The Chapel of Reason

Firestone Library (the main library at Princeton designed to be a “laboratory for the humanities and social sciences”) is supposed to be renovated over the next ten years. There have been plans floating around for years, but the money and will seem to be behind it this time. As part of the process, the architects are conducting focus groups with various constituencies. Yesterday the head of the company gave a brief report on some of the student focus groups. According to her, the student groups were very interested in having Firestone be a quiet place for study and reflection. She was surprised at this, considering the usual trend around the country to make things more noisy and communal in a lot of libraries. I wasn’t surprised at all, because I see the students working here every day and I know how they use the library. In the main reference room, a student once shushed me while I was conducting a reference interview, and I don’t speak very loudly.

The rest of the world, including our lovely campus, is getting noisier and more distracting. Between the cell phones and the televisions and the constant music blaring from just about every public space, especially coffeehouses, it’s difficult to find a place to study and reflect, to live the vita contempliva that the students are here to live, if only for a brief time. It’s no wonder so many people retreat into their iPods to escape the cacophony. The library has always been a haven from the restless energy of the rest of the world, a place to avoid the temptations of friends, to escape the crowded dorm or common room, to sit quietly reading, thinking, and writing. This doesn’t mean not having common areas or computer banks or whatever, but it does mean having a lot of space that is quiet and conducive to contemplation, ideally with wireless access. I’ve written before about the library as place, and how it shouldn’t try to compete with the entertainment centers on campus. Students need quiet places for study, places close to computers and books, but not noisy and distracting. The natural place for that is the library.

In his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig calls the university the “Church of Reason.” If extend that metaphor, the library might be considered the Chapel of Reason. The Church of Reason booms while the Rites of Reason are celebrated, but the chapel can be quieter. Catholic churches sometimes have smaller chapels attached to them for specific purposes, sometimes for contemplative activities such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The Chapel of Reason is such a place. The rest of the Church of Reason has the communal activities, celebrating the common rights, worshiping together the goddess Reason. But there needs to be a Chapel of Reason as well, a still place to turn away from the hectic outer world and try to develop and understand the equally vibrant inner world of the mind, to commune solemnly and alone with the “sacred” texts, to find our company in the works of others and not in their person, and to do the long hard work of thinking, reading, and reflecting necessary to turn anyone into a scholar.

Using Our Own Services

Teaching a writing seminar this semester means I’m working two jobs, and during some weeks it feels like three. Why do I do it? Purely so I can have something to blog about.

Librarians would probably be better librarians if they occasionally used the library as a non-librarian. It’s very easy to become library-centric and to think the library is the most important institution on campus. It’s undeniably an important campus institution, but it’s not necessarily the most important one to faculty and students most of the time. The collections and services are important, but the library as a building is of secondary importance to many scholars.

Last week I had a problem with one of the library services related to my seminar, a service which is normally very reliable but which I thought had performed unsatisfactorily in this instance. After an email exchange, the problem was fixed, but I knew the person fixing the problem would rather not have done so right now, because this particular service is very busy around this point in the semester, and any extra demands interrupt the already hectic flow of work. As a fellow librarian, I sympathize; even as a fellow human being, I sympathize; but as an instructor relying upon this service to teach, I needed the problem fixed and I wasn’t going to stop until it was.

Our library has an article delivery service for faculty that many librarians think is extravagant. The service attempts to deliver electronically within 48 hours any article requested by any professor, whether it’s an ILL article or one in a journal sitting on a shelf in the library, which might mean only a short trip to the library for the professor to retrieve. Needless to say, this service is very popular and heavily used. Is it expensive? I assume so, but I’ve never seen any figures. Is it extravagant? Not to the users of the service, it isn’t. They don’t want to make even a short trip to the library if they don’t have to. Being in the library itself has no value for them. The collection has value, and if they can get to the collection without coming to the building, that’s fine by them. Librarians work in libraries. They’re in the building all day. It’s their business to be there. A lot of professors work in the library, but the library is a support to their work, not their primary work. Their business isn’t hanging out in libraries; their business is teaching and research, and the library is there to support that. If the library makes their job easier, then it’s doing a better job than if it doesn’t make their job easier. Librarians who don’t rely on the library for their scholarship or teaching and who don’t work in the library might not appreciate the usefulness of the service. The scholar’s main business is using the resources to produce scholarship, not schlepping over to the library to do some photocopying.

