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Is the College Library Old School or Cutting Edge?

As colleges lay out their strategies to become more sustainable over the long term, there are uncertainties that can dramatically affect their abilities to do so.

Some are programmatic, based upon unpredictable market conditions. Others rely on personnel decisions that shape an institution’s ability to be both flexible and creative. A few involve the maintenance, development, and disposition of facilities that determine the level of debt repayment or depend on endowment returns or fundraising success.

Technology Can Be the Great Leveler – or Not

Imbedded within these nagging uncertainties is the impact that technology will have on an institution. If college administrators guess correctly, technology can be the great leveler that neutralizes disparities in wealth and disadvantages in location.

Technology is also a major recurring expense that can undermine a college’s commitment to other institutional priorities.

Let’s explore one area that demonstrates the complexity of the technology issue – the evolution of the college library.

For decades, most college students, myself included, went to the library because that’s where we found the books that professors demanded we read or research. Freshmen orientation often included the college librarian’s explanation on how to use the card catalogue. We learned how to find books, cite them, and avoid plagiarism. It was, in general, a neat and tidy exercise.

To facilitate library use, colleges dedicated a portion of their annual budget to book and subscription purchases. There were some regular complaints about the rising cost of subscriptions, offset at a few colleges and universities by dedicated library endowments to make these purchases possible. As we moved closer to the 21st century, technology made inroads as the computerization of card catalogues and the first digital subscriptions to academic journals made their appearance.

One of the Three Centers of Campus Life

By then, three centers of campus life had emerged. The first was the library, which remained the beating heart of academic life, even if the parameters governing libraries shifted.

The second was the athletic complex – derisively referred to by some as the “jockplex” – where NCAA or NIAA sports co-existed with health and wellness programs for the campus community as a whole.

The last area was the campus dining center, a kind of communal living room with food.

Of these three centers of campus life, none has undergone a more striking transformation than the library.

The transformation began in part with what seemed to be the radical decision to open a café within the library, often a Starbucks or other chain at larger campuses.

The café transformed the library from its historic perception as a stuffy depository of seldom read books to a welcoming reception area for coffee-addicted learners.

Library as Nexus of Intellectual and Social Discourse

Administrators further reconfigured libraries to provide collaborative working spaces, quiet zones, and common areas that aimed to restore the centrally-located library as the “go to” place for intellectual discourse and debate.

In some cases, the strategy worked. In others, the library became a social hearth space more suited to be seen in rather than to study and learn. But technology was the impetus behind the redesign of libraries across American higher education.

Students studied differently than had earlier generations of library users. Professors adapted pedagogy to account for technological innovation. Somewhere in the midst of these dramatic changes, a new concept of the learning commons emerged.

The Emergence of the “Learning Commons”

A learning commons is not a bad thing and demonstrates that even time-bound institutions like libraries can evolve in a way that better suits how students learn. It reflects core perceptions of the liberal arts, which include that students must understand how to work collaboratively and use technology effectively.

But the accompanying administrative changes had confusing implications for college budgets.

At most institutions, libraries remained places to frequent because that’s where the books are. But for new generations of learners heavily influenced by technology and long since acclimated to different learning styles, the college library became a place to access technology. This raises an interesting question for college strategists.

Is the library budget about books or technology?

The answer is clearly both. In an important way, technology is a great equalizer because colleges can implement technological changes without incurring the competitive and often prohibitive costs for books and subscriptions borne by earlier generations. The implications are enormous for the future of the library in a college learning environment.

We should welcome the emergence of the learning commons. At the same time, we should also recognize that the learning commons of the 21st century grew from the college libraries of earlier generations.

The learning commons have emerged as the next iteration of facilities that shape academic life, but the concept of the library remains at their historic core. There is room for books and technology.

It may be that basic cost efficiencies will define subsequent development. Consortia purchasing and sharing practices may end costly duplicative purchases as library books are warehoused elsewhere and made available on request or disseminated via the Internet. Technology will continue to shape the availability and distribution of journals, newspapers, and related material.

Nevertheless, libraries remain the depositories of our oral and written traditions. They house and protect our collective memory. Whatever the delivery mechanism, cost efficiencies created, and budgetary restrictions imposed, the best-designed learning commons must rechristen libraries as academic hearths that blend books and technology more seamlessly together.