The Library as the Central Pivot of a University Education: A place of Scholarship, Intellectual Community, Growth, and Freedom

Shelby Foote, the famous historian and author of The Civil War: A Narrative; famously stated that, “a university is simply a group of buildings surrounding a library.”

Now, obviously a university is more about the people: the students, faculty, and staff; those who give a university its reason to exist, those who provide education and impetus for those students, and then the people who actually enable the university to fully function on a day-to-day basis. However, I still think Foote was largely correct that for a university to fully function, the library needs to be at the center: Geographically, Intellectually, and even Emotionally, the library is what I call the pivot of university education. Only the library transcends the lines of all the disciplines and brings together all the knowledge and resources of what used to be called a “liberal education.”

The discussion of a “liberal education” is a subject for another day, but it is nonetheless important. I’m old enough to have attended a public high school where I took four years of Latin and old-fashioned enough to still consider that one of the most foundational experiences in the crafting of my education.

The “Library of the Future” is a constant theme today. The library we envision is a cumulation of several experiments, a few of which failed rather spectacularly. Some efforts were to rid the campus of the “library” entirely since “everything is online.” Getting rid of all the physical materials and replace the space with desks and computer monitors. At the other end the warehouse approach where everything is kept in rows of shelving. 90% of which simply collects dust and is never used, but is there “just in case someone at some point in the future, might need it.” Neither approach is valid today, however each university must develop the approach that best suits its mission and needs. The approach of an R-1 or R-2 university is not going to be the same as a D/PD university of a Masters level university.

In the modern library, books are no longer the exclusive repository of knowledge and experience; a vast array of technological advances and innovations have seen to that, but the library of the future will require balance. Besides information, in whatever form it may take, the library provides two vital components for student success: expertise and space.

In terms of expertise the library provides “librarians” those who have the training in what is called “Library and Information Science.” The librarians are generalists in terms of working across the boundaries of the academic disciplines, but they are specialists in terms of “information quality.” Just because it’s on the Web, or in a blog, or an online article, or even in a book, the question remains, “Is this material true? Is its thesis valid? While one can argue over the nature of truth and criteria for its determination, the quality of information has clear and objective standards that the librarian is trained to discern. Behind the print, or the online article, or the speech, there is information. Is this information good, valid, and useful? Are the conclusions made on the basis of this information valid? What and where and are the best sources for information? The sheer quantity of information today has created its own haystack and finding that needle of information that is just right for that assignment, project, or research is what the librarian does; even, I daresay, often better than the professor in an individual course. That is the “expertise” a properly functioning library provides.

The library, and especially the library of the future, also provides space. As an example, while it is true that the religious can “worship anywhere,” it is still nonetheless true that worship is more focused and precise in that particular space dedicated to worship. A student can certainly read, and study, and research anywhere (and during the recent pandemic “anywhere” became a necessity). However, it is in the library that the reading, studying, and researching can be focused and obtain precision (especially, to extend my metaphor, the librarians personally provide guidance along the path). New studies and post-pandemic research, are increasingly pointing to that “quiet space” where students can thrive. Optimally, this is also a space where the intellectual activities of others and other activities are stimulating the thinking of everyone. An active, thriving space, organized activities, an occasional party, and a little noise (remembering “quiet” is a quality not the cone of silence).

The Library of the Future will not only incorporate the informational resources, but also enhance the quality of the informational professionals, the librarians, as well as provide that “sacred space” of study, research, collaboration, and interpersonal interaction. Those are the features that will promote the goal of the library of “enhancing education, through research.”