Skip to content

Celebrating Sanctuary

So let me begin with a quote from a Project Information Literacy interview with Jeffrey Schnapp about the ongoing debate regarding the future of academic libraries:

As far back as the libraries of Pergamon and Alexandria, libraries have combined functions of storage, sifting and activation. They have been places of burial, preservation and worship of a certain past, where retrieval, resuscitation and animation of dormant/stored knowledge was integrated into the shaping of the present and future. It is the access, animation and activation pieces that are now moving front stage and center, while the storage and burial functions move offsite even as they remain just as essential as ever.

Back in November I held the first of three sessions of a Library Vision Task Force. This group (and do we have fun), composed of representatives from nearly every department on campus, is charged to develop a mission statement and then a vision statement for our library. This vision statement will play a crucial role in driving development efforts for a library that has largely not been “re-thunk” since construction completed in 1958.*

Some of the re-thunking can’t wait for The Vision Thing, most specifically our 10-year-old, heavily-used computer classroom that is receiving development attention as we speak. But the “bigger things” can and must wait for broader direction; as much as I and Team Library might have all the bright ideas in the world, and as eager as we are to move “forward,” it is crucial that the library reflect the will, direction, and zeitgeist of the entire campus.

(N.b. I adopt an air of Yoda-like mystery when I am asked if we should renovate or rebuild; honestly, until the facility assessment is funded, how the heck would I know? The building appears to have lovely bones, but I don’t have X-Ray vision or a degree in seismic engineering, architecture, or accessibility design.)

Floating Conference Room (Brisbane, AU)

Floating Conference Room (Brisbane, AU)

The pre-work for our meeting were observation exercises — their call whether they did them in our library or in a new or newly-renovated library (of any flavor). I left the observation activities wide open. All they had to do was observe.

Most of that first meeting centered on sharing those observations, some of which surfaced during a slideshow I presented , which was not so much a talking-head presentation as a call-and-response — my favorite and most unexpected moment was the sheer horror the Visioneers expressed at that suspended conference room in Brisbane, Australia; a thing of beauty, yes, but emotionally uncomfortable to people living in an earthquake zone–something that mirrored my initial reaction when I saw that room, though I thought I was being a sissy.

One key finding from the observations was that people often use the library out of context of library-owned materials. They bring their own books, or they tote laptops, or they simply sit and “be.” Some study in groups, some read, some meditate, some stroll. In fact, though I have incontrovertible proof this activity still takes place (and in our library is anomalously on the rise), the only recorded observations of users retrieving books from library shelves came from public libraries.

So I posed the questions: We observe all these people coming into the library with their own materials. Why don’t they just use the student center, the computer labs, or their homes? Do we still need academic libraries, and if so, why?

And from among the chorus of rational behaviors arose the word sanctuary. Not sanctuary as in a place that was always and for every use absolutely quiet (although the need for quiet space, group and solitary, came up repeatedly). But the idea of a place steeped in the symbolic behaviors associated with libraries, from quiet contemplation to cultural enrichment, resonated through our entire meeting. A place where people felt safe to engage in reading, research, and memory work. A place that was dedicated to the life of the mind.

After the meeting, one of the LVTF members even walked back to my office (where I had rolled the whiteboard so it wouldn’t be erased by accident), took a whiteboard pen, underlined the word “sanctuary,” and trotted away.

Perhaps it is no accident that Milton Pflueger designed the campus so that the chapel and the library face one another like balancing weights on a scale: the life of the mind and the life of the spirit. So many people comment on the library’s “right” location, without being able to articulate exactly what they mean (visibility and symmetry are two frequent terms).

Like the Visioneer’s reaction to the floating conference room, I believe what visitors are sensing when they talk about “symmetry” is not so much a rational response (the physical symmetry) than the harmony of spirit and intellect, a perfect reflection of our university’s values. (The chapel is at the top of a steep flight of stairs, so the mind “rises” to the spirit.)

It is interesting, then, that the accumulation of print materials in our library — so rapid in the latter part of the last century that new shelving added to the main level was not even bolted or braced (a problem we are addressing this spring and beyond if need be through what we call the Big Shift, which will also restore the spacious study areas of the original library design) — is actually interfering with “sanctuary.”

We do not have enough of the right zones (quiet, cultural, group) to simultaneously support all the activities we can and should be doing.  Noisier events have to take place in the first half of the semester (because we have no dedicated event space) and students who are trying to concentrate complain about the group studiers who leak out of the study rooms we carved from former AV rooms because there isn’t enough room for them.

Meanwhile, 6% of our print materials drive 100% of our circulation, and though we have had a major surge in circulation in the last two years (so far this year alone we have checked out more books than we did for any of the academic years from 2000-2009), we will never again see the numbers we saw before the e-resources arrived. We also have 26,000 uncataloged books (shelf zombies, I call them) — well, they were cataloged, but not in this era.  I would estimate 80% of our space is devoted to roughly 5% of our usage.

I am definitely print-plus, not post-print (just as I was in the late 1990s, when I began saying that the print-based book would be an anachronism in my lifetime), but any librarian paying attention has to conclude that the future of academic library design has to be predicated on what a library does, not what a library contains.

That doesn’t mean “no more books.” It’s back to Ranganathan 101: Books are for use. (I sure hope Schnapp and Palfrey used Ranganathan in their library design course. If they didn’t, I scold them.)  “Use” can even be decorative — the books in our south event space are more trompe l’oeil than anything else — or artifact-focused; is there a librarian who doesn’t appreciate a rare-book room? But with so much memory work charged into the digital landscape, the print book has to take its place alongside all other uses — and above all, not preempt them.

Because in fact we who are true librarians have always been about what a library does. It has never really been about the book as artifact, but about the ancestral homeland the book represents, the accumulated wisdom and history that like Ipukarea adds up to far more than its literal self. The book is host and wine for the intellectual transubstantiation that for thousands of years has drawn  humans into libraries to read, to dream, to study, to be taught, to imagine, to be alone, to be with others, to grieve, and to celebrate. We who love libraries can only protect and future-proof our homeland by holding fast to these ancestral truths.


* There were several re-thunkings: space carved out for a men’s room, after the school went co-ed; reorientation of the circulation desk, I believe so it would be adjacent to electrical power; a journals room turned into a classroom; and then the “rezoning” activities on my watch that have replaced periodical indices and thousands of reference books with student seating, event space, and gallery space. But overall, the library even has the same furniture it had in 1958, barring a few office chairs here and there.

Posted on this day, other years: