As I was purusing the news yesterday, a comment from the SayAnythingBlog caught my attention. Apparently, University of North Dakota’s Law School asked for a $10 Million to expand their courtroom setting, and the request was rejected. The rejection of the courtroom wasn’t the comment that caught my eye, however, it was the alternative that was suggested on where to put the courtroom:

“The Law School has an enormous amount of space. They’ve got every electronic teaching aid known to man. If they want to they can clear out the law library since Lawyers don’t use law books anymore, it’s all electronic.” (emphasis added)

Between this comment, and the one I heard from R. David Lankes‘ keynote speech at AALL, it makes me wonder if the physical space that the library takes is actually hurting the concepts of libraries more than it is helping?

Take a look at the picture that Lankes showed of a library 70 years ago, and the same library today. There is a stark difference of a place that people go to gather, study and learn, to a place that houses books. Libraries look more like a showpiece for bound books than it does as a place to come to learn. So, should we be surprised when someone says to clear out the library since no one uses it any more? Now, the mentioning of moving collections back behind closed doors and having people come ask for those hidden items may be too appalling an idea to actually put into action. The idea sprung from the fact that closed collections could be housed in a far smaller footprint and allow libraries to be viewed more as a place for people than a place for books. [By the way, I ran the idea past my wife (who happens to now be an elementary librarian after many years of being a corporate librarian), and she thought the idea was horrible. But, horrible and/or crazy ideas have never stopped me from investigating them (or writing about them here!!)] If we turn the focus of a library away from the collection of physical items and toward more of an idea of where the community you serve comes to learn, then you may very well see a place that people go to gather and learn. As long as the identities of libraries are viewed as simply a space that houses books, then we will constantly lose that space, and eventually the true identity of a library as a place to gather and learn.

  • We just finished interviewing candidates for Dean of our Undergrad libraries. Each of the candidates talked about this very idea. Reducing shelf space, creating more study rooms, adding cafes, adding lecture rooms, and conference areas, in brief- making the libraries the "common area" of the University. This seems to be the trend being embraced at the undergrad level.
    I think we need to look at this from the perspective of useful space for the students. Now that many resources are available online would library space, in academic settings, be better utilized as study rooms, common areas, etc. I don't know what the correct answer is, but I do think library staff need to address the issue before the administration makes a decision for them.

  • As much as we all like to read books. It is much faster to search for electronic content. As much as we all like to look at books, they take up a lot of shelf space. The library of the future, IMHO, is closer to Starbucks than the downtown library of today. Fast internet connections, plenty of comfortable space to lounge and research. Opportunities to talk with others about topics of mutual interest. The role of the librarian is knowing how to find and when to use the content. That hasn't changed much over the years, the change has to do with how the content is stored (physical or electronic).

    Now Greg, I'd like a grande skinny latta with 1 splenda please.

  • Anonymous

    Libraries are built with X amount of expansion room. When not utilized, that expansion space is often filled with tables and desks. So the difference between the two pictures is 70 years of accumulation. Question is, are those books actually USED.

    I attended a school that had both open and closed stacks. Closed stacks tend to twart the researcher as it presents a number of practical problems (It's labor intensive to run and requires users to know exactly what they need and then wait for some dude to get the book, if it's there at all. Undergrads complained about this a lot, mostly because Grad students had stacks access). That being said, having a local cafeteria is very useful for those all day research marathons. Study rooms can be located anywhere on campus, so the library isn't unique but for easy access to the books. It comes down to what you want the library to be – a place for research or a living room.

  • Wendy Lyon

    I don't think it's an "all or nothing proposition." Or at least it shouldn't be. Space is like any other resource (time, money). Are we making the most of it? Are the needs of the patrons (and staff) being best met by the current configuration of space, or is there a better way? Maybe it's okay if parts of the collection are open and parts are closed. (In the law firm environment this would translate to high-density shelving, more often then truly having the books locked away.) Of course, like any other resource, space is not endlessly renewable – at least not in my library. So changes are not / should not be taken lightly, and there will always be associated costs.

  • Thank you for the links to the AALL Keynote. Very interesting!

  • Anonymous

    For a place that just houses books that lawyers don't use or that would be better utilized as a Starbucks, the students sure get p-ssy when we have to close early for some reason.

  • I wouldn't mind giving up some of our space for more comfortable chairs. We have trivia contests in the library every so often (complete with treats) and we almost always get a good turnout from staff and attorneys. People who don't see each other very often talk and discuss the trivia topics. It makes the library a very inviting place.

  • Allen Rines

    From the perspective of a firm librarian, our lawyers want books–and I don't mean just the senior partners, it's mostly the young associates. Electronic content is great for things like cases, articles, and definitely for searching. But anyone who needs to read a treatise wants it in hard copy, because the online reading experience is awful; try having multiple books open at the same time, marked with post-its, etc. Also, we spend a lot of time tracking down old books, because litigators need "the version that was current on X date", and usually the electronic version is only the most recent; this gets harder and harder as more libraries swallow the "everything is online" lie. Plus cost issues of electronic access, etc. It's not an either/or question.