Are We Undervaluing "the Library"?

Returning to user-centric approaches may help better align services and needs

Are We Undervaluing "the Library"?

Alia Wong published an interesting article in the Atlantic late last week that raises the possibility that students want libraries to be . . . libraries.

Funding for libraries has been decreasing as a share of university outlays since the 1980s, partly because libraries are considered by some to be anachronistic in the networked information age. At universities, libraries also often represent valuable or much-needed real estate or structure, so shrinking the footprint devoted to books or the broader sense of “library” can comport with other goals held by administrators.

But in the modern world, libraries — with their organized and orderly information, their quiet spaces, their shelter and power outlets, and their experts at desks — might just be more valuable than ever.

Noting the trend to retool libraries as media spaces, maker spaces, coffee houses, and other glitzy things, Wong writes that:

. . . much of the glitz may be just that—glitz. Survey data and experts suggest that students generally appreciate libraries most for their simple, traditional offerings: a quiet place to study or collaborate on a group project, the ability to print research papers, and access to books. Notably, many students say they like relying on librarians to help them track down hard-to-find texts or navigate scholarly journal databases.

With college-aged kids, I know second-hand how campus life these days — especially in urban campuses — can be endlessly noisy, chaotic, and stressful. Add to this the noise, chaos, and stress of the digital world we all carry with us, and an oasis like the library stands in stark relief. Students seem to want an oasis. As Noah Elkins, a college journalist at Macalester College in Minnesota, wrote in April in the Mac Weekly:

A college library, to me, is a sacred place. It is an island of quiet, scholarship and curiosity. I find it the ideal place to study, read and write essays. I spend time walking the stacks and picking up eye-catching books, or I hole up in an individual study room. I know that no matter how busy I am, or how loud my apartment is, or how late I need to stay up, I can always find a place that feels separate from the outside world to sit down and get things done. In this way, a college library is the physical representation of our scholarly lives. It is an idealized place, the image of what it means to be “collegiate.” And for the most part, it lives up to this image where other parts of campus life don’t.

In 2015, a survey by Cengage of why students use libraries found four unsurprising reasons:

  1. Study alone
  2. Use online databases
  3. Use reference materials
  4. Meet their study groups

In 2016, Duke University Libraries surveyed their students about how often they used the library, and why. The majority used it weekly or better. Quiet study spaces, printers, and power outlets were found to be some of the most useful things the libraries offered, with ILL and drop-in assistance noted as two key services.

Libraries may be really good at being libraries, and students may need what they offer — quiet, references works, librarians, power outlets, and shared spaces for collaboration — more than ever.

When it comes to libraries as structures and sanctuaries of the mind and spirit, it may be time to look again at the basic value proposition, and expose how well “the library” works for students and others.

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