Chapter 169 The University Library — A Monument to Books?

Today, I realized that I am getting old.

Today, I began to grumble about how much easier college students have it than I did when I was in college.

Grumbling about “these kids today” is never a sign of youthfulness. When I was teaching, I hated it when the veterans used to grumble about “these kids today”, with little empathy for all that modern adolescence put “these kids” through.

Today I caught myself referring to “these kids today …”

Sigh.

I visited my alma mater today with one of my best friends. We both graduated from Santa Clara University, and were excited to return for a visit to see the new and improved library, which is now also called the Media Commons. The new Media Commons just opened last month. Does it bother you as much as it does me that the “lib” or “book” root that is present in the word “library” is missing from the words “Media Commons”? These students today (there I go again) have all the luxuries of a new building and new technology, but they also seem to have less accessibility to books.

The preceding statement makes me feel cranky and old, like the world which was previously my personal oyster is a world that has been swallowed whole by a bigger fish.

It’s a far cry from the small library we had back in the late 1980s. For one thing, they removed all of the really uncomfortable, 60s/modern orange couches in the study lounge. Now there are small rooms for private study groups, and leather couches. For another thing, the stacks — shelved books — were in the basement and were a great place to get lost browsing or studying in one of the carrels. Many of the books are now housed in an “automated retrieval area.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant when we arrived, but now I know. I’ll get to that later.

When we entered, the first thing we noticed was that the library now houses a cafe, and — heresy — eating is allowed inside the library! We saw many study areas with bright and shiny flatscreen computers. A far cry from the computer lab with about 100 computers that sufficed for all undergraduates back in our day. Of course, back in our day, not everyone had her own personal computer, and using a typewriter was also still acceptable. (Ugh, now I sound really old!)

Below is a view of what we saw when we entered the library.

It’s a lovely space. Bright, open, airy, with comfortable seating for visiting, drinking a latte, and working on a laptop. So, what’s wrong with this picture?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see books in this picture. I see good coffee, stylish furniture, and computers. It’s like Starbucks on steroids. I half-expected to hear coffee-house acoustic guitar music in the background. This look is not bad for a corporate campus, but this is a university! I decided to investigate when I returned home this afternoon.

Here’s what I learned from Library Journal:(bold type is my emphasis)

Danielson and Salzer, meanwhile, are equally proud of a more “retro” feature added to the new library: a classic library reading room. “In the midst of all the technology and collaborative spaces, we have a wonderful room with 20′-plus ceilings and natural cherry paneling and furnishings,” Danielson noted, “an elegant, electronics-free space for quiet study and contemplation-activities that far too many new buildings slight or ignore.”

Among the features of SCU’s new library:
▪ Capacity for more than 1.1 million volumes (the library currently holds a little over 700,000)
▪ 25 collaborative workrooms, laboratories for faculty development and multimedia, three video viewing and taping rooms, and 1050 reader seats, each with a wired network connection and electric power
▪ Three “incubator spaces” for experimenting with new educational technologies
▪ An Information Commons with computers and support staff
▪ A café (and food is also allowed in the library)
An automated retrieval system capable of storing nearly one million volumes, including “most bound periodicals and lesser-used monographs,” in special shelving
▪ Expanded, climate-controlled, closed vault storage space with electronic shelving for the University’s Archives and Special Collections, as well as a dedicated reading room for researchers using these materials
When the move into the new space is completed, Salzer says about 250,000 volumes will be on open shelves, in standard book stacks, in an “inviting new book area,” with a ‘ready reference’ collection housed on low shelving. Other materials, including the rest of the reference collection, and printed government documents will be in user-accessible compact shelving in the “Lower Commons area.”

First, why is the reading room considered “retro” in a library? What does it signal about the state of the printed book when a university library considers a reading room “retro”?

Secondly, the library currently holds about 700,000 volumes. Of those, 250,000 are on open shelves, waiting for browsers. The rest, from my understanding, is reachable by automated retrieval system. That is to say, one must know what specific book(s) he needs before researching and then request them from the automated retrieval system. Perhaps it is reflective of my sloppy academic habits, but when I used to write research papers, I knew a few of the books I wanted to use, and when I went down into the stacks to retrieve them (with my own two hands) I could then browse an entire section and find many more titles relevant to my research. Keeping the majority of the volumes in an automatic retrieval system seems to me to inhibit the kind of casual browsing that sometimes leads to academic discovery and delight.

I love my university. I received a good education there from very good professors. The library, which was quite small and outdated during my day definitely needed updating. But the books were all in plain sight and easy to browse. The new Media Commons is a beautifully designed building. It has gotten lots of raves in the press around here for its design.

But. Something makes my heart skip a beat.

Am I being paranoid? Am I overlooking obvious improvements to the ability to easily do academic research? Are any of you readers out there librarians or library students who can explain the benefits of the automated retrieval system?

I’m leaving Friday to go out of town for the weekend, but I’ll check for your comments when I return. Please, somebody, anybody, tell me I’m incorrect in my knee-jerk reactions to this new building. Tell me I’ve simply been away from conducting research in a university library too long and am too old to understand how this slick, Silicon Valley version of a library is an improvement over an admittedly outdated monument to books?

See you in the stacks (if there are any stacks left)!

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Chapter 169 The University Library — A Monument to Books?

  1. WM

    An automated retrieval system

    Oh.

    Dear.

    The university library – sorry, “media commons” – went and invented something even eviller than condensed shelving.

    I didn’t think it was possible.

    But they did.

  2. UDLibrarian

    No, your reaction is correct. We are lucky to have the new generation of students use the Library catalog to find a book, instead of just Googling, and they want everything NOW. Sometimes I find that the students that I help are so focused on finding a particular call number, they don’t even realize that they could browse the entire section… Interlibrary loan is likely the next step –if a citation is found for another monograph online — instead of using the books in this library’s collection. An automated retrieval system goes right along with this thinking.

    If the Library that I worked in were to have a system like this, it would be to save space (and give more room to computers) more than anything else.

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