campuses. Yes: celebrated. And I’ll bring the party favors, including several armloads of questions (from the profound to the basic) and dozens of looks (from the puzzled to the angry to the restless). Above all, I’ll bring my gratitude and respect.

For a nonlibrarian, I spend a lot of time at campus libraries. I have my reasons. As an adjunct faculty member at multiple institutions, I like to get the bird’s-eye view on student behavior as well as its community patrons. It’s an unobtrusive way to observe. Plus, I like a little background sound (not noise) when I work on some projects and a computer that works faster than the one I have at home. If I hit a snag, I like to have people around I might consult.

The energy of students, faculty, and staff members moving from the sheer beauty of a question to a strategy or to a resource – or to a series of strategies and resources – and then on the path to a firm (or tentative) answer is for me the heart of what a college represents.

So why celebrate the library -- and the librarians -- and, for that matter, the whole team that holds the place together?

Most academic librarians and staffers are very patient.

This is a gift not in oversupply in academia or in our rushed, driven times. As I’m in libraries at all hours and at various points throughout the semester, I have heard questions of all kinds and how librarians respond. Often, they must interpret from within the subject matter and the assignment for students as well as assessing the students’ own search savvy – or lack thereof -- and, for faculty, they must respond appropriately and with discernment and initiative. Library staff are constantly learning, themselves, and constantly shifting tasks. And they straddle worlds of technology and teaching.

Though I am thinking mainly of the reference staff, some of my observations here cut across the board. Circulation, special collections, administrators, clerks, secretaries, shelvers, student workers … the patience of all behind the scenes, whose jobs I can only vaguely imagine, must be as vast as the burgeoning of information technology, websites, portals, printed matter and databases they must coordinate and organize. The value of the academic library cannot be overstated -- teamwork and resources alike.

Most library personnel have vast intellectual curiosity.

Two master’s degrees? Three? A Ph.D. plus library school? These reflect just a few of my librarian colleagues over the years. I have observed that some academic librarians are both specialists and generalists. Most of my library colleagues resemble journalists and detectives more than is often acknowledged.

As a freelance writer, I cover a lot of ground and am a generalist with some areas of focus; as a freshman composition teacher, I try to prepare students for research across the disciplines. I have asked plenty of questions -- as have my students -- and we never leave empty-headed or empty-handed. We may have our own search approach, complementary and valid. But in partnership with academic librarians, we make quicker progress than flying solo.

And my library colleagues remind me to be fearless in my race? sprint? jog? with technology. They read screens with extraordinary precision, which I attempt to elicit from students and strive to do, too, on my better days.

Many academic librarians were ahead of the curve of technology and how it has impacted our campuses and the world of information gathering and proliferation at large.

I opened Lyndon Pugh’s book Managing 21st Century Libraries at random when writing and my eye fell on page 37 for “Thinking Outside the Box” (which is relevant, as I like to read about the creativity process) and I turned to page 38: “We are responding to technological change, social change, educational change, the need for entrepreneurialism in library services, changes in user perceptions, cross-sectoral collaboration, and competition.” That says it all.

Lest this piece be so sweet that I induce sugar shock in a reader, I must reveal a bitter truth. Yes: a librarian once made me cry. I’m sure that was unintentional. A discussion on bibliographic instruction for my composition class – plus digital literacy and other buzzwords -- led to a conversation about the future of the book. I was told that the college budget for traditional books was to be slashed. The e-book is the wave of the future, this librarian asserted … insisted.

And how could I have missed that drift? (Of course I have some e-books.) But that reality hit me like a ton of bricks and I just had to pull over on the way home after that conversation to call a teaching colleague, and ask if she had heard that before. Yes, indeed -- she had.

Library personnel have a superb sense of organization.

You will note that there is no qualifying “most, many, or some” here. This holds true across the board – and regardless of what their private work stations or back rooms look like. Only people with a superb sense of organization could tolerate a panoply of resources and many workday interruptions and not lose focus.

The public library also looms very, very large in my bag of personal values, so much so that as a little girl I would cut out construction paper pockets, glue them into books at home, and print as carefully as I could on them: “for reverance [sic] only – not to be taken from this room” … Any librarian still reading this far: Please: I meant that then, and I still do. I understand the pressures that you are under to cull collections and make space. But don’t purge too many books too quickly from the library. When the power goes out, who will have information? I know that everyone clamors for space -- for computers, offices, commons where students can gather. These are all important, but books are already green and sharable by many, and possess genuine beauty and depth. Preserve the best of the best.

Honor your library colleagues.

By now, I may be preaching to the choir if I urge readers: spend more time in your academic library -- and perhaps not only in your area of specialty. And if I suggest that you take the time for the two-minute conversation with a staffer (he or she may not be able to spare more) -- and consider extending that conversation elsewhere on campus over coffee or lunch. Keep communication flowing. And, as an exercise, notice the student workers serving, the students who are working on projects, the patrons from the community, the beauty of books, the clicking of keyboards. Observing the web of relationships may expand your own creativity or curiosity.

Academic libraries may be some of the kindest places on campus. And whether they need my vote of confidence or not, they have it.



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