In my 20 odd years inside the academia, I have seen varying conceptions of the university library as a space. In the pre-electronic age of card catalogs and microfilms/microfiche, the main library of University of the Philippines Diliman (an American colonial, neoclassical treasure, with soaring ceilings befitting the pre-air conditioning period when it was built) was a refuge for freshmen in need of contemplation, solitude and occasionally, an afternoon nap. It was akin to a medieval church, where silence is golden and dutifully enforced by hawk-eyed librarians. Food and drinks are strictly forbidden in all rooms, and can never be smuggled in as your bags checked on the way in and out. In this strict construction of space, the library predictably empties out of patrons during lunchtime and awards carrells (dedicated rooms) only to students doing their masters thesis/PhD dissertations.
In many ways, Northeastern’s (Boston) Snell library ca. 1996 echoed the call to serious scholarship that UP Diliman’s grandiose building evokes, plus-plus. For me, mining the electronic databases was as thrilling as free journal article printouts and pdf versions electronically-mailed to yourself. Those comfy round padded chairs are such a premium at the 3rd floor for international grad students who spend half their NU lives (the other being at the apartment) cocooned in them. Meals and drinks were taboo; NOT a vending machine in sight within the premises. One goes to the library to find elusive grad friends (like Taka who literally lived there!) but NOT to “hang out.” I embraced my carrell for 6 months of dutiful reading and writing for my dissertation proposal. In its tomblike silence and aesthetic austerity (and the view of planes making their way into/out of Logan airport), I labored and toiled for my PhD.
In the years following my itinerant life as professor/researcher, I had been a patron of the Meiji University (Tokyo) Ochanamizu campus library and the University of Innsbruck (Austria) SoWi and GeiWi libraries. Apart from their understandably modest English language materials, their electronic database is lightyears behind their US counterparts (too expensive they argue). SoWi’s all-glass southern wall provides natural light to the spacious reading room and the jungle of potted plants alongside it. No food, drinks or smoking allowed. Meiji gave me my first encounter of closed stacks, towering movable shelves, and discreet, enclosed spaces where food/beverage vending machines reside (it is considered POLITE to consume your food and drink beside the vending machines). In the pre-wifi enabled libraries of Japan as in Austria, young habitues were buried deep in reading, calculating and writing. They spoke in low tones and were quiet in their movements.
My return to an American university library seven years after my PhD was no less than a culture shock. Loyola’s (Chicago) art deco library building was “married” to an all-glass, smart-shaded Information Commons occupying the campus’s premier real estate– the lake front. The layout this “marriage of two spaces” created not only re-invented the library as a concept, it also brought me to a rude awakening of the follies of modern-ist thinking. A cafe with a 24/7 flat screen tv is situated in the corridor between these two buildings; food and drinks are allowed EVERYWHERE; students talk and hang out with their buddies, EXCEPT in one room (the 3rd floor at the Information Commons) where silence is strictly enforced; and wifi enabled throughout. The university library is actualized to mimic the neighborhood coffee shop where caffeine-dependent, internet-addicted, company-hungry young can be attracted to spend their precious time in; where lounges and easy chairs (facing the gorgeous lake) are in great number and laptops can be borrowed. It is the library made perfect for a generation of relativists, of no-boundaries.
I belong to an old school where serious scholarship is synonymous with silence and mental fortitude in a near empty stomach. While I celebrate the many conveniences modern libraries have made accessible to students, faculty members and researchers alike, I lament the blurring of spaces between sacred/profound (learning) and gratuitous need. That millions of dollars are being spent to build these spanking new libraries-slash-Information Commons evoke a dying tradition where the centerpiece was the BOOKS. In US university libraries nowadays, the library is less about physically possessing the books or materials (why, you can get them remotely wherever you have internet connection) than a place to hang out, be comfortable and relaxed (as you stare at the zen-like blueness of Lake Michigan).
In the bowels of Third World university libraries like UP Visayas, books remain scarce; there is only ONE electronic database (OVID and with limited full text) and internet access intermittent with erratic signals from a remote cellular tower and power outages. But in this academia where patrons like myself make do, the library STILL evokes a romantic invitation to scholarship in its silent rooms, no-food-and-beverage policy, no mobile phone use (save texting, which we Filipinos are experts at) and hard wood seats. Without air conditioning in tropical weather, mental sinews are honed in this environment. It is, in my opinion, a better space to build character.