- The Library as Place: History, Community, and Culture
The concept of "the library as place" is generating lively interest among both scholars and practitioners. The accruing literature on the subject includes illustrated coffee-table books, such as The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, with photographs by Guillaume de Laubier and text by Jacques Bosser (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 2003) and Heart of the Community: The Libraries We Love by Karen Christensen and David Levinson (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2007). A related body of writing is concerned with redesigning the physical library in an era when information is increasingly digital and ubiquitous. Works in this vein include two publications from the Council on Library Resources—Libraries Designed for Learning by Scott Bennett (2003) and Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space by Geoffrey T. Freeman et al. (2005).
Rather than focusing on the aesthetic impact of library spaces or their management and transformation, co-editors John E. Buschman and Gloria J. Leckie explore the effects that physical libraries have on individuals, communities, and the culture at large. Within the growing literature on the library as place, this collection is unique in presenting fresh and engaging samples of critical scholarship. The high quality of the book's prose befits its origin as a thematic issue of Library Quarterly that grew too big for the journal's pages. Among the authors are well-established library and information science (LIS) scholars and emerging LIS scholars (such as Paulette Rothbauer and Bonnie Mak), whose papers derive from their dissertations, academics in other disciplines, and working librarians.
In their substantial introduction, the editors assert a distinction between library as space and library as place. They draw on theoretical writings by geographers and philosophers to expound the idea of the library as a place located in the democratic public sphere. Readers not schooled in theory, particularly of the postmodern variety, may find the introduction rather heavy going. Nonetheless, it supplies a necessary integrative perspective on the eclectic papers that follow, which are grouped under broad section headings: The Library's Place in the Past; Libraries as Places of Community; Research Libraries as Places of Learning and Scholarship; and Libraries, Places, and Culture.
Of the 14 contributions, the three in the section on research libraries potentially offer the most relevant content for academic librarians. Karen Antell and Debra Engel describe the "library as place in the life of the scholar" as they uncovered it in two studies conducted at the University of Oklahoma—a set of interviews with professors who had private carrels in the library and a subsequent survey of faculty and doctoral students. Aside from the mildly surprising finding that younger scholars value the physical library's "conduciveness to scholarship" more than their older peers, these studies reveal little about scholars' attitudes that most academic librarians do not already know or suspect.
Lisa M. Given writes about undergraduates' information behaviors at a major Canadian university, basing her conclusions not on data gathered directly from students but on interviews with faculty and librarians. The approach is unconventional, but the findings are not. Given's informants underscore the importance of [End Page 214] flexible library spaces that support social as well as academic needs. Many readers will hear echoes of their own users' voices in the verbatim quotations that enhance both Antell and Engel's and Given's papers. The final paper in this section is an impassioned essay by Thomas Mann, reference librarian at the Library of Congress. Recounting complex queries that could only be answered by browsing printed materials, Mann demonstrates the fallacies of current library managerial trends. Scholarship will be ill-served, he argues, by storing little-used books in off-site warehouses, abandoning full subject cataloging and classification, and unquestioningly adopting a digital paradigm for librarianship. Mann has proclaimed his contrarian ideas in other venues, but they carry even greater weight in the context of thinking about the library as a physical environment that enables intellectual discovery...