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The Language of Libraries
December 7, 2011 - 3:50am

A discussion list I’m on has recently been kicking around a university’s plan to put their faculty in cubicles rather than offices as several departments move into a renovated building. Obviously, this poses student confidentiality problems since faculty not only discuss academic work with their students but personal issues of all kinds. The plan calls for a few conference rooms that faculty can use, if they are free when the need arises. (I don’t know if our students are more retiring than most - I doubt it - but in my experience students have to screw up their nerve speak to their teachers out of class. The more they need to talk about issues, the less likely they will take the initiative. Having to find their professor among a maze of cubicles and then go hunting for a free conference room would make the bravest of them come up with a Plan B.) Apart from practical issues, what does a bank of cubicles for faculty say about the institution’s values? Will it say to faculty “you are interchangeable workers; don't get too comfortable” and to students “your education is important to us; please hold until a conference room becomes available.” Of course, the increasing number of adjuncts who don’t get offices at all and what that says came up in this discussion, too.

Cubicles are among architectural markers of power relationships and the value we assign to people and their activities. It made me think about the messages library interiors convey to students about the nature of knowledge and their relationship to it. Last week, I found myself fascinated by Tim Sherrat’s observation that interfaces are sites of power. Similarly, the architecture of a library says a lot to its users about the position they hold in the realm of knowledge, as visitors, consumers, or as members of a discipline or a tradition.

Though the conventional wisdom these days about library spaces is that students want to be social, that group work and collaboration are how kids learn today, and that digital texts and digital tools will get used but printed collections won’t, students often disagree.I’ve heard more librarians talk about student demands for quiet and solitary spaces for study in the past year, perhaps because the information commons idea has become so standard it’s no longer an innovation. Recently a small group of students at the University of New Brunswick protested because their spiffy new library was too noisy, too public, and the books were squirreled away at the periphery. It wasn’t clear from the article that students wanted to read the books, but they wanted a quiet, serious place to study, and books were part of their idea of such a place.

A recent Project Information Literacy study found that students minimize technology use and try to unplug from their overly distracting social networks when working on projects or studying for exams. Last month, a couple of student speakers at a symposium on the future of the academic library went even further. They yearned to be disconnected at times, and speculated that if a section of the library was purposefully taken off the grid, with no wifi and no computers, it would be the most popular site on campus for stressed students who needed to focus and get things done. I just noticed that the most recent issue of American Libraries has an essay proposing that libraries consider having gadget-free zones. Ironically, the print copy comes with a QR code you can use to retrieve the essay online.

You’d think books might have the same power to distract – what is behind that tooled leather binding up on the top shelf? Ooh, that title down there looks intriguing – but that’s not their effect. Somehow, books signify a more intentional and contemplative relationship with knowledge. It’s partly because nobody shoves a message about a pizza party or a note about a funny video between the pages as you are reading. And unless you are a skilled reader of endnotes and unusually impatient, it’s less tempting than when online to interrupt your reading of one text to go looking for another in mid-sentence. Books just seem calmer, slower: slower to write, slower to read, more sustained in their narrative style than what fits onto a computer screen. It could well be because they are not really in the business of advertising, as Google and Facebook are, and they don’t fret about dominating the attention economy. They are more patient about discovery and don’t count readers by the eyeball.

Students are attached to the symbolism of libraries, and books are a key piece of the iconography. When they go to libraries to study, it’s not just quiet and solitude they seek; it’s the feeling of seriousness of purpose that being in the stacks conveys. It’s a sense that, as college students, they are participating in something bigger than themselves, that what they are doing is part of a long tradition.

When I’ve asked students to react to pictures of library interiors, they almost always warm to nostalgic décor that is low-tech and filled with books. They are not attracted to gilded baroque reading rooms – too formal, too off-limits for ordinary folks – but neither are they impressed by spaces full of computers or places that look like retail outlets. They are awed by the Trinity College Library in Dublin and charmed by the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and Vassar’s library. Modern information commons filled with technology are bustling places, and their value is demonstrated in their heavy use; but all the same, many students yearn for quieter, slower places where they can feel inspired – and get work done.

The identity that a library inspires in those who use it is important. Just as housing faculty in Dilbert boxes says something about the respect an institution feels for its faculty (and the students they teach), so do libraries speak to their academic community about who they are. For students, the library can connect them to the idea of learning and enduring wisdom. For faculty . . . it’s different. Faculty may not set foot in their library from year to year. They have classes to teach and committees to chair. Research may be something they do at larger institutions, supplemented by professional networks and personal collections.

But faculty do use a library, daily. It’s the one that inspired them years ago, the one that taught them they belonged, that helped them define who they are. Our students deserve a library like that, too.

 

 

 

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