Whither the College Library?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Updated 6/14/15
When was the last time you stepped into a college library? If you’re like most, that time is somewhere in the distant past, and this is true even if your work takes you or keeps you on campus. Just as the textbook was the portal to knowledge for a course, the library was once the portal to primary sources of information for all courses. That is, before the advent of smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and the internet.

The first thing you notice when you enter is the absence of rows and rows of bookshelves. Instead, the space is filled with study carrels and tables.

The first thing you notice when you enter is the absence of rows and rows of bookshelves. Instead, the space is filled with computer workstations (above), study tables and carrels (see photos below).

Today, all the limitations that we attribute to a hardcopy textbook are reflected in the library. In a world of mobile anytime-anywhere communications and access to information, the library is looking more like a phone booth, a movie theater, a Blockbuster, or, more tellingly, a Borders. Just as the tiny businesses that sprouted along highways faded away when freeways bypassed them, the library is fast becoming a victim of the cyberway, the electronic equivalent of an extreme autobahn.

The library is a study center.

The library is a study center.

In essence, the smartphone that students carry in their pockets and bags has become the interactive portal to not just library information but to nearly all information. This fact alone probably says more about the future of libraries and, by extension, college campuses than all the articles and books ever written about the impact of technology on higher education. 

Students use their own notebooks on study tables. The entire library is a hot zone.

Students use their own notebooks on study tables. The entire library is a Wi-Fi hot zone.

Early last week, I was on campus to meet with a colleague to discuss course assessment. All of my courses are completely online, so I seldom step on campus. Since I was a little early, I went to the library to view the latest transformations. I also kept an eye out for one of my favorite people on the library staff, Guy Inaba, an educational support specialist. We seem to be on the same wavelength regarding the latest technology, and he’s consistently been two or three steps ahead of me. I always leave our talks with new ideas and new additions to my wish list.

Students in a study group.

Students in a study group.

I didn’t see him, but I did get a chance to look around and snap a few shots with my iPhone. In a way, the library is a reflection of Guy, and he is probably a reflection of library staff everywhere. He sees internet technology as an extension of library services, as a medium for a world that’s increasingly and irretrievably becoming virtual. For example, he created videos of what once were in-person lectures in a workshop series on how to succeed in college. He then placed the videos online for students to access 24/7. And he began this process many years ago.

Second floor carrels.

Second floor carrels.

In this way, the library has gradually moved many if not most of its services online, to meet the students where they are instead of where the library is. This trend, however, leaves a gaping question: What to do with the library building?

Study tables, with the circulation counter in the background.

Study tables, with the circulation counter in the background.

If our college library is an accurate barometer of change, then the answer is to stay the course and gradually convert it into a multi-purpose learning resource center. Heralding this makeover is the library’s main webpage, which makes it clear that it is no longer just a “Library” but a “Library & Learning Resources” (see the photo below) center.

Library's main webpage.

The library’s main webpage, signalling the evolution from “library” to “library & learning resources.”

This shift from book boneyard to active learning environment is mirrored in the amount of space devoted to study tables and carrels as well as computers. The entire library is a Wi-Fi hot zone, and power outlets are everywhere, on desk- and table-tops, on the walls, even on the floor — an open invitation for students to use the library as a place to recharge and work on their mobile communication devices to connect with the world of information. The library becomes the ideal hotspot for study since it’s also air-conditioned, well-lit, comfortable, and quiet.


Exhibits occupy a section of the library.

On our campus, the library has also become the center for test proctoring and tutoring. Certain sections are also used for exhibits (see photo above). Staff are highly visible on the floor and at workstations close to all the electronic action. They are expert in providing help in accessing and using electronic services as well as in traditional library research.

Stacks of books in a nook.

Stacks of books in a nook.

But what about books? Is a library still a library without stacks of books?

They’re still there, but pushed out of the way in small nooks, in the far reaches of the library like old phone booths without connecting lines, like graveyards on the fringe of cities and towns.

Stacks in the back of the second floor, with study carrels taking up most of the floor space.

Stacks in the back of the second floor, with study carrels taking up most of the floor space.

It’ll be interesting to see how the library will evolve in the next few years. My best guess is that the ratio of its online-to-onground services will continue to diverge, with online growing and onground gradually fading, a dusty fate shared with the stacks of books.

This online trend will probably mean that students will have increased access to the world’s professional epublications, made possible by the growing migration toward open access. Where subscriptions are required, costs will probably be managed by redirecting funds previously devoted to hardcopy purchases and building maintenance. In other words, the cost of upsizing online services will more than likely be offset by downsizing costs associated with maintaining a substantial hardcopy collection and a large physical space to house it.

In this shift, tutoring and test proctoring could also move online, along with more traditional library research services, with live synchronous communications stretching from weekday daytime hours to eventually reach 24/7.

Another guess is that food and drinks will eventually become a routine part of the library experience. In the real world, mobile devices go hand in hand with refreshments. Look at Starbucks. Look at desktops in dorms and offices. Look at tabletops in campus cafeterias and snackbars. For most of us, coffee and the internet are synonymous. Adding Starbucks-type services seems both natural and inevitable. [Update 6/14/15: See Lynn’s comment re the trend toward liberal food-drink policies in college libraries.]

There could come a time when a college’s library services will be completely online, reducing its footprint on campus to an administrative office. At this point, state university systems will probably centralize their library services, eliminating branch libraries on all the different campuses. As a result, existing library buildings will probably be converted to full-time “learning resource centers,” with the word “library” no longer a part of the name.

Front view of Kapiʻolani Community College Library.

Front view of Kapiʻolani Community College Library.

2 Responses

  1. Jim,

    As a former librarian and as a lover of libraries and what they represent, there’s a lot I could say in response to this very interesting piece – love the pictures, btw. However, I’ll limit it to this one comment.

    You wrote: Another guess is that food and drinks will eventually become a routine part of the library experience.

    It’s already happening. A quick google search gave me these links. You’ll notice that first couple are from the UK about cafés in libraries and computers that are available in the cafes. A couple are related to food policies in university libraries.


    • Lynn, thanks for this update! I had no idea that college libraries are already beginning to allow food and drinks. The library is the heart of a college campus, and it may very well evolve into the central model for future campus architecture, integrating mobile communications with lounges, snack services, study carrels and tables, tutoring, test proctoring, research assistance, exhibits, meeting rooms — and adding business office, counseling and advising, registration, as well as administrative services via booths or stalls. Other elements may include media rooms, general purpose classrooms, game rooms, beauty and health services, retail shops, restaurants, etc. In other words, colleges may become more like malls than campuses while maintaining an emphasis, throughout the structure, on higher ed.

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