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The Chronicle of Higher Education: Information Technology
From the issue dated November 16, 2001


As Students Work Online, Reading Rooms Empty Out -- Leading Some Campuses to Add Starbucks


Augusta, Ga.

University libraries bring to mind undergraduates rooting through dusty stacks


Budget Shifts at One University

Decline in the Use of One Library

What Librarians Get Asked These Days

Decline in Circulation at One Library

Colloquy: Join an online discussion on whether college libraries should try to attract more students by adding coffee bars.

Colloquy Live: Join a live, online discussion with the presidents of the Association of College and Research Libraries and the Council on Library and Information Resources, on declining student use of libraries, on Thursday, November 15, at 2 p.m., U.S. Eastern time.

or sitting in reading rooms with their noses buried in tomes. These days, however, more and more students are entering libraries not through turnstiles but through phone lines and fiber-optic cables.

Take Jennifer L. Howard, an English major at Augusta State University. Now a junior, she managed to get through two years of college -- and onto the honor roll -- without ever borrowing a book from the library.

"I'm a junior, and I checked out a book for the first time last week," says Ms. Howard, who borrowed Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness for a report on science fiction.

"GALILEO is my best friend," she says, referring to a library database that she can use from a computer in her father's home office, where she does much of her studying and writes her papers. "I'm frequently at the library," she adds, but much of that time is spent in one of the its two computer centers, where she reads her e-mail messages.

One Thursday afternoon at Augusta State's Reese Library, the computer labs are packed, but the reading areas are sparsely populated -- and Reese isn't the only college library that's empty. Gate counts and circulation of traditional materials are falling at many college libraries across the country, as students find new study spaces in dorm rooms or apartments, coffee shops, or nearby bookstores. Here in Augusta this afternoon, for instance, there are more Medical College of Georgia students packed into the tiny cafés of the local Borders and Barnes & Noble than there are in the college's sprawling library. And over at Paine College, E. Michael Bostic, a library assistant, points out the electronic databases to explain his library's eerie quiet: "What you have now is the virtual library," he says, "Students just don't come in as much."

And libraries in other parts of the country see similar trends. At the University of Idaho at Moscow, for example, door counts and book circulation have decreased by more than 20 percent since 1997, and reserve loans have plummeted by more than 60 percent. But since 1999, the number of electronic articles that Idaho students retrieved went up by about 350 percent, and periodical database searches shot up by almost 800 percent.

Wondering and Worrying

Clearly, the burgeoning use of electronic databases has sent the buzz of library activity onto the Internet. The shift leaves many librarians and scholars wondering and worrying about the future of what has traditionally been the social and intellectual heart of campus, as well as about whether students are learning differently now -- or learning at all. Library journals are publishing articles about the roles of the "old" and "new" libraries, and the tension expressed in those pages is almost palpable.

Some librarians are fighting back -- with plush chairs, double-mocha lattes, book groups, author readings, and even music. That mix works for Barnes & Noble, and it seems to be working at some colleges, too. But it costs money, and no one is sure whether it helps students learn. Nevertheless, many agree that colleges have to do something to attract students back to the physical structures, because the new electronic offerings are here to stay.

In the April issue of American Libraries, Mark Y. Herring, dean of library services at Winthrop University, detailed the "10 Reasons Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library" and attempted to "correct the well-intentioned but horribly misguided notions about what is fast becoming Intertopia among many nonlibrarian bean counters."

In an interview, Mr. Herring says that the rise of electronic resources has fueled irrational expectations and predictions. A mere 6 percent of academic journals are available online, he says, but state boards and officials across the country seem to think students can get anything online. "We have someone on the state commission on higher education in South Carolina who says, We don't need any more libraries -- we're going buy one book and start beaming it out to all universities," Mr. Herring says. "Well, that shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how this works. ... If we digitized our collection, it would reach half-a-billion dollars."

