The trendiest meeting place on many college campuses these days features a coffee bar, wireless Internet zones, free entertainment and special programs, modern lounge areas and meeting rooms.
And free access to books. Lots of books.
This educational social hub is the campus library, which is beginning to look more like an Internet café than the academic library you remember from your college days.
Far from fading away in the Age of Google, which has begun digitizing millions of books from university and other libraries, and despite the almost universal availability of vast online resources, circulation and visits at college and research libraries are on the rise. Campus librarians now answer more than 72 million reference questions each year -- almost twice the attendance at college football games.
In other words, this is not the beginning of the end for campus libraries, but the dawn of an exciting new age.
Strategies for today -- and tomorrow
A quick look at two familiar Web sites will demonstrate that academic libraries now play a vital role in how students and faculty find and gather information via the Web as well as in the stacks. Both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland offer a full range of online library services, from catalogs (formerly known as "card catalogs") to research help to DRUM -- the Digital Repository at Maryland,  which provides a permanent online address for computer files and eliminates the need to attach them to e-mail messages. The Julia Rogers Library at Goucher College subscribes to services that provide students with access to over 22,000 online titles, while Baltimore City Community College's library gives students technology support and online access to research materials.
The volume of information available on the Web has led some students to believe that if a resource can't be found online, it doesn't exist. This mistaken idea, coupled with concerns about the reliability of information on the Web and the potential for plagiarism from online sources, has led faculty and librarians to team up to teach information literacy skills.
Nationwide, higher education institutions have developed information literacy instruction  to help students understand how to find and evaluate information online and in print -- more bang for their tuition buck! Many colleges and universities even provide "personal trainers," so students can work with librarians one on one, or with a group project team to brush up on the best databases for a particular class or assignment.
Technology training helps students succeed in class, but also prepares them for future careers. Information literacy is critical to a competitive work force, and information-literate people know how to find accurate, useful information that will help them through family, medical or job crises.
Partners in education
College and research librarians are partners with professors in educating students, offering new perspectives, developing curriculums and facilitating research projects, and they lead the library world in digitization efforts and online reference.
Our nation's college and research libraries are constantly finding new ways to better serve students, faculty and staff, online and in person. More than 90 percent of college students now visit the online library from home.
Yet use of the nation's physical academic libraries and their collections grew from more than 880 million library visits in 2002 to more than a billion in 2004, according to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics -- an increase of more than 14 percent. Circulation of library materials in the same period was up by 6 percent, to more than 200 million items.
In short, if the classroom is the first stop in the learning experience, the library is the next, and great libraries continue to be a key to a great education.
Pamela Snelson is the president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, and college librarian at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. The ACRL is holding its National Conference  in Baltimore March 29-April 1.