Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What is a library?

Libraries these days have a lot of different dimensions – they function in different ways for different patrons, and at different times for the same users. I love the idea of libraries dimensions. Terry Pratchett, one of my all time favorite writers, features libraries and librarians in a number of his books, positing L space, a special folding of time and space wherever too many books are in close proximity. My idea of library dimensions is not quite as magical or entertaining as Pratchett’s, but it is the same general idea.

Libraries today function, as they always have, as a repository of books and other materials. Librarians select titles, whether for print books and journals or for online databases. Once selected, the library must acquire the resource, either buying it or licensing it. And once acquired, the library is also responsible for keeping the material and (usually) making it available on an fair basis to users. We make up circulation rules and track who has what for how long. We have to make sure the physical space is dry, clean, pest-free to keep print materials safe. We also have to make sure the database is working, surge-protectors are in place and users understand how to use these resources. So, in one major dimension, libraries select, acquire and preserve information

As always, there are various specialized tools to locate what you want in that mass of stuff. In the earliest libraries, in ancient Greece and Rome, the materials were scrolls and the finding tools were librarian memory, occasionally lists on the end of “shelves” and tags on the scrolls. Today, we have online catalogs that are searchable in a number of ways. You can search by keyword, by Library of Congress subject heading, by call number, by title or author. Having found a title, you can virtually browse up or down from it in the online catalog, check whether it (should) be on the shelf or is checked out, and place a hold on the item or request it (if you’re a faculty member). There are other finding tools as well – indexes, digests, databases that can be searched. In this dimension, libraries help people find the information that has been gathered and preserved. This ranges from cataloging and labeling to reference work.

A third dimension for academic libraries is as a teaching resource. We select books, indexes, and databases with a special eye toward their use in teaching students. We cooperate with faculty and especially legal research and writing teachers to make sure the material they will be teaching is in proper order, current and available at the time of the class and/or exercise. We also host tours and instruction sessions in the library itself. So, we give tours to all 1-L students and often either bring books/materials to class or bring classes into the library to show students how research is done. We will make handouts, reading lists and web-ographies for faculty and either come into their class or bring the students to the library for instruction on research to support the coursework. At Suffolk, we actually have a specialized classroom in the library. When the building was constructed, we added a seminar-size room surrounded by erstwhile study rooms. When classes are held, professors can have students use the study rooms for break-out sessions as they either brainstorm in small groups or practice skills such as client counseling or ADR.

A fourth dimension in academic libraries is their use as study space. In this function, libraries need to ensure quiet (well we try!) space without distractions. We reserve study rooms for groups. We referee arguments between students over the use of study rooms and study space. We also stock study aids.

A fifth dimension of all libraries is their use as a social center. Students meet in the library for shared tasks. They also meet friends and potential mates in the library. There seems to be, in fact, a mysteriously aphrodisiac effect to law books. I don’t know if other types of libraries have this issue, but something about sitting quietly reading law seems to lead many library users to sexual activities. We retro-fitted our study rooms with glass windows in the doors. Partly, this was a safety issue, but partly, it was because at closing time, our student workers interrupted more than one couple in flagrante delicto.

A sixth dimension is as a retreat. Students who feel pressured by faculty often feel they can relax with the librarians. We make a point of being friendly and welcoming. We don’t assign grades (at least most of us don’t), and we say, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” as if it were a mantra. I hung out in my law school library, and I am sure there are a lot of others who felt the same way. This is also why libraries keep sofas. Law students who don’t feel sexually aroused at reading case books may feel sleepy instead.

And the last dimension I can think of, is as a showcase. Libraries usually are made (at least partially) on a grand scale, with views, and/or large, impressive reading rooms. The library is used on tours for potential students and for recruiting faculty and deans as well. It is the incarnation of cultural and intellectual aspirations. The beautiful library is a symbol of the scholarly aspects of the organization.

So much of what we do every day fits into one or another of these dimensions. These are all different ways that the library as a place or resource serves the law school (or court, or government or firm). Whether we are dealing with leaks, buying books, negotiating licenses, answering reference questions, teaching students, cataloging or shelving, we are negotiating the library in its many dimensions. When we plan or work out shared use of space, we need to think of the library in all its varied dimensions – sure you can save space by using all compact shelving, or by ditching all the print, but what does shrinking the library to a database do to the other services the library provides? So librarians try to communicate to decision-makers the different levels or dimensions of library service – it’s not just about buying a book and putting it on the shelf. I don’t think it ever was.


Marie S. Newman said...

This is inspiring, Betsy. The next time someone questions why the library needs so much space when "everything is online," I'll refer to your posting.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Thank you. I just wish I was confident it will do the trick!