Our library also, as you might imagine, has a lot of electronic resources. Our pockets aren’t bottomless, and we could always use more money, but our collections budget is substantial and we subscribe to or purchase hundreds of databases and e-collections (or perhaps thousands by now, I lose count). Often these resources duplicate items we already have in print or microform, and some librarians make the argument that we shouldn’t pay to have electronic access to this material. After all, it’s just sitting here in the library, or perhaps in offsite storage. Interested scholars can just walk over to the library. Why cater to their laziness, especially if they are students? But most scholars don’t spend all day in the library, and many scholars don’t even work on campus all the time. Some have even been known to work when the library isn’t even open. Research isn’t necessarily something scholars just stop doing when they leave campus at 5pm or leave town for a few days or go on holiday. Just for my own research or teaching I know how delightful it is to be able to retrieve that article on New Year’s Day when I’m 500 miles away from the library building. I can understand not being able to afford certain electronic resources, but I don’t think it’s much of an argument to say we shouldn’t buy something just because we already have it in a different and less useful format. Only librarians who do little research or teaching would find this a compelling argument. Again, it’s the collection that’s important and supportive to research, not walking over to the library.

Most librarians probably already agree with me that the library’s job is to support research and teaching and save the time of scholars and teachers, and when they don’t agree with me I always suspect they’re thinking as librarians who don’t use libraries very much, rather than thinking as library users. Our job isn’t to make things easier for ourselves, but for the library users, and it’s easier to see that if we also, at least occasionally, are put in the place of the non-librarian library user.

Conceptual Incommensurability and Video Games

One of my long term projects is to explore the purpose of a research library. In library school I wrote, and recently revised for publication, an essay where I speculated about the end of the library, arguing that librarians should examine potential changes in libraries from a teleological perspective, that is, determine what to do now based on the end, or telos, toward which the library is heading. We’ll know what we need to do when we know what end we aim at.

Sometimes I think the discussion on the end of the library is pointless, though, because of the conceptual incommensurabilities involved. I’m not sure there can ever be any consensus on what a particular kind of library or even a specific library should be. We have conceptual incommensurability when those involved in the discussion cannot even agree on the terms of the debate. The result is that libraries move forward by responding to crises, adapting to change through ad hoc solutions that rarely serve a coherent purpose.

I just read a post by Brian Matthews about gaming in academic libraries that reminded me of one incommensurability in some discussions of service in libraries. Brian writes about a librarian who wants to purchase gaming consoles for the library, but concludes that gaming may ultimately be at odds with the purpose of academic libraries. Dorms and frat houses provide places to game, but “a stronger position for the academic library is to aspire to offer the premiere productivity and study space on campus. We should provide something that isn’t offered elsewhere and that fills a stated need.”

This seems to me like a more appropriate purpose for the academic library as place, and as a concept the purpose should also be to preserve the historical and scholarly record and make it accessible. I know there’s an effort to push video-gaming in public libraries, and a good argument out there for purchasing gaming machines and games to preserve them for future historical research. I don’t have an opinion about public library video-gaming, but I could support purchasing gaming consoles and games for preservation purposes, though I wonder if a museum rather than an library would be the appropriate place to preserve this part of popular culture.

I speak of a conceptual incommensurability because it may be difficult for two sides in a debate like this to agree on anything. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make an academic library a location for non-academic play, especially when there are so many other places on most campuses to play. Academic libraries don’t always have to be serious places, but they should be scholarly. Public libraries have some incentive to act as community centers, and that makes sense for their mission.

But college campuses are different. On my campus, there are many locations for students to gather for all sorts of purposes. The library should be the place they gather for study and scholarship. I think sometimes that librarians are guilty of thinking the library as a place is as important to the students and faculty as it obviously is to the librarians. But the students don’t consider the library as central to their being as librarians do. They know what other opportunities are available. To serve students well, the library should provide them a place to discover the joys of study and scholarship, and let the campus centers, the greek houses, the dorms, or the eating clubs provide places for socializing and gaming.

If we really wanted to attract students and make the library fun, perhaps we should use library space for pubs. To me, it seems as appropriate to open a pub in an academic library as it does to create space for video-gaming. I fear that an effort to make the library “fun” distracts from that purpose. The message it could send to students is, even the librarians think study and scholarship are dull.