I appreciate how Alia Wong’s article, College Students Just Want Normal Libraries, raises the issue of what people value in libraries as a critical part of their higher education experience but I also want to address some points that are missing in that piece. Wong begins by accurately pointing out that academic libraries have weathered change before as they dealt with space constraints and the onset of the Internet. She mentioned that they survived but didn’t mention how. Libraries and librarians survive by paying attention to the change in formats, technologies, economics of publishing, and educational philosophies and have dealt with changes spanning millennia. Questions as varied as “scroll or codex?”, “manuscript or printing press?”, “catalog in print or on computer?”, “cassette or DVD?”, “DVD or streaming video?”, “ebook subscription with which vendor?”, “what aspect of information literacy or digital competencies are we teaching our students?”, “how do we preserve and maintain access to all these materials?” are all issues that have challenged libraries and have helped them to evolve. Libraries and librarians (and their predecessors) have always been involved in a changing landscape of information as participants and change agents on behalf of the community they serve. The article would have benefited from having this context in place to help understand why some of these technologies and techniques are showing up in libraries right now.
The second point I need to critique is the title’s reference to a “normal library” which is something that does not exist. Often when someone says a “normal library” they mean their preferred or familiar kind of library and it seems to be the case here. Wong’s point could benefit from widening the conversation and acknowledging what students and researchers see or value will depend on their past experiences in other libraries, their academic discipline, their demographic, or their institutional context (community colleges have different needs and demographics than large research-focused universities). It is certainly true that many students and faculty prefer print materials. It is certainly true that students prefer quiet space to study in solitude. However, it is also true that some prefer the convenience of digital resources and will be satisfied with “good enough” even if they might prefer print. Some are actively seeking out a chance to try new technologies like visualization tools for personal enrichment, preparation for future employment, or as a part of their scholarly inquiry. Some want to meet in a group to discuss a project and eat some snacks. These do not have to be mutually exclusive kinds of services.
The third point I want to address is that the article sets a tone of an either/or choice for traditional services and innovation. Even with pressures coming from constricting budgets, it is possible to have a both/and approach to traditional services and innovative ones. It is true that some places might use innovative services or technology for the “glitz factor”, but many, if not most libraries, adopt new services or resources based on how they serve the curricular, research, and lifelong learning needs of their community in alignment with their institutional and educational mission. At our small to medium size private liberal arts university in the Midwest, different students can come to our library to find a quiet study space, to seek help finding articles from a librarian, record and edit a video, and test out a virtual Egyptian tomb with VR headsets in our makerspace. Sometimes the same student may come in to the library for one kind of service and shift to a different kind in the same day. Our own internal ethnographic research has found that students want quiet space to study alone or in the midst of others who have a similar focus to get work done and find quality materials. We have also found that like the September 2019 Ithaka research report on student needs in community colleges that:
- Students have different struggles and needs for support,
- Students value support for information needs within the curriculum and outside of it,
- Students need greater access to technology.
Some students need a print book and some need a 3d printer. Some students need to research a certain school of philosophy and some students need to understand how the design process works in 3d modeling. Some students are reading 19th century British poetry and others are coming together to record video of their debates over the themes and interpretations of that same poetry. We serve the needs across the academic and curricular spectrum and it is not detrimental to learning to have both. In fact, it is necessary that libraries continue to grow and adapt to the varied needs of their communities. If anything, that is what a “normal library” is: a dynamic and intentional service that meets a variety of informational needs for their community.
I recommend some other excellent responses to this article on Twitter by Librarians and Library researchers Meredith Farkas, Eileen Daly-Boas, and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg. Wolff-Eisenberg is the co-author of the Ithaka S+R research report on student needs in community colleges that Wong cites at the end of her article and Wolff-Eisenberg explicitly confronts Wong’s either/or conclusion by saying that:
“Our research indicates that students are looking for libraries to both build on what their roles have traditionally been AND innovate around new services to help them navigate college, connect w/ social services, provide family friendly spaces, & more.”