Food for thought

Campus libraries add cafes and meeting spaces to lure students away from their computer screens

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

College librarians have a well-deserved, no-nonsense reputation that comes from more than a century of shushing undergraduates and hauling them out by the ear if they catch students in the stacks with food or drinks.

It's a reputation Robert Seal knows well, but is doing his best to live down as the university librarian at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

Under his leadership, the TCU library last fall shifted to a less austere approach, adding a bookstore-style coffee bar at its entrance. Today, students and faculty chat, munch doughnuts, and enjoy muted pop music on comfy couches.

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It's one of many responses to competition from the Internet and electronic databases, which have thrown the quiet world of the college library into a state of flux. Legislators and even college administrators are looking for proof that libraries still matter to students, who would rather use a search engine than hike to the library for a book.

Book circulation and the number of questions asked of reference librarians at the nation's top university research libraries dropped in 1999-2000 to their lowest level in a decade, according to the Association of College and Research Libraries. On many campuses, libraries are quieter than even librarians would like.

Now, however, there's a nationwide bid to reaffirm the library as the intellectual heart of the campus, with college librarians loosening up on rules and trying to make libraries more comfortable and compelling places to be.

Nearly $500 million has been spent on library additions, renovations, and new buildings at 50 different campuses in the

past two years, the American Library Association reported this month.

Like TCU, at least a dozen colleges have incorporated cafes or coffee bars into their libraries, according to an informal e-mail survey of college librarians. Under pressure to be more accommodating, the restriction on drinks and food - long suspected of drawing rodents and bugs - seems to be loosening. "Kids check these books out and take them home and read them while they're eating," Seal says. "We decided food and books could coexist."

But such innovations are only one approach being used to reinvigorate libraries. Another is simply starting from scratch. That's what Eastern Michigan University did in 1988 when it opened the Bruce T. Halle Library, a $41 million building dramatically different from its predecessor. Myriad rooms with picture windows and ubiquitous computer access make it easy for groups or classes to meet and collaborate on assignments. Yes, there's a cafe downstairs, too.

"Our circulation has gone up, way up," exults Rita Bullard, systems librarian at the Halle Library. What she means is the number of books checked out increased about 10 percent over the past three years while foot traffic - called "gate count" - has jumped about 50 percent, from around 400,000 in the old building to 600,000 today.

Though he didn't design the Halle Library, an authority on library design at the Boston firm of Perry, Dean, Rogers says less space for books and more for meeting areas is a key feature of the new breed of libraries.

"In the classic library, which is simply a repository of material, the setup is much more introspective," says Steven Foote, a principal at the firm. "It's typically filled with carrels and emphasizes individual research. That's still available in new libraries, but because of pedagogical changes, the new buildings must have areas for group study."

Most observers, though, say coffee bars and meeting rooms in new facilities are probably not alone sufficient to save campus libraries from the digital onslaught. Yet, ironically, what may save them is the information avalanche itself.

First, information technology is moving so swiftly that information stored in any format is quickly dated. That makes relying on it for long-term, in-depth scholarship problematic. In addition, online database companies and e-book sellers merge or go out of business frequently, so there's the possibility that Internet research sources that exist today may not tomorrow.

Second, the information available online has no overall quality control to assure the veracity of information. That makes most of it useless for scholarship - unless undergraduates are carefully trained by librarians to discern which Web-based material is solid.

That's a role librarians are carving out for themselves at places like Harvard University's cavernous Widener Memorial Library, the nation's largest academic library with more than 3.5 million volumes. In addition, despite prodigious electronic databases, its librarians won't stop archiving scholarly mounds of dissertations and books anytime soon, officials say. Stability of resources is critical.

"If we put a book on the shelf, 20 years later it's still there," says Sidney Verba, director of the university library. "Web addresses disappear and digital files have to be maintained because technology changes. Most of the information that's useful for scholarship is on paper."

Unlike the Internet, libraries not only maintain quality control, but they are organized - a feature quickly apparent to students frustrated with the flotsam returned by search engines on the Web.

Academic libraries will neither be dinosaurs nor the keepers of moldering piles of paper, Dr. Verba predicts. But they will have to wed traditional research functions to an assortment of online tools, he says.

Impressive as Harvard's library is, the cutting edge in creature comforts seems unlikely to ever be found there. Despite a $50 million renovation program, don't try to bring food or drinks in anytime soon.

But as Verba and others point out, providing ever-faster access to materials with scholarly value can give libraries a competitive edge.

"If the Web is really the competition, then one way for libraries to win is to take content not on the Web and make it accessible to their constituents," says Steve Coffman, product-development manager for Library Systems & Services Inc., a company that supplies online information services to academic and public libraries. But libraries need to be able to serve people more quickly, he says.

One place that's adapted to a faster pace is the D.H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University, which in 1998 became what is apparently the nation's only 24-hour-a-day university library.

In many ways the NCSU library is typical - an aging, monolith with few places for students to congregate comfortably. Like others, its foot traffic slipped in the 1990s along with its circulation.

Last year, however, foot traffic turned a corner. Carolyn Argentati, associate director for public services at the library, credits the 24-hour service and other initiatives. The library also began instructional workshops that draw students who want to use software and databases.

"The joy in 24-hour access ... is that students can go there to study anytime they want," says Matt Flanery, an NCSU senior majoring in chemical engineering. "I may be motivated to go to the library as late as 2 a.m. and sometimes as early as 5 a.m."

Another critical factor he cites is the library as a place of refuge.

"Being able to get away from noisy dorms and distracting television and food and roommates is a great boon," he says. "Especially when hard-core cramming is necessary."

Mary Reichel, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries in Chicago, says most librarians recognize the challenge and are striving to reconnect with Internet-age students and faculty. Certainly she's no Luddite. She embraces online access as "a dream come true" and remains open to changing old customs. But like any good librarian, she says there must be rules, too.

"Look, I love the idea of having food and coffee bars in the library," she says. "We just don't want pizza slices used as bookmarks."

• E-mail claytonm@csps.com

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