The New Academic Library and Student Services
There is a new model for the academic library and how it can support student services, especially through student activities. In developing this model, I came to the same conclusion as James Joyce in the final pages of Ulysses … and that is the need to say “yes” instead of “no.” I want to tell you about some of the things we have tried that have worked for us at Lake City Community College.
As library directors, most of us have remained current with the latest library trends…the move toward a Barnes and Noble, Borders model with coffee shops and comfortable seating. I believe that all of this is really about letting go…of old ideas, beliefs, and concepts of what the library should be and where the boundaries of its limitations should be drawn. And the responses fall along a continuum, not surprisingly.
I have found as I have gotten older that life itself is a process of letting go; letting go of things we once thought we could not live without: ideas, pre-conceptions, even people and places. This model extends to the library, and really to our institutions as a whole and how they relate to today’s students.
So I want to begin by describing my library’s evolution, and my personal evolution as a librarian.
LCCC has had three presidents and three college librarians. Our first, founding librarian was there during the Johnson years and the Great Society, when funding for library materials was 175K per year, in federal flow through dollars. This is a half million in today’s dollars, so it is no surprise that Ella, our first librarian, was on the same standing order plan as the University of Florida. We got just about everything that was printed, and a vast collection of educational films.
When I show people a melted bookend, mounted on a plaque board, some think it is a rendering of the African continent, or an example of modern abstract art. It was melted in the fire that burned the old main building on our campus in 1960. That building housed the library. According to what I thought was legend, Ella was inside the burning building tossing books out the window to staff and student assistants on the lawn.
Several months ago, I was giving a talk on the history of academic libraries to the Columbia County Historical Society, and I mentioned the story of Ella and the fire. One of the members said, “That isn’t just a legend…I was one of those student assistants.”
Ella was old school. Grab the noisy student and put him out the door. No one made noise in Ella’s library. Her successor, Noah, was more moderate, but still adhered to traditional notions of what an academic library should be. Reference materials do not circulate…the building should maintain quiet (which was difficult…our building is a Wright-influenced, Sarasota School of Architecture wonder of sixties design, but every word spoken anywhere in the building is heard throughout. It is great for music concerts and more about that later.)
When I became director in 1988, I followed in the same traditional modis operandi. I would speak to students who were making a racket, if that did not work I would ask them to leave. Sometimes I would have to refer them to the Dean of Students.
The chairs in the library were hard wood, and it was altogether a rather austere, monastic environment. I am not sure how the changes started to come about. We had rules against food and drink in the library, and no tobacco products. We kept finding spills, stains on the carpet. And students found ways to steal our books, at the rate of about 250 per year. Or they would use a razor blade to cut pages from our expensive reference sets because they could not check them out or did not have money for copies. One day I just thought, all of these controls are not working. Why not let go and see what happens. The changes cost us little or no money. We requested donations of couches and comfortable chairs, as we had no budget for them. We have a library full of comfy couches now, and students are allowed to nap undisturbed between classes or while waiting for rides. We now allow food and drinks, and yes, even at the computers. Do you realize how cheap a keyboard is to replace these days? And guess what, we have never had a spill on any of our computers.
As for the rest of the library, spills have gone down and now are negligible. It is a friendly, welcoming atmosphere and while our out-the-door circulation has not increased, in-house circulation has…more students are coming in and staying, browsing our books and magazines in the library. We have the reputation, of which we are proud, of being the most permissive building on campus. It is a place where students feel safe enough to go to sleep, or to visit with friends. And somehow, in this new welcoming environment, it is almost always fairly quiet. Usually, if there are complaints about noise, it is from students about us, the staff. We often forget we are working in a library. In fact, sometimes it has the feel of a sitcom…something between “Seinfeld” and “McHale’s Navy.”
We have original art on all of our walls. We encourage receptions for other college events, like Women’s History Month, African American and Hispanic Heritage months. We now offer a gaming night each semester, on Friday night when the library typically is closed…and we have 50 to 70 students, including potential students from the local high schools, coming to play video games, X Box, Halo II. We serve drinks and pizza. No spills to date.
During the day, we allow students to use our computers to play games, do email, My Space, whatever. If there are no computers available for a student to do legitimate class work or research, then we will bump first a community member and then a student who is playing or emailing. We make this clear in our faculty and student orientations, and on the form signed by community members prior to taking a station.
Each fall we host Jazz and Java in the library…an evening of poetry reading and live jazz sets, and we have had as many as 250 in attendance. Student Activities supports these events with food and drinks, because we are supporting their purpose of providing meaningful and interesting student activities. This coming spring we want to hold our first Rockin’ the Stacks: A rock band in the library on a Friday night. When my colleagues heard about this they said, “Of course you mean an “unplugged” group.” No, I don’t. I mean, hard, loud, southern rock and roll. I heard a quote recently…”Don’t trust anyone under 30 (decibels)!! I want to see the stacks rocking, and the windows vibrating. Once again…this will happen on a Friday night when we are closed for regular business.
One more word about food in the library. So often I have heard librarians say, “Oh no, it will draw bugs! We can’t have that!” Let me tell you about bugs in the library …The covers of hardback books are a little bit of fabric, but mostly starch. This is delicious dining for insects. Or as we say in North Florida, “Good eating.” If you do not spray, the bugs will come anyway, without the pizza and cookie crumbs. Spray! And forget about it.
We have built a major foreign and independent film collection, which is available for checkout and interlibrary loan. Now that many of the video outlets have become a mile wide and an inch deep in their collections, with hundreds of copies of the latest releases and little else, this is a real service for our students, staff, faculty, and community. And regarding checkout…now there is literally nothing that will not check out of our library.
Regarding reference books, my staff members have authority to let them go out. I have told them I will always back them for saying “yes,” and for expanding rather than limiting access for our students. And our reference books do not get cut with razor blades anymore, either.
During finals week for each of our academic terms, we sponsor “Burning the Midnight Oil,” with extended hours, snack food and pizza, soft drinks and coffee and free copies.
Lastly, each month we sponsor Café Politico, an open discussion group that brings together students, staff, faculty, and the community to discuss current topics of political and social relevance…our topics have included same sex marriage, the world’s response to the east Asian Tsunami and to Hurricane Katrina, Civil Liberties and the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq and world terrorism. These discussions can get fairly heated, and we have moved them to the student lounge in our student center, but the library is still the sponsor.
In closing I want to relate an incident that our president, Dr. Charles Hall, related to us at our Fall Welcome Back convocation for all faculty, staff, and administration. He went on a cruise this summer with his family. One afternoon they came to the dining room to be seated and the waiter directed them to a table where a wall occluded their view of the ocean. They asked to be seated in another section, which was empty and which had an excellent view, but the waiter told them that section was closed. They were disappointed, but the Maitre de overheard what happened, came over and said, “Please come with me…” and he removed the rope barricade and allowed them to take their seats at the table they wanted.
Dr. Hall thanked him, and the head waiter sighed and said, “Ah, yes…my staff…if they could only learn to say ‘yes’ more often, they would all be Maitre de’s…”
So I suppose that the message for our libraries in the coming decades as we reach out more to our students is not just letting go of the old ways, but saying “yes” to the new.