Thursday, July 31, 2008
The Simplicity of Basics
I make a habit of trying to explore different libraries in different corners of the country. Many libraries seem in a struggle for identity, caught between being archives of history, warehouses of books, educational institutions, public spaces, study areas, social anchor points, and purveyors of print culture and reading.
These things all sound so similar, but the tension between them is clearly in our discussions of 'library as place' and whether the 'library without walls' is ever going to replace the brick and mortar edifice of my youth. It's also in the tension between food policies and the coffeeshops, as well as the struggle to serve youth in the same space as the elderly, poor, and homeless.
Yesterday I was sitting in the periodicals section of the Penrose Library at the University of Denver (Colorado). Sitting there, completing an online training for managing federal records, my eyes kept wandering to the brightly colored magazines surrounding me. My fingers were itching to touch the glossy cover of the news magazine from Africa, but then, looking around, I realized that every third magazine interested me enough to want to pick it up: Ms., Bitch, Natural History, Der Spiegel, Popular Mechanics, and so on. I think I heard a soft slurping sound as I stood up and was thoroughly sucked in by the collection.
I don't remember the last time I was in a browsing collection that was so simple and yet effective. Comfy chairs + visually engaging materials + display shelves = drawing in readers. In my four hours there, I did manage to complete my online training, but I also learned about the issues of air quality in Peking surrounding the Olympic games, as well as how Obama's trip last month to Berlin was organized.
And yet, despite the struggles that many colleges and universities are having with basic literacy, the libraries that I have been to lack the encouragement to read for pleasure and background understanding of larger issues. Sure, we're all too busy these days to take time out to read the paper. And sure, our budgets are being maimed by the lack of fiscal support for the public sector. But somehow, when the chair and the shelves are both at my fingertips, it seems a lot less daunting to squeeze it in, like a furtive cigarette between my classes and work.
In an educational institution, sometimes service doesn't mean just giving the patrons what they need for their classes, but rather giving them the room to grow beyond their current understanding of the materials.