He says he has talked to many colleagues who face similar misperceptions, and adds that he got more than 1,000 reprint requests for his article -- from 11 states and from places as far away as Egypt. Librarians are "giving it to their bosses or to people outside the campus, because they say that people outside the library don't understand," he says. "Apparently, it's a fairly worldwide problem of making this argument that, yes, we have a lot online, but we don't have everything."

Skepticism About New Buildings

Take, for example, a case at Georgia College & State University, over in Milledgeville, where a $19.5-million library addition faced some resistance from the state's Board of Regents in the mid-1990s. William Richards, the librarian, with help from the university's administration, was eventually able to convince the board that more space was needed, even in an electronic age. But "the board had legitimate reservations about the need for new library buildings in the 21st century," Mr. Richards says. "And I say 'legitimate' because from a certain frame of reference you could wonder, Why space for more books?" Among other things, the addition will feature computer labs, a cybercafé, and galleries to display the library's permanent collection, which includes artifacts and papers from Flannery O'Connor's estate.

Mr. Herring mentions California State University-Monterey Bay, which opened in 1996. Administrators had considered a paperless library. However, that strategy was deemed inadequate, and the campus opened with a library that holds both paper and electronic resources.

Mr. Herring also worries that the new emphasis on such resources affects students at Winthrop and elsewhere. He says it is making them "anti-intellectual" and engendering a "fast-food mentality of scholarship."

"I have students who come in when the electronic version of a journal is not available for one reason or another. I'll show them the identical print version of the journal, and they'll say, 'I'll come back later.' They won't even pick it up. They want it online immediately."

Loss of a 'Common Culture'

Scholars disagree about what the rise of databases and the decline of reading rooms means for academics. Anthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University, says that at one time the library created a "common culture."

"The library was probably a part of everyone's experience at one time, and now my sense is that you can get through as a very high-achieving science major without ever having to set foot in the library," Mr. Grafton says. "That common experience was a foundation for a common language later on in life. And with it gone, one wonders what will replace it."

Mark Taylor, a professor of humanities at Williams College, takes another view: "It's undeniable that as more and more materials go online, there is going to be less and less use of the bricks-and-mortar library. I'm not sure that's a bad thing."

He says that there is a lot of "nostalgia" tied up with "mourning" the disappearance of the old library. The Internet has brought about a new kind of student, he says, along with a new order of knowledge structured more like linked hypertext rather than an assembly line. With that, "eventually, you get a very different university, and my guess is, a very different library," he says. Libraries will become more virtual, "and I don't think it will be a huge loss."

Augusta State University's library is one drifting toward a new virtual role. A library for a commuter population, it has embraced online resources as a way to serve its students, many of whom are kept busy by families and part-time jobs. The main tool here is GALILEO, the state-sponsored collection of 100 Internet databases. Students at Augusta State and at more than 2,000 other Georgia colleges, schools, and libraries can use it to get access to online encyclopedias, government documents, and thousands of full-text journals.

The databases and the Internet have also expanded the small library's resources tremendously. "Things that we could never hope to get are available online," says Bill E. Bompart, the vice president for academic affairs.

In-person use of Augusta's library has declined over the years -- in terms of gate counts, numbers dropped from a high of 402,361 in 1992-3 to 271,977 in 2000-1. But university officials say that online traffic has increased dramatically. William N. Nelson, the director of the library, says that his resources and staff are taking a "greater role" in students' lives, and that the online resources are a way to reach out and "deal with people who wouldn't normally come to the library under the old system."

Being a Realist

"We have embraced the technology, partly out of practicality, because that's the way it's going," he says. "We really are a viable part of what's happening on campus. We're not saying the book is dead. But I feel like I'm sort of a realist and do support technology."

Nevertheless, the realist in Mr. Nelson also has some reservations about technology. The electronic databases have allowed him to cope with tight budgets and rising journal costs by cancelling some print subscriptions -- including the Modern Language Association's bibliographical index, Forbes, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But he cancels each regretfully. Who knows, he says, if the electronic databases will be around in the future? He notes that even GALILEO will soon have to drop one database from its lineup because of rising costs.

