eBooks Killed the Stacks, but Not the Library

Originally posted: March 1, 2013

When Olin Library opened in 1985, it was a very different world. The Cosby Show had debuted a year earlier. The Nintendo Gaming System—along with its big hit, Super Mario Brothers—was released. And Apple’s Mac had just turned1. Rollins students were toting book bags, not laptops, and they had to find a pay phone to make a call. Study habits and testing were more individualized then, so it made sense to create a library where students could sit at study carrels or on stiff furniture with loud patterns to study in the stacks’ quiet solitude.

But today, the stacks are dwindling, in part because libraries are beefing up their digital resources and turning those quiet areas into community spaces. Today’s students are studying and learning differently—often in collaborative or social learning groups—and that requires more conversation.

“The proportion of library space devoted to print is shrinking, but how that works out is going to differ from library to library,” says Jonathan Miller, Olin Library director. “Part of the discussion at the moment is what that means at Rollins College.”

So Rollins has been on a mission to figure that out and make some changes. At first the library staff started small—allowing students to bring snacks and beverages into Olin and continually adding to its digital repertoire.

In the midst of it all, Susan Montgomery, public services librarian and assistant professor, began a research project—an offshoot of work done by Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Oldenburg argues a need for communities to have a “third space”—one outside of the workplace and home—in which members can gather together and connect. “We wanted to make the Library this third place,” says Montgomery. To do that, she interviewed and observed students using ethnographic methods, and even asked them to create drawings of the kinds of spaces they would like to see in Olin. She studied the Library patrons at different times of the day, at different points in the semester. She noted how much they worked in groups, how often they worked alone, how often they slept.

The data guided a renovation of Olin’s main floor. The “beverages allowed” rule turned into a full-blown café; the multimedia lab is three times larger; the main floor is no longer a quiet zone (there’s a lot less “shushing” going on); librarians’ offices are more visible to students; the furniture now includes more comfortable seating; the wireless network is four times more powerful than it was before; and the place is now open 24/7, with 100 to 200 students using the space every night.

The changes, Miller hopes, are just a start. Some patrons think Olin’s print collection should grow rather than shrink; others think the number of digital materials should continue to climb. Miller is hoping to strike a healthy balance, but he has a prediction: “What I would envision over the next few years is that more of the space at Rollins will be devoted to people rather than print.”

Stewart Anderson ’13, an international studies major and a self-proclaimed old-fashioned kind of guy, still likes to dive into print materials, but he thinks Olin has reached a nice balance of print-to-digital. “Olin doesn’t have that institutional feel,” he says. “It feels more like someone’s study, someone’s home.” And an environment like that, says Anderson, helps student stress levels. A livelier area, like the Bookmark Café, allows students to relax as well as work. And that 24-hour open policy is a real bonus. “Keeping the Library open 24 hours a day is a superb idea,” says Anderson.

Miller agrees that the changes made at Olin have enhanced the space for students, who have dubbed the Library, “Club Olin.” But one of the most gratifying parts of the process for him is seeing faculty members walk through the doors. “They have their own offices,” he says. “They don’t need to come into the Library.”

But they do anyway. After all, it’s where a lot of their students seem to be hanging out these days.

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