“The library is the hub about which the academic wheel of education turns”

Librarian John W. Neth, Jr., with his student assistants. Photograph from the 1954 Milligan College yearbook.

This post was originally published on my personal blog, Voyage of the Paradigm Ship on May 25, 2009. I am in the process of de-commissioning the Paradigm Ship but plan to periodically republish relevant posts here.

The other day a professor handed me a photocopy of an article he stumbled across while browsing back issues of The Stampede, Milligan College’s student-run newspaper. The article was entitled “Library News,” and was dated Tuesday, October 15, 1953.

The article reported on the recent arrival of the new librarian, John W. Neth, Jr., and changes he was instituting in the Library. In 1953, the Milligan College Library was not housed in its own building, but occupied several rooms in Derthick Hall, the main administration and classroom building. A floor plan of the reorganized library was included in the article.

I read the article with a mixture of amusement over how much has changed in libraries and librarianship over the past 55 years, and admiration over how much has remained the same.

The users of the Milligan College Library are noting a definite trend toward a more efficient arrangement of the available facilities in relation to usability … [The] atmosphere of the library is taking on an air of interest.

Giving priority to “usability” and providing an “atmosphere of interest” for users remain very important in the contemporary library. Of course, deference to the user had its limits.

[T]hese changes have been accompanied by correspondingly necessary rules.

Well sure, we still have “rules” today—print periodicals and reference works do not circulate, and we still expect the “return of circulated books on or before the due date”—but we have broken down other long-standing library mores. We no longer prohibit “bringing…soft drinks namely cokes, into the library,” and student discussions (talking) in the library are no longer limited to “subjects relative to their search.” Today we merely ask students who bring food or drink in the library to clean-up after themselves, and while we no longer shush students for talking, we do ask that they consider and respect their neighbors as they interact.

The old rules reflect an understanding of the library as a place primarily where information resources are stored and searched. Emphasis was placed on protecting these resources and controlling the study environment. Today we have a primary desire to make the library a more open and welcoming place. We are less obsessed with control. We recognize that learning is a social activity, and learning is best facilitated when the study environment is comfortable and (even) domestic (I got this term from Scott Bennett).

In 1953, students had to come to the library because that was the only place where information resources could be accessed. Today, while we still stock our physical shelves with books to support the research needs of our students, the storage function of the library has diminished significantly in the face of anywhere/anytime access of information resources in electronic format just a few clicks away, starting from the library website. Students no longer have to come to the library. Whether or not they will depends on the library being more than a storage facility. The question of whether the relaxation of “rules” is pandering to the user, as I imagine Mr. Neth might have insisted, is way past moot. The role of the library itself has changed that much.

But what about the role of the librarian? Rule 5 presents an interesting paradox:

The last resort in any research problem is seeking the assistance of the Librarian. [Consult] the Card Catalog, the encyclopedia and dictionaries, the special reference collection and periodical indexes, and then finally consult the Librarian. However, no one should leave the library without an answer to the question at hand until all the above have been consulted.

The last resort?! At first I was taken aback by the brashness of wording that could be construed as communicating the librarian’s time was too important to be pestered by students seeking assistance with their research questions. But in fairness to Mr. Neth, he was the only full-time staff person, running all the functions of the library with the help of some student workers. Today we have three full-time librarians, a part-time librarian, two part-time paraprofessionals, and a small army of student workers. Even considering that the library was significantly smaller in 1953, Mr. Neth’s time was definitely at a premium.

Seen more positively, this rule (even if originally motivated by pragmatic concern) provoked students to take greater ownership for the research process, and propagated in them a self-service attitude well before its time. Although there are still students who come into the library (often at the last minute) hoping that a librarian will do all their resource searching work for them (yeah right), the democratization of information access fostered by the Web has encouraged all of us to rely less on professionals and experts as authoritative mediators—at least initially. We like being able to seek-out our own answers. The librarian’s role has shifted from mediating information to instructing students how to search effectively for information, and how to better evaluate the quality and relevance of that information for the intended use. Librarians are also more involved educationally in getting students to think-through their research topics, and composing a manageable thesis. We then set them loose. Assuming we aren’t leaving students entirely to their own devices as we endorse a self-service attitude, the rule has a very contemporary ring to it. I like it.

I also like the way the article closes. Mr. Neth expresses a key affirmation of the function academic libraries should play on every college or university campus—both symbolically and in actuality. This affirmation remains every bit as timely and relevant today as it did over half a century ago:

The library is the hub about which the academic wheel of education turns. It is as much a tool in the process of gaining knowledge as is any other individual tool in that program.