Director's Watch: The value of "place" in the digital age -- Library 2.0
A few years back, during the peak of the dot-com revolution, soothsayers were predicting the inevitable demise of the academic library as a physical entity. But something else happened on the way to the future. As libraries adapted to a radically re-ordered information universe centered around "anytime, anywhere" Web access to digital resources, librarians and library users alike discovered important continuities between the new mission of the library and its long-established traditions of service and support for learning and research.
A place to study, research and relax
Perhaps first among these areas of continuity is the “library as place.” In spite of the demonstrated and ever-growing commitment in academic libraries to location-independent digital content delivery, we are also witnessing a re-discovery of the library as a locus of activity on campus – as a technology-rich learning environment with attractive café and common spaces proximate to still valuable print collections and staffed by librarians with a unique grasp of the structure of the information universe.
Students and faculty come to such places to work together in groups, to collaborate around specially-configured computers, to engage in a mix of private study and social exchange, to confer with librarians about particularly thorny information access problems, and to learn about current research and scholarship of university colleagues both at formal library events and in the context of serendipitous personal encounters.
The renovations that took place on the first floor of Falvey last summer (and the increase of traffic that has occurred in the building as a result) are but one indicator of a larger national trend. These reinvigorated library spaces are shaped to a large degree by marketplace expectations derived from appealing environments at Starbucks, Borders Books and Music and Barnes & Noble. Somehow, in the spirit of the moment, coffee and books “belong” together. But there are other forces at work.
A space for the residential community
The renaissance of our physical facilities has also happened in part because residential undergraduate education continues to be built around intense social and intellectual experiences in physical (as opposed to virtual) communities. At Villanova, we have characterized our unique flavor of this experience as a commitment to “transforming hearts and minds.” In that setting, our Library in both its physical and its digital manifestations can serve for our students as the site of a transformative encounter with the depth, complexity and diversity of the intellectual and cultural record, whether that encounter occurs online or in the book stacks.
It would, however, be wrong to assume that our contemporary understanding and use of place has been unaltered by the digital revolution. We are living through a profound re-shaping of the social and cultural landscape, brought about by new ensembles of communicative, expressive, educational and scholarly practice that literally didn’t exist just a decade ago. Though our buildings are lively with activity, it is in many cases activity of a kind that brings with it new demands and new expectations. And the change in our physical environment is but one aspect of an evolving multi-dimensional role for the new academic library.
An evolving role
That role includes collaborating with faculty to integrate high-order information seeking activities into the curriculum across the disciplines, providing a forum for intellectual exchange through readings, lectures, panel discussions and other similar events, building out an information infrastructure that integrates flexibly into personal learning and research environments, facilitating the digital transformation of scholarship by promoting new means of publication and scholarly communication, and supporting the digital transformation of the intellectual record by creating Web-accessible versions of unique resources from our physical collections.
In future issues of this newsletter I will write more about each of these important aspects of our evolving mission. In the meantime, stop by the Library for a cup of coffee and a good book!
Note: I've borrowed part of the title for this piece from an article in the April 15, 2004 issue of Library Journal, "Campus Library 2.0," by Andrew Richard Albanese, which discusses in somewhat different terms the recent revival of the college library as a physical environment.