Information Update - Spring 2002

Is The Library Really Deserted?

The November 16, 2001 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a cover story entitled "The Deserted Library." Scott Carlson, a staff reporter for the journal, gathered statistical data, conducted interviews, and provided much anecdota l information to support his premise that fewer students are visiting the library buildings on their campuses for information retrieval, studying, or socializing. Instead, he argues, they are accessing much of their informational needs from desktop computers in their dorm rooms and homes, or from laptop computers from virtually anywhere on campus or off. The students are visiting retail outlets such as Borders and Barnes and Nobles to pursue their recreational reading needs, where they can browse the latest bestseller, listen to a folk band, and sip cappuccino while socializing with other like-minded customers. Carlson supplies three different graphics to support his findings, each from a library in a large system of higher education, representing circulation statistics, expenditures on electronic sources, and gate counts. His conclusion indicates that the once traditional uses of the library are shifting dramatically, and suggests that college space planners build or retrofit their existing libraries to accommodate the "one-stop-shopping" concept of an academic center that offers a place to learn, socialize, and be entertained.
This article caused much discussion among academic librarians, who questioned the statistics and accompanying evidence gathered by Carlson in respect to their own institutions. When reflecting on the fall 2001 semester here at the University of Scranton, the public service staff could identify with many of Carlson's comments. But unlike the libraries cited in the Chronicle article, the Weinberg Library is not deserted. The Reference Desk on the second floor and the Circulation Desk in the lobby have not seen a dramatic decrease in patrons. In fact, public service staff have seen an increase in activity, due in part to the complex nature of the new electronic resources. Although we now provide our students with remote access to over 125 different electronic databases and 4,000 electronic journals, we found more students than ever asking for reference assistance. Questions range from the very basic (how do I use the card catalog?) to extremely complex (where might I find newspaper articles documenting the sociological trends caused by a specific demographic shift?).
Although we have a very comprehensive program of library instruction that introduces students to the library through the Freshman Seminar, Computer and Information Literacy and course integrated instruction, we are still noticing that students need human intervention in navigating the myriad sources now available to them in the library and their dorm rooms. Interlibrary loan requests, database searches, photocopies, microfilm and microfiche uses have stabilized during t he past few semesters, but the Library is busier than ever with questions asking for help deciphering all the resources available to the student searcher. Reference librarians receive phone calls from patrons attempting to search databases remotely or inquiring about how to retrieve an article through the online databases. A newly instituted service called "Ask the Librarian" allowing patrons to query reference staff and receive a response within 24 hours is gaining in popularity. Even though most commercial databases have multiple help screens to explain techniques, human intervention is still preferred by our patrons.
Much of the Weinberg Library's popularity is due to the physical space that is both inviting and welcoming. Each floor has a different ambiance and meets the needs of our students' various study habits and noise level tolerance. Recent upgrades of lighting, the introduction of lap top computers, and the extremely popular Java City Coffee Bar bring students inside a building that might otherwise be passed by in favor of a dorm lounge or apartment living room. Adequate computer terminals, laser printing, group study rooms and various types of quiet study space make the Weinberg Library a desirable location on the University's campus. The fact that it resides at the center of the campus only emphasizes its importance to the University community.
In researching his article, Carlson notes that the libraries that still attract patrons are the ones that have made similar accommodations. Although the University has made every effort to upgrade technology for its student body (demonstrated by our continual appearance on the Yahoo Most Wired Campus list), the University administration and library staff have seen the additional need to provide a comfortable, welcoming environment that offers the traditional library services, a balanced collection of print and non-print titles, areas for both quiet and group study and socializing, and a human presen ce that accommodates the needs of the patron in using them.
Betsey Moylan