Perceptions of a Very Small Public

22/10/2012 § 15 Comments

I am a librarian who serves a population of 24. Perhaps the count is 32 if one includes faculty and staff of Florida State University International Programs Study Center in Florence, Italy. The library, as the previous Student Supervising Librarian noted last year, is almost as antiquated as the 15th century building that holds it. Nothing gives me more pleasure than unlocking wood medallioned doors with skeleton keys and opening thick shutters to let the sun shine onto parquet floors and the shelves of a 7,000 volume collection.

Library Doors

After Topher’s excellent post on librarian perception I have been thinking more and more of the perception of the library here. The history, with all of it’s frescoed charm, is not enough to protect the library from running into a 21st century identity crisis. I think it is a problem that many libraries, even the most modern of structures and collections, that serve populations thousands of times our size, are also facing:

What is our point and purpose in this digital age?

After two months of getting acclimated to a new country, language and job, I am now more actively monitoring what is needed by my student population. Use of the library has dropped significantly since Internet access installed in the dorms about 2 years ago. In the last months, the 2 Computer Rooms are still used for Internet access but mostly for printing; the Lounge area is a popular spot for hanging out between classes; but the stacks — full of Art, History, and Italian Culture books (and even a set of 1909 Encyclopedia) as well as a small fiction and literature section — are mostly untouched. Students, if they enter the “book room” at all, primarily use the tables to study because “it is so quiet.”

Out of our 7,000 volumes, about 25 books have been checked out over the semester. There was one day of a relative flurry of book requests because the Art History prof suggested texts for the reference requirement of his final paper. Mostly, however, students just asked for those specific books. Perhaps I should have been more proactive in showing how to use the card catalog (yes, card catalog) and sending them to the shelves themselves thus helping them discover the joy of serendipity in information seeking… but isn’t that forcing a method and education regardless of want? I doubt the teachable moment would have been appreciated. So I provided the research service as requested and book use and check-out remains small and targeted.

I provide all this detail to ask: Is “library” a misnomer now?

I think so. I find the term antiquated for what has become a Study Center. FSU has changed its former Law Library’s name to Florida State Law Research Center. I think this a a more apt and forward-thinking name that speaks to the activities that now and will take place therein.

I further ask: is the FSU Florence Program — and libraries across the US — doing themselves a disservice by holding on to the antiquated term of “library”?

A library, by any other name, still might function similarly but our mission and vision are also inexorably linked and affected by our title. If we, catalogers and specifiers of language, want to change our perception and be perceived as more than “book rooms,” do we need to change our names? Or do we continue to hold on to “library” and continue to try and change it’s meaning?

I leave the questions open and welcome your thoughts. I don’t think that a name change will revolutionize use (if only it were that easy) but rather better reflect and promote the mission and vision of the space. As it has for the past 50 years, and I hope for many years to come, fair Firenze will still be home to the Library of FSU’s International Program in Florence… but I don’t know for how much longer that name will — and should — remain above the door.

What are your thoughts about library perception and rebranding?

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§ 15 Responses to Perceptions of a Very Small Public

  • stacy says:

    I think the term library is still needed however maybe it should somehow revised in it’s meaning. I mean many people still ask if there is a use for libraries anymore. Which of course there is. Side note- how in the world did you get that job? lol so jealous as a library student something like that is what I aspire to do once I am done with my degree :)

    • Joanna June says:

      I think we, as young professionals especially, are trying to change the meaning… but my worry is that is a long and slow process. As you noted “is there a use for libraries?” is a common question, even though we know they are heavily utilized institutions– just not as they once were.
      And I am still a student! It is an amazing internship opportunity that FSU offers to a current student to study abroad (I am finishing my Masters) while at the same working as the Librarian. Check out opportunities at your school or I know there are sites for graduated librarians looking to work abroad.

  • Gary says:

    These are good questions. In the University setting it has been my experience that the library is little more than a place to study. But students and professors also came to do research in the library’s databases. Even if the collection is electronic, I think the word library might still fit, but Research Center could work.

