Life of a Library

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CATEGORY: Academics, Alumni, Student Life
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Library

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

By Laura Billings Coleman

Emily Lindstrom Tuck ’90 was one of dozens of Macalester students and staff who helped pack the stacks and storage rooms of Weyerhaeuser Library during the summer of 1988 for a much-anticipated move across campus into the new $10 million DeWitt Wallace Library. Though Mac’s old card catalogues were left behind in favor of new DOS terminals and databases, there was one long-standing library tradition that Tuck and other student managers were expected to uphold when the library opened its doors to students that fall.

“It was our job to chastise people for bringing food and beverages into the library,” Tuck recalls with a laugh.

This summer, Mac’s “new” library will celebrate its 25th anniversary, inviting former library staffers and alumni back to campus for a reunion that will mark the library’s contributions to campus life and scholarship. While alums like Tuck will find plenty in the library that looks just as it did (including the bust of Dante behind the circulation desk, sporting baseball caps or Mardi Gras beads depending on the season), the way students and faculty now use the library may look very different indeed.

a student browsing the available DVDs for rentalFor instance, the first floor—where library work-study students once spent their days shushing fellow classmates—is now a high-volume thoroughfare that welcomes more than 10,000 visitors a week, most speaking at decibel levels far above a whisper. Though the stacks still contain more than 430,000 volumes to support Mac’s curriculum, this on-campus collection represents only a fraction of the books, journals, databases, and other resources students can call up through their laptops—or even on the library’s new mobile website.

Reference librarians are still on hand to answer quick student questions (“What’s the GNP of Mozambique?” “Is it principal or principle?”), but they’re even more in demand for one-on-one appointments, teaching today’s digital natives to dive deeper into their disciplines than they can through Google, or tutoring faculty members who need help navigating the new world of digital scholarship. As for the longstanding ban against beverages, there’s now a now a nice little coffee machine on the first floor that dispenses fresh ground Americanos and lattés that students can sip in a cozy study corner—preferably using a spill-proof, reusable mug.

“It’s the same building, but the way everyone uses it has definitely changed,” says librarian David Collins ’85. “The whole electronic resource juggernaut has really transcended our four walls so that the library is no longer just a space for collections. In a sense the whole campus has become the library because so many resources can be accessed within the campus network and beyond.”

But as the library has expanded its virtual reach, observers say its quiet corners and conference rooms have actually grown more important to creating a campus community. “You might think that the rise of technology would keep people out of the library but in fact it’s an attractor because they provide such fantastic computing, printing, and digital technology help for students and faculty,’’ says Adrienne Christiansen, director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching, which has had offices in the library for a decade. “When I was a young faculty member I worried that people weren’t using the library as much as they should, but now I never do. It’s all happening here.”

Creating the heart of the campus

Creating a library that could change with the times was one of the first challenges confronted by former library director Joel Clemmer when he was recruited to help shape the new DeWitt Wallace Library early in Bob Gavin’s tenure as president. The dark stacks and high humidity of the 1940s-era Weyerhaeuser Hall clearly needed an update, while Macalester’s image was in need of burnishing, too, as the college recovered from a tumultuous period of student protests, faculty walk-outs, declining enrollment, and disheartened donors.

women students in the 1960s looking through books in the children’s reading room of the old Weyerhaeuser LibraryThough in the early ’80s then-President John B. Davis had helped to rebuild the college’s economic foundation, the renewal of support from Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace had presented Macalester with a fresh slate, says Clemmer. “At the time, the college was in a bit of a turnaround, so the library project took on an awful lot of importance,” recalls Clemmer, who retired in 2005. “It was our way to say to the world, ‘Macalester College is back. It’s still a first-rate institution, and here’s some physical proof of it.’”

Though a previous plan had proposed building the new library in the center of Shaw Field, by the late ’80s the crumbling state of Old Main’s east wing made it possible to tear down the oldest building on campus with no outcry from preservationists. “This may be the geographer in me speaking, but the fact that the library is located in the middle of the campus is very important,” says David Lanegran, John S. Holl Chair of Geography. “I think it was a strong statement that going forward, academics were going to be at the center of the college. Also, pretty much everyone has to walk by it every day. You practically have to think of an excuse not to go in.”

The college hired Boston-based architectural firm Shepley Bulfinch to create a contemporary building with elements that would mirror Old Main’s Richardsonian Romanesque eaves, turrets, and eyebrow windows. Meanwhile, Clemmer and his staff visited each of the college’s 27 academic departments to learn what students and faculty hoped to see inside the building. Those meetings identified two needs that architects incorporated into the five-story building—“quiet corners where students could squirrel themselves away,” Clemmer says, and more communal areas to accommodate a growing curricular trend toward group projects and student collaboration.

The finished product was a welcome surprise for Sarah West ’91, who says the new design changed how she viewed herself as a student. “I remember the glory of walking into that new library,” says West, now a Macalester economics professor. “My favorite spot was on the fourth floor’s north side, where you’re tucked into a tiny alcove. Finding a spot that was safe, private, and well lit radically changed the way I prepared for class. That building got me out of my dorm and became a welcoming, luxurious place where I wanted to gather with others and work. The whole space felt revolutionary.”