And he admits that it is hard to track how students are using electronic resources and whether they are getting useful and valid information. "My feeling is that availability of the Internet has probably degraded the level of information that students use," he says. "People tend to quickly go out on the Internet" -- to Google or to Ask Jeeves -- "and go in that direction rather than stay within a more controlled environment."

A similar ambivalence can be found among faculty members at Augusta State. James W. Garvey has been a professor of English and journalism there for more than 20 years. In his wood-paneled, book-lined office, he sits in a Windsor chair he bought from the library at the University of Rochester, where he went to graduate school. He notes that the local newspaper is electronically archiving its issues back to 1786. "When that happens, I'm going to be the main cheerer, because microfilm is a pain in the ass," he says. "It will make research much more efficient."

"On the other hand, there are real problems when students aren't touching books and taking them off the shelf," he says. "The way they are using information from the Internet is troubling -- how easy it is to cut and paste, and just lift things. The temptations to dishonesty, laziness, and intellectual sloth are just tremendous."

His colleague across the hall, Mary C. McCormack, an assistant professor of English, says that many of today's students figure that if you can't find it on the Internet, it must not exist. Recently, she assigned a student to write a bibliography of five sources for Robert Penn Warren's Audubon, a book of poems. The student found only one citation online, and told Ms. McCormack that there wasn't enough material available.

Both Ms. McCormack and Mr. Garvey use words like "sacred" and "holy" to describe their college experiences with libraries. Mr. Garvey grew up in Garden City, N.Y., and frequently went to Adelphi University's library to work on high-school projects. "There was this intellectual energy all around me, this earnestness that reinforced my own scholarship. There's no doubt that's not happening as much as it used to."

More Than a Tool

This mourning, this nostalgia, resonates among scholars beyond eastern Georgia. "Thinking of a library as an information center is the first step toward losing it," says William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The library is more than merely a tool or a warehouse for data, and -- except perhaps for buildings built during the 1960s and '70s -- campus architecture reflects that.

Many colleges have imitated "Jefferson's plan for the University of Virginia, where the library was to be the center of the place," Mr. Sullivan says. "That is the model that American higher education has tried to emulate for the last two centuries. Even very recent construction has been monumental, and you only construct monuments when you are trying to house institutions as opposed to tools."

Samuel G. Demas, the librarian at Carleton College, recently spoke about effective learning environments at a forum at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. "Most people my age have spent most of their lives working really hard to make it unnecessary for people to come to the library, and we've been pretty successful, in that a good share of what you need day to day is at the desktop." It has been a worthy, but narrow, goal, he says. Librarians have emphasized information technology "to the exclusion of what else goes on in an academic library. There is a huge amount of socializing and flirting and being seen that's not in the least in conflict with the main use of the library, which is research."

He says, however, that many library directors are seeing the importance of the library as a social sphere and creating unconventional programs and attractions to draw students back: book swaps, art exhibitions, lecture programs, poetry readings, comfortable furniture, and espresso bars, to name a few.

"Librarians are really beginning to return to the issues that were left behind in the dust of trying to adapt technology to our mission," he says. At library conferences and meetings, many librarians will note that people aren't walking in the door anymore. "But there will always be a fairly sizable minority who will say, Our numbers are good -- we're busy. And a lot of it has to do with the quality of the building and the liveliness of the programming."

Limiting Factors

Some of the limiting factors, he adds, are money and the nature of the library building. Structures that offer cramped spaces and poor lighting often drive students to more attractive parts of campus, or to the nearest off-campus coffee shop. Augusta State's library is a cold-war-era structure. "Having a café here would be my dream," says Roxann Bustos, the library's assistant director, but there is no money or room.

Some libraries that do have space and money have gone all out. In Georgetown, Tex., Southwestern University's library, for example, has spent from $20,000 to $30,000 on each of four furnished alcoves with various literary themes. They are meant to bring an elegance to the library and, according to a grant proposal for the project, to "help shape the campus community's perception of the library as a hospitable environment for reading and study." The alcoves have Tiffany-style lamps, oriental rugs, and Mission-style oak furniture manufactured by Stickley.

