GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Aklatan/Library/Bibliothek/ライブラリ/Raiburari Re-invented

In Ponderings of a Peregrine Pinoy Professor on 2010/02/11 at 09:00

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.

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  1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful words about library space and its relationship to learning, research, and building character. Certainly changes in the library reflect what is happening to the academy and to scholarship in general. Instead of being about researching and thinking alone, or perhaps with an aloof mentor, for long periods of time, the academy is shifting to talking and recording ideas collaboratively, to publishing quickly in the form of blogs before peer review, to classroom work that is group-based (also character-building, but in a very different way!), and to breaking down barriers between the academy and the world outside, which traditional fortress-like library architecture enshrined. The glass walls and coffee shops of the new academic library evoke transparency and interaction, not the opaque ivory towers of “old” academia. In our desire to keep up with these changes, which very much reflect the ostensible values of women (collaboration, fluidity) and post-boomer students (always plugged-in, suspicious of formal structures of authority), librarians and campus planners have perhaps been too eager to sacrifice architectural features that support the austere contemplation that you (and I) recall so fondly from our student days. They wind up with libraries like the one in Chicago, which you felt was designed with the boundary-less relativist in mind.

    At Northeastern, we still have carrels and study rooms, and the third and fourth floors of Snell Library are still quiet areas–at the demand of our users!–but the pressure for space to work collaboratively, to eat together, and to talk on the cell phone is unceasing. Can–should–the library continue to change to support the new academy, or will we all fall off the log into the river together? I hope you can return someday to Northeastern’s library, and let us know if you think we’ve achieved the right balance!

    • I must have totally missed the boat when the shift in thinking about making the university library a more “social” space happened. But it really was disarming to come upon these changes particularly since I haven’t been out of the US academia for that long. But I wonder whether that pressure to open up spaces for collaborative engagements between learners; to break the physical barrier between outdoor/indoor (hear so much about this in home architectural designs) and to assume that all these somehow induce better scholarship has been tested.

      But for libraries to desire to compete with a coffee shop ambience and sensibility I think is a disservice. Spaces are defined by the functions they serve; if students are allowed to treat the library as their living room, food center rolled into one, how is it as a space any different from say the student center? I write as I am surrounded by two students who have taken their shoes off; one with her legs propped on the table; Que horror!!!!)

      Yes, I would love to visit Snell again sometime (maybe in May) and would be very curious about how things changed. I remember last time I did (perhaps in 2005), I was sad that they “terminated” free printing and the serials section (where I used to work sorting newspapers and magazines) was gone.

    • Karen – thanks so much for posting your comment. I think you really get at the tension universities are facing in today’s higher ed climate. Who do they serve? For the moment, let’s just consider faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students (and put aside other important constituents such as staff, administrators, community, alumni, and others). Let’s take faculty – is the library primarily to support faculty research or teaching? or even service? These three areas require different staff and resources for support and they demand different uses out of the library space. University of Venus will be hosting a monthly guest post from an academic librarian because I believe that of all the units in an academic institution, the library feels the daily struggle of higher ed’s current crisis/transition most intensely.

      This coming week Cathy Eisenhower from George Washington University will be writing about academic libraries in the US and our goal is to have an academic librarian outside the US write a post for us in April. If you know of anyone who might be interested send them our way and look for Cathy’s post this week.

  2. I’m reading this as I sit working in a student-packed coffee shop, plugged in to my world via headphones, laptop, cell phone, notebooks, books (borrowed from the library!)and it’s made me stop to consider my studying life as a student and academic. I, too, have spent time in some wonderful libraries: the beautifully designed New Library of Alexandria, Egypt,the quiet of the (not so beautiful) carrel of my grad school days, and one of my favorite places in this city, the courtyard of the Boston Public Library.

    I’ve helped build, book by book, starkly empty libraries–the social science library of the State University of Moldova was so poorly stocked that my donation of ten or so books increased their IR collection by a magnitude of ten. Students could only check out books an hour at a time, which made them precious. I watched students painstakingly copy texts longhand as there were neither copy machines nor scanners (or computers, for that matter!).

    That being said, I have to admit (perhaps a bit shamefully), that I have never enjoyed spending long bouts of time in libraries, as much as I love to read and study. Ironically, I have always found the enforced quiet, well, disquieting. In fact, the only job I’ve ever been fired from? A library job. Why? I talked too much.

    I can immerse myself in a book as easily in the cozy jazz-filled sunshine of my living room as well as I can in the jangly noisiness of a packed subway car. Some of my best work has been done in the cacophony of coffee shops (like this one), in public parks and hotel lobbies. I write, I read, I look up and watch people interact, I have a-ha moments: it is an entirely social enterprise, as scholarship is, in its own way.

    So, I understand the trend towards the more social libraries. I also like the idea that learning should be transparent, that the new designs remove the walls that have made scholarship look more like alchemy rather than what it is, or what it should be: connecting with our past, connecting with each other, connecting with the world.

  3. It takes a lot of effort for me to concentrate reading while at a busy coffee shop. In fact, I went ONCE to Metropolitan cafe near Loyola, but vowed NEVER to return again. Could not stand the music and the drone-like sound of people chatting. I never did get “acculturated” to view learning as a social enterprise. Perhaps it is an Asian-thing to be inward-looking, to think of scholarship as an individualized experience.

    I probably just feel as passionate about the issue because when I see young people in the US and compare them with our students in the Philippines who are materially less endowed, whose libraries are not as modern and who are technologically-deprived, except for the mobile phone for which they can only do texting (not calling)– they seem to take learning more seriously and to be well, more “mannered” in that they understand the concept of rules of behavior in a defined space. Conversing with your friends is good; but there’s a time and place for that (just like eating and drinking). I haven’t been too happy with the current Generation Z.

  4. I like both the social, chaotic coffee house AND the quiet-as-a-church-mouse library. When I was taking biology as an undergraduate student, I really needed a very quiet library for studying – away from the craziness of my dorm and the temptations of further socializing — the library was perfect for memorization and serious concentration, particularly when it came to math and science. However, when it came to philosophy or literature, the noise and energy of the cafe always helped me to produce a more creative type of writing and writing that occurred at a much faster pace. So, I like having the option of either a noisy cafe or a quiet library – depending on which task I might be facing that day. Nowadays, with a five-year old hanging on me, quiet libraries sound mighty nice.

  5. Speaking about libraries, my husband and I have been running a book drive for the University of the Philippines Visayas library, my local high school library and my hometown library since 2002.
    Check us out at:

    We have gathered books and raised money for shipping at EVERY place we lived in (Tokyo, Innsbruck, Chicago); got friends, family (Dad in law in New Hampshire and Aunt/Uncle in Washington DC are avid supporters), my husbands’ prep school in Rhode Island (St. George’s sends boxes almost every year) and Northeastern University to donate. Our efforts alone stocked up UPV library with over 5000 books. We have just sent 3 balikbayan boxes of textbooks to UPV library last month (with 500-600 books total; from Loyola colleagues and Northern Illinois U Dekalb), and have one more to send before we leave. We are passionate about books as centerpieces of our library back home.

  6. […] technology serves academic learning is an endless debate. As Rosalie pointed out in her post, students expect a WiFi-enabled library, feeding them a constant stream of updates and google […]

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