High tech and high touch

Macalester’s library staff has a reputation for revolutionary moves as well, shifting the library databasestudent walking through the library aisles to the Internet years before a graphic interface made it the obvious solution. Library director Terri Fishel drove the creation of Macalester’s first website—now every college’s most critical admissions tool—and she and her staff are now schooling faculty on the brave new world of e-publishing and digital humanities.

Five years ago, the staff decided to host a Library Technology Conference as a community service for the region. “Macalester seemed like a great venue for the conference because we’re really ahead of the game when it comes to technology, and we thought we were in a good position to pull it off,” says associate library director Angi Faiks. The popular conference was sold out in March, with 500 attendees from 20 states, Canada, and Nigeria.

Unlike many college libraries, which require student IDs at the entrance, Mac opens its doors to the community, granting borrowing privileges to neighbors. It also reaches far beyond the campus through Digital Commons, an open access online initiative where full text versions of nearly 3,000 student papers and faculty scholarship have been downloaded more than 596,000 times.

In fact, when Kwame Fynn ’13 and classmate Morgan Sonnenschein ’12 had their statistics paper, “An Analysis of the Career Length of Professional Basketball Players,” published in a recent Macalester Review, it became the site’s most downloaded paper of all time, earning the pair coverage in media outlets from ESPN to newspapers in Fynn’s native Ghana. “I thought why not post it and see what happens?” says Fynn, noting that the paper is now “gaining traction in France.”

reading room

Forward-thinking efforts like Digital Commons, combined with the library’s spirit of community service, have given the collection a scholarly and quirky feel, says director of communications David Warch. In addition to lending academic tomes and bestsellers, the library also circulates digital cameras and Kindles, children’s puppets and iPads, bikes and helmets, and a collection of DVDs donated and curated by an anonymous librarian with a taste for independent films. “In an occupation that can be stereotypically stodgy and slow-moving, Macalester’s librarians have been very smart about their choices over the years,” says Warch. “They’ve remained relevant at a time when huge changes in technology have turned the world upside down.”

That transition over the last two decades hasn’t been without moments of high anxiety, says Faiks, times when librarians worried that the rise of the Web would render them obsolete. “People always valued librarians but they didn’t really know what we did, so in many ways the Internet has breathed new life into what we do by making our expertise much clearer,” she says. “With so much information available, the ability to navigate and think critically is more important than ever, and the library is the best place to learn those lessons.”

Library lessons

In fact, information fluency is built into the curriculum at Macalester, where all first-year seminar students spend time with a librarian assigned as a liaison to each department. At his sessions with political science and international studies students, Collins introduces himself as “your personal librarian. That’s how I market myself to students.” Liaisons talk to students about the many ways in which they can access the library’s resources, from interlibrary loans with partner colleges to the more than 400 research databases and 4,000 e-journals the library receives.

As students move more deeply into the curriculum, researching capstone papers and honors projects, they’re encouraged to ask for help as often as they need it. “Students expect easy access to all this content, but once they start searching they find it can be difficult to do,” says special collections archivist Ellen Holt-Werle ’97. “We try to make the point that we’re here to partner with them. There’s so much they have to wade through and they don’t have a lot of time, so we’re here to help.”

Another lesson the library staff works hard to impart is the value of seeking out unfamiliar perspectives— an important skill for students saturated in social media. “On Facebook and other media, students already have their own personal filters in place” that tend to sift out opposing points of view, says library director Terri Fishel. “We try to help them break out of their filters and take advantage of the scholarly resources we have that they may not have been exposed to before. All points of view are represented here. We really want students to come and explore.”

While this style of research may feel a little old school to Macalester alums who spent hours sorting through volumes in the stacks, these are brand new experiences for many of her students, says English professor Theresa Krier. “My parents were Depression-era parents and libraries were one of the things that saved their lives. When I was a child we went to the library every week, so it was a shock when I realized that many of my students—who had much more enriched childhoods than I did—had never been to a library,” says Krier, an ancient, medieval, and Renaissance poetry scholar. “Once I realized my students had no idea what they were missing, I started building library visits into all my classes.”

one of the library's manuscript pages

One excursion she’s added is a trip to Macalester’s special collections room to see a series of illuminated manuscript pages the library acquired two years ago—part of a push to add to the collection more items that don’t translate well in digital form. “As the pendulum swings toward the digital collection, the more you want some tangible items that tell a story you just can’t get online,” says Faiks.

Krier and archivist Holt-Werle selected the pieces together, seeking items like pages from public choir hymnals and private books of hours that, as Krier puts it, “show stains and injuries to the page that allow students see the living hand of the writer.” The pleasure her students have taken from unpacking the clues about history and culture held in each page, she says, helps her “manage my anxiety about where all of these new technologies are taking us. Now I take the longer view, that the technology of the written word has been in all of these forms, and everyone seems very comfortable surfing from one to the next. The function of a good library will never end.”

St. Paul writer Laura Billings Coleman is a regular contributor to Macalester Today

PUBLISHED: 04/19/2013