What’s a building for? I promised to write for the ARL section blog a few weeks ago, when the world was a simpler place. My theme is reinvention: how we reinvent the future of libraries by the way we reinvent the buildings in which we practice our profession. Since I made that promise, of course, we have for the most part left our buildings closed and dark while we together ride out the viral storm that has swept upon us.
But perhaps this moment can give us perspective on my topic by making us think about just what we are missing, just what we need, just what we can do. For there are certainly voices emphasizing for us just how much of what libraries have traditionally done can be done now either by libraries working in a purely networked digital space or even simply by the free market in information mediated by the open internet. What then is left for library buildings?
In 2015, I came to Arizona State University, a large public institution (well over 100,000 students) known for its innovative research, innovative pedagogy, and digital outreach, with a mandate to take on the challenge of “the building”. The Carl Trumbull Hayden Memorial Library, built in 1966 in a near-brutalist style, featuring 13-ton concrete panels shielding the upper floors, needed help advancing into its second half century: so what should we do?
A two-year planning process and now a two-year reconstruction process have given us a shining, essentially new facility with which we are just beginning to work. What can it hope to do?
The essential function of library buildings has always been to provide a place to read and think and write. Yes, spaces filled with books are near ideal places to think and write, but I choose to put the emphasis on the people who came into these buildings and what they did there. The most fabulous collection – be it imagined by Borges or Eco or the administration of Harvard University – is nothing without people who know how to keep it alive, by infusing it with new materials and by making creative use of what such a collection holds. That powerful ability to support some of the most fragile of human activities has made the word “library” what the marketers would call a “killer brand.” People know what libraries are and they think of them in almost invariable positive ways. There are people who don’t use libraries or think about them, but libraries have vanishingly few enemies. Destruction, when it has come to libraries, has more often been thoughtless and incidental, arising from budget cuts, ignorance, and neglect, not so often deliberate and focused. True, the positive associations of the brand may be weak in some quarters, but they remarkably widely held nonetheless.
That makes our buildings places of first resort, for just the sort of people and activities we most seek to support. We see that now in academic institutions, where even students whose own disciplines have transitioned heavily to digital information resources, still flock to library buildings as places to work, alone or (increasingly) in small focused ad hoc groups of friends and comrades-in-study. At ASU, we see 15,000 users a day in our two main buildings during ordinary term time, more when exams loom. They come to do what their ancestors did – read and write and think.
Fewer of them come looking for print books. So do we pull back the books? Yes and no. Given modern technologies of access and, as the retailers say, “fulfillment”, we can get books or, often enough digital representations of books, into the hands of any user anywhere quickly and easily. We no longer need or benefit from one huge collection of public-facing books in one place as obviously as we once did. Accordingly, many academic libraries have chosen to be more selective in how and where print books are housed, while increasing accessibility through various forms of delivery. Our experience was that our traditional stacks were largely deserted and unpopulated – even beginning to be thought of as unsafe for isolated students! (ASU became a university in 1958 and does not have old, rich, deep collections of the kind where traditional browsing is a treasure hunt. Older, richer institutions have a different opportunity here, but realistically most academic collections can do as we have done.) So now we will have about 325,000 volumes on our open shelves and another 4.5 million available on request.
Our principles in selection for those stacks? (1) Emphasize the book-heavy disciplines of the humanities. (2) Select for relevance, currency, quality, and interest – not for frequency of circulation. (3) Emphasize collection and display of materials of high interest specific to the given library’s user community. With time, this will mean more shift of collecting focus to the things that make a given library truly distinctive. (4) Think of every book on the shelves as having two functions: first, as an important and high quality work of human creation capable of enlightening and informing the best research and learning; and second, as a marketing device. Marketing device? I mean that when those 15,000 students come through our buildings every day, we want them to see and handle and think about print books that do attract their attention and communicate to them especially the diversity and character of the work we do in a university. The ideal student is one who stumbles on a volume of medieval philosophy or gender theory and has her whole intellectual life transformed by the encounter.
That means we now work with faculty and students to curate and keep alive our collections, presented for the most part on lower ranges of shelving, brightly lighted, interspersed with reading and study spaces, with many books facing out and many innovative strategies for gathering books together – gathering them as it were to talk to each other and thus to be able to talk to students and researchers in new ways.
The goal here with print books is shared by our other services – our maker spaces, our video studios, our geospatial center, our data science group, our digital antiquity repository – to give students the advantage in the library of direct contact with resources that can excite, inspire, and elevate their best work – their best selves. They will go away from the building at the end of the afternoon, but we want to use that “marketing” opportunity to send them away changed – more ambitious, more confident, more curious, more disciplined, and of course readier to use all the other resources that we make available to them. In the last calendar year, ASU users (students, staff, and faculty) used their university credentials to log in to our library systems from 175 different countries. On that version of the ASU Library, the sun never sets. The buildings we maintain on our campuses are often enough open 24 hours a day during term time, but they are now engines of community, curiosity, convening – and, always, ambition and curiosity.
We believe our library buildings can and will be as important and exciting and essential to faculty and students as they have ever been – and in many ways, even more empowering and enabling. We can’t wait to re-open the doors again to prove we’re right.
- An IFLA series book on Collections earning tier keep, based on a 2016 IFLA Satellite meeting proceedings: https://www.ifla.org/FR/publications/ifla-publications-series-175
- A white paper on the future of print from ASU: https://lib.asu.edu/librarychannel/future-print
- Annual “designing libraries” conferences have taken place in the US for almost a decade: the next scheduled is fall 2020: https://lib.asu.edu/librarychannel/future-print
- A British site tracks developments chiefly in the English-speaking world: http://www.designinglibraries.org.uk/
James J. O’Donnell
Professor, Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Arizona State University