Jack Mevorah
Jack Mevorah
July 29, 2020

The Evolving Role of the Library

Jack Mevorah
Jack Mevorah

Academic libraries are suffering an identity crisis. At least that’s what the casual observer might think, with libraries being re-branded as ‘Information Commons’, coffee bars supplanting circulation counters, ‘Maker Spaces’ replacing reading rooms, and – most provocative of all – the removal of stacks for seats.

With limited space and limited budgets, universities, architects and planners continue to struggle with how to balance the ever-increasing size of collections with the ever-increasing demand for student space. The most common suggestion is to move books off-site or in some cases, to deaccession large swaths of a library’s collection. As a result, serendipity is mistakenly becoming the poster child for the battle against the loss of browsable stacks; if there are no stacks, what makes today’s academic library a library? And should we keep stacks, how do we (universities, architects and planners), encourage students to utilize all a library’s resources, including its books?

Conversations with students at various universities reveal a complicated relationship with the library and with the book. The love of books is not lost – particularly at research institutions. I worked on a system planning study that recommended moving nearly two-thirds of the approximate 2.5 million volume collection to a nearby archive. In response, students and faculty took to the local press and to social media to decry the loss of the serendipity that browsing makes possible and to celebrate the value that books bring to research.

I also once met a third-year English major while working on a project who shared that she loves the library, often reading in the Great Room, but she’d never checked out a book or even taken one from the stacks. When I asked her what she read she told me, “Books I buy at the local bookstore.” And while on college tours with my son, the student tour guides told me the idea of purchasing physical copies of textbooks was as outdated as the card catalog, and students instead choose to share the cost of access to a single digital textbook with a group of friends.

These conflicting responses make me wonder – how can we get students reengaged with the collections found in academic libraries? Can curating collections to expand the possibilities of discovery encourage students to explore and utilize the stacks? Can browsing fiction, for example, be tuned to style of writing rather than by first letter of the author’s last name? Curating an academic library’s collection ranges from the personally cryptic to the publicly friendly. Prior to Dewey’s decimal system, books were arranged at the whim of the librarian, and books were brought to the patron. Today’s academic library is ordered in such a way as to serve as many people as possible and to encourage free browsing in large collections.

Digital browsing may enhance the role of libraries, providing us the opportunity to find and to forge previously unseen paths. “Libraries should see themselves not as grocery stores but as kitchens”, writes R. David Lankes in ‘The Atlas of New Librarianship’, mixing the available ingredients into something new. One such approach to this information kitchen is the brainchild of Jose Remijn of the Dutch Library School. She developed an application for tablets that makes use of the identification chips attached to all of the books in the Amsterdam Public Library. The app allows students to create their own thematic routes by which they can explore the entire library collection all-at-once, rather than row-by-row, greatly increasing the possibility of the serendipitous find and creating previously unseen connections between available books.

However, as seen with the example of the student reading in the Great Room, an academic library’s collection or its “browsability” are not the only functions or appeal. It’s clear that a room full of books no longer makes a library, or as John Palfrey writes in his book, BiblioTech, “This serendipity, this sense of discovery, relies on a long and complex chain of activities, many of them carried out by librarians.” Even with a librarian’s assistance, browsing hasn’t moved much beyond being a digital version of the old linear exercise of row-by-row, spine-by-spine.

From tablets to scrolls to scrolling through tablets, I don’t think much has changed from a library’s earliest mission – access to stored knowledge and the services provided toward that end. As architects and planners, our role hasn’t changed much either. As the faculty committee at Phillips Exeter Academy recognized in 1964, when planning for their new library, “the emphasis should not be on housing books but on housing readers using books.” Which is to say that the library is more than just a repository for books, but rather a laboratory for conducting research. While some proclaim and others fear that the book has outlived its usefulness, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. The book remains the heart and measure of the academic library. As architects engaged with university librarians and staff, we can work to design spaces that make books accessible, engage librarians, and promote sophisticated digital browsing—libraries that will play a generative role in 21st century thought.