April 2019 | XXXVII. Issue 2 »

People Working in the Library, but Not For the Library: Challenge and Opportunity on Campus

March 25, 2019
Sara McHone-Chase, Northern Illinois University Libraries

An unusual thing happened to me several months ago. I was at a university luncheon, talking to some very nice strangers about their work. I finally asked them what building they worked in. “The library!” exclaimed one. It felt like a crushing blow. I realized that have no idea who all works in the library, my library, the place I’ve worked for nearly 14 years.

These people worked in the library, but not for the library, bringing up questions such as: How to create a resource that brings all these groups together? Or even one that just lists who works where so we know each other’s names? Can communication in our library among these somewhat disparate groups be improved somehow? Several months before this incident, staff members at the circulation desk were asked where a particular person in the library was located, and the patron was upset when the staff did not recognize the name: “But they work in the library! How do you not know them?”

Our library is a medium-sized academic library, but our main building, Founders Memorial, is the largest building on campus. It is probably for this reason alone that so many other university resources have taken up office there. In 314,000 square feet, we currently house 21 librarians, 46 supportive professional staff/staff members, and 50-75 student workers. Besides the office and workspace needed for all these people, the building over the years has become home to the student ID office, the information technology help desk, printing services, a writing center branch, a tutoring branch, a test-proctoring branch, a university computer lab, the Digital Convergence Lab, and a name-brand coffee shop.

Even casual observation reveals that our library is not abnormal in this regard: Gail Hiedeman, dean of Greenville University’s library reports that their building over the years has become home to Student Success, IT, student housing, the Dean of Students, faculty offices, the President’s office and Vice President of Academic Affairs’ office, and Center for Teaching and Learning. In addition, Anne Giffey, the public services librarian at Monmouth College, states that her institution is also getting ready to add college offices into the building—the Registrar and College Center, plus others. A review of library literature supports this observation: In the article “New Neighbors in the ’Hood: The Changing Face of Library Space,” Cathy Tijerino and Janie Branham, both academic librarians in Louisiana, write about the accretion of university offices and services within their library.

While communication is important between and among these different resources in the library, much more should be considered. For example, there is the impact on the library space itself when these other offices and services move in. While Tijerino and Branham state that there are various articles that discuss the reorganization of library space, those articles tend to focus on using that space to encompass new features such as collaborative learning centers, information commons, and similar concepts—but there are very few sources that discuss this other loss of library space (14). And yet, this appropriation of space is quite common. A survey created by the authors found that 86.67% of respondents reported having non-library offices and services in their libraries (15). Such services run the gamut: cafés to computer labs to writing centers, to university services such as admissions, first year experience, and others. The authors attribute to this rise in the sharing of library spaces  to factors such as the declining number of in-person library users over time while the number of Internet users has increased, that many colleges and universities are low on both space and finances, and that many libraries are typically located in the center of their campuses (14).

Rather, what becomes evident is that this subject speaks to the larger issues of library space, of library as place, and of community. The concept of the library as a “third place” refers to libraries having symbolic value within the culture, and being a place that is not the home and is not the workplace. How does this meaning change as outside services come in to the library? It is tempting to worry about the library becoming “less library,” especially if these other services have taken away precious departmental, office, or collection space. For example, if a library needs to take on a large weeding project in order to accommodate university service space, it may seem like confirmation that the traditional role of the library is losing value—what James K. Elmborg calls a “common anxiety about the changing nature of library space” (339). Elmborg also refers to “the possible loss of the absolute identity embodied in libraries as conceptual constructions” (345). But there is the flip side of this coin, too: our users may start to see the library as more relevant than before with these bonus features, and also library services and collections receive more exposure via increased traffic. For instance, Tijerino and Branham write that of the libraries that they surveyed, the impact on operations that was most often noted was “increased gate counts” (17).

Of course, external factors can impact how library communities are evolving—sometimes libraries are given limited decisionmaking power over what services and offices are transferred in to their buildings. Tijerino and Branham declare that only 21.43% of their respondents reported that their libraries initiated the decision to move other amenities into their buildings. They also cite the “lack of communication among departments prior to the move” as being a potential source of conflict (18). Finally, Elmborg explains that if libraries do not collaborate with those using the library (including outside services/departments), then the library risks losing its essential meaning (346).

The blending of the library with external services is an interesting evolution in libraries, and while it appears to be common, there is no real blueprint for how to effectively proceed to building a new community. In response to my listserv question on the issue, Giffney indicated that her library was preparing for the new services coming in to the building by updating signage and directories, while Heideman wrote that her library approached such changes by ensuring that Circulation student workers are well trained and by providing a building directory. But every institution is different and they each need to figure out how to form their own communities. As for how I plan to approach this issue in my own library, I see that good communication will help lead to the larger sense of community—I need to think more about how to achieve that. It is a project that is not only useful for the staff, or even for the users coming in, but I now have a better understanding that this is really important. Successfully finding a way to communicate effectively with every entity in the library will help us form a comprehensive community, which, in turn, will define who we are for our users.

Elmborg, James K. “Libraries as the Spaces Between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space.” Reference & User Services Quarterly  50, no. 4 (2011): 338–50.

Giffey, Anne. <AGIFFEY@monmouthcollege.edu> “What relationships does your library have w/in community?” 13 January 2019, (7 January 2019).

Gail Hiedeman. Heideman@greenville.edu> “What relationships does your library have w/in community?” 8 January 2019, (7 January 2019).

Tijerino, Cathy and Janie Branham. “New Neighbors in the ’Hood: The Changing Face of Library Space.” Louisiana Libraries  76, no. 3 (2014): 14–18.

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