    For Public Libraries, Research Center may be a bit elite sounding and confusing. Public Libraries have an estbalshied place in the culture so this may be a case of the name staying the same while its function evovles.

    • Joanna June says:

      Interesting, Gary, and I think I would concur with your distinctions between academic versus public institutions. The function in both places is very much evolving. It is quite the interesting time to be in the field!

  • Alex Watkins says:

    What does a research center stand for? Nothing. The word library conjures protectors of knowledge both in preserving it for future generation and by making it freely available. Yes we need to continue to modernize libraries, but changing a name that has so much significance to one that has none, I think does libraries a disservice.

    • Joanna June says:

      Thanks for the counterpoint Alex. A “Research Center” might not have the long traditions or connotations of “Library,” that is quite true. But the history and perception cut both ways. You conjure one image (which I would argue “Public Research Center” could also illicit) while I think many others would conjure library as a house of books. With the digital revolution many — our publics and funders — are asking what service or value a library then has as an institution. We know they are heavily utilized, but not as they once were. Perhaps not having such traditional name would help shed the perception they are antiquated and seldom-used spaces.

  • Joanna June says:

    I’m going to copy and paste a twitter exchange by @GNU-Ninja and @CriticalSteph as they are insightful and further the conversation.

    CriticalSteph: Thoughtful post on whether ‘library’ is a valid name in 21stC http://t.co/EiClxBdS Touches #libcampuk discussions – via @hacklibschool

    GNU_Ninja: @CriticalSteph @hacklibschool When the lights go out and the balloon goes up we’ll be glad we kept our libraries and books.

    CriticalSteph: @GNU_Ninja @hacklibschool Don’t think I have any firm views right now. Genuinely interested in what people are thinking about this.

    GNU_Ninja: @CriticalSteph @hacklibschool Digital is ‘smoke & mirrors’ … Books are the only proven long term archival format 1000 plus years.

    CriticalSteph: @GNU_Ninja @hacklibschool Agree, but are you describing an archive rather than a library? Is a library where info is accessed, not archived?

    GNU_Ninja: @CriticalSteph @hacklibschool I make no distinction. A library, in my view, is both.

  • I’m for shedding the term; but then, I’m primarily an archivist, and watching the transformation of the field from that angle. I’d be for replacing “archive” with “research center” as well; or perhaps moving those terms to adjectives (e.g. “archival research center”).

    I really don’t think a conversation can be had about this w/out referencing Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship (which I maintain was mistitled; it’s really about information science as a whole) – if our role is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation, then the matter of what proper noun we use to describe where we work is secondary.

    • Joanna June says:

      Thanks for your thoughts (and Retweet) KimBoo. I’m a fan, having seen him speak at FLA last year, but (alas!) unfamiliar with the thrust of Lankes’ book. Did he say that it didn’t really matter what we are called, more important is what we do? I would tend to agree but I think we do need to be cognizant of our target audience’s perception if we are to draw in more thoughts and voices to that knowledge creation (and preservation). I certainly like the idea of adjectives as they add a presence and an active quality to the title of the institution.

  • Adam Worrall says:

    Not to sound too much like I’m quoting a no-calorie soda commercial, but I’m all for the “and.” The FSU Florence program’s “library” — and many other facilities — can be a library *and* a research center. A library *and* a study center. A library *and* an information / digital / scholars’ commons. While not all may like the combined phrase “library and information science,” to me it has always seemed one of the more appropriate terms for the discipline, field, and profession. I see no reason why we can’t — why we shouldn’t — take the “and” and apply it to our institutions and facilities as well.

    • Joanna June says:

      Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones! Certainly my current facility operates as both, so you are right that perhaps the name should reflect that. Thanks for pointing out a should-be-obvious solution!

    • Yes, that! When I first read this post I was thinking… but I really like the word library. What would we, as librarians, be called? Do people relate to research centers the same as they do libraries? I think we need to modernize the associations with “library”, but of course that is easier said than done. I really like the idea of adding the word and to bridging the ideas—such a simple solution!

  • [...] this week, Joanna wrote about her experience at a small library in Florence, Italy. Last week, my wife and I travelled to Scotland. Our home base was Glasgow, but [...]

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