Each alcove immerses students in its theme. In the Herman Melville Alcove sit a rare bust of the author, signed prints from Barry Moser's edition of Moby-Dick, and a case of Melville-related books. A stereo in the corner features a CD of seaman's ballads, so a student can listen to "The Herring Gutter's Song" while perusing The History of American Sailing Ships or A Field Guide to Whales, Porpoises, and Seals. Other alcove themes include women's studies, Southwest culture, and literary societies, which recently highlighted the work of Russell Banks, a guest speaker at the university this year.

What effect signed prints and Stickley tables have on library attendance, however, is unclear. Lynne Brody, the dean of library services at Southwestern, says the alcoves are meant to enrich the library's atmosphere, not to simply lure students. She won't reveal the library's gate counts. "I don't want to get into a numbers game," she says.

Doughnuts and Lattes

At Texas Christian University, officials installed a more controversial attraction. Dead ahead of the main entrance, an espresso machine hisses and sputters as students line up for Starbucks lattes and Krispy Kreme doughnuts before heading off, snacks in hand, to the library's study areas. In the main reading room, students sprawl on couches and plush chairs, as a Mozart divertimento pipes in through speakers overhead.

Robert A. Seal, the director of Texas Christian's library, got the idea for the café and the couches a few years ago while browsing in a Borders bookstore late one Friday night. "The place was packed," he says. "People could have been at the movies, but here they were at a bookstore." Around that time, he read an article in the journal American Libraries titled, "What If You Ran Your Library Like a Bookstore?" (Curiously, the article noted that, according to a Barnes & Noble annual report, the bookstore's wood fixtures and comfortable chairs are meant to invoke an "old-world library" feel.)

Mr. Seal coveted that sort of traffic, and pitched the sofas-and-lattes idea to the administration, which bought in. The sofas and music were installed in 1999. The coffee shop cost $40,000 to set up, and the university found a donor to cover half. It opened in 2000, and is run by Sodexho, a campus food-service company. Richard G. Flores, the campus's general manager of food service, says the café has been profitable, drawing a daily average of $1,200 in sales of doughnuts, energy drinks, and $4 iced mochas. The university gets an undisclosed cut of the profits.

More important to Mr. Seal, library traffic has doubled since the renovations -- from about 8,500 visits during a typical week in 1997 to more than 17,000 visits per week in the past year. Circulation has declined in that time, however, from 180,000 books checked out in 1997 to 148,000 last year. Like other colleges, Texas Christian has pushed many of its services online, from customizable "My Library" Web sites, to databases, to electronically scanned and downloadable reserve-reading material.

'Doing What the Users Want'

Considering all of those reasons not to come in, Mr. Seal relishes the hum in the café and the reading room. "It sort of fits in with my philosophy of doing what the users want, not what the librarians want," he says, adding that some of his librarians had reservations about the coffee shop, but have since come around to the idea. So far, there haven't been sticky pages, messy spills, or pest problems -- all of the traditional reasons to keep food out. Mr. Seal says he conferred with the housekeeping staff about the café and worked out a menu that would avoid crumbly foods or dark food dyes, which could stain the furniture.

He says the library will use technology to give students yet another reason come in and stay. The university plans to move the computer-help center to the library, near the reference desk. Mr. Demas, at Carleton, calls that sort of arrangement "co-location," and says that other universities are doing similar things with tutoring centers and writing centers -- a sort of one-stop-shopping experience, academic style. Students want to get information and advice "without having to schlep from one side of campus to the other."

As for the library at Carleton, Mr. Demas says that, along with an attractive reading room, he's drawing people in by setting up student collaboration spaces, author readings, and art exhibits. "Exhibits have long been a part of library programming. It provides a lively set of artifacts that tell a story that people can look at when they're taking a study break."

"I'm one of those people who spent most of my career moving things to the desktop, and I don't regret a minute of it," Mr. Demas says. "But I think it behooves us to turn our attention back to what else is going on in the library besides studying."

After all, trends show that more and more of the information that people need will be on the desktop. So what kind of place will the library be in 20 years?

"I think that it's still going to be a lively place -- only as long as people still need community," he says. "As soon as that characteristic in the population declines, then libraries will decline."


This table compares the money spent on electronic resources with the amount of money spent on all other library materials at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Fiscal year Access to
Proportion of
total spent
on electronic
All other
1991-92 $215,210 5.2% $3,889,214 $4,104,424
1992-93 $262,335 6.1% $4,054,339 $4,316,674
1993-94 $315,632 6.9% $4,256,644 $4,572,276
1994-95 $275,582 5.8% $4,519,429 $4,795,011
1995-96 $271,492 5.8% $4,381,854 $4,653,346
1996-97 $425,216 9.0% $4,296,840 $4,722,056
1997-98 $475,273 9.3% $4,619,371 $5,094,644
1998-99 $850,198 14.7% $4,937,917 $5,788,115
1999-2000 $792,790 14.1% $4,851,346 $5,644,136
2000-1 $2,026,005 32.3% $4,256,448 $6,282,453
SOURCE: State University of New York at Buffalo


Since the rise of search engines on the Internet, librarians say, reference desks get fewer questions -- but those that do come in are more complex and take more time to answer than before. Here's a distillation of some of the questions received by the reference desk at Moraine Valley Community College, in Illinois, one recent Friday afternoon, along with information on where the librarians found the answers, and how long it took them.

What type of psychology journals do you hold?

The librarian found the answer online.

5 minutes

I need to find the dividend per share of Wal-Mart stock over the last three years.

The librarian found an answer in Mergent's Handbook of Common Stocks.

5 minutes

How do I cite electronic resources for my paper?

The librarian took the student through the process and showed examples in a style guide.

10 minutes

Where can I locate a book?

The librarian showed the student the online catalog.

30 seconds

I need books on global warming.

The librarian showed the student the subject-search portion of the online catalog.

2 minutes

I need articles on a business.

The librarian showed the student business databases.

2 minutes

We need advertising costs per week and box-office receipts to make a comparison of return on investment for a business class.

The librarian scanned business and general databases with the students, searched the Web and looked for information about several specific movies. It was a tough search to complete -- successful for some movie titles but not others.

45 minutes

I want to find a Chicago Tribune article on racial profiling.

The librarian went to the Tribune index online.

3 minutes

I want to find videos about seat belts to use as a visual aid for a speech class.

The library doesn't hold any videos on this subject, so the librarian searched the holdings of area libraries in the southwest suburbs of Chicago until one was found.

15 minutes

I want to find newspaper articles on seat-belt laws.

The librarian searched online databases.

4 minutes

I want to find information about holistic medicine and nursing in nursing journals.

The librarian showed the nursing student how to search by subject in CINAHL, a database of health-care information, and discussed how to search specific fields to narrow the range.

9 minutes

How do I insert clip art into a Microsoft Word document?

4 minutes

I need information on the relationship between the number of hours practicing free throws and the proportion of successful throws in a basketball game.

The librarian found anecdotal evidence that more practice led to more success in game situations, but then found a study, published in the Journal of Sport Behavior, that found no correlation between practice and game success.

60 minutes

I want to find two books cited in this article.

The books were found at another library through an Internet search.

7 minutes

I need help e-mailing this article I found on a Web site.

5 minutes

I want to find national breast-cancer statistics for women.

The student wanted the data in hard numbers, not percentages. The librarian found the information on the Web.

20 minutes

I need information about the military training of airborne troopers.

The librarian found it in book about military education.

7 minutes

I need literary criticism about the poetry of Adrienne Rich.

The librarian found several articles in online databases and reference books.

15 minutes

Which Cajun restaurant in Blue Island, Ill., is supposed to be haunted?

The librarian found several somewhat helpful books about hauntings in the suburbs of Chicago. A Web search produced little.

45 minutes

I need a particular article about smallpox from an academic publication.

The librarian directed the student to health databases.

5 minutes

SOURCE: Moraine Valley Community College

Section: Information Technology
Page: A35

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Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education