Ask the Experts

Library Lament

Are college libraries still used by students in a digital age?

Since all students do research, either in a library or online, this question applies to every college. The digital age has changed libraries and how we use them. Many colleges are giving their libraries a makeover to provide students an environment and the technology for a new type of learning experience.

Library upgrades are aimed at providing students with flexible and more comfortable spaces to work alone or in groups. Using temporary walls and wheeled units allows public spaces to be changed to suit requirements. Libraries are moving away from the traditional rooms of static shelves with books and archives.

The challenge for colleges has always been funding their ambitious expansion plans. Renovation of existing structures requires a capital outlay with no offset in additional revenues, cautions Michigan financial consultants. However, a new campus building can generate tuition-based revenue with the addition of new students and programs.

Colleges are using the term ‘makerspace’ for an area where students can create and physically make things. Libraries have become far more practical with technology assisting this forward transformation. 3D printers and scanners are used in modern libraries along with wet areas and art supplies, making the entire library experience more hands-on. 

Designers are often working with older library buildings, so they have to efficiently renovate existing spaces, explains executives for charter school management. This involves cutting back on books and periodicals, or specializing in content on a particular area or region. There is no longer the need for every college library to house the same books and compete on the size of its collection.

Furthermore, students are being taught online literacy skills so they can quickly find and recognize high-quality search engine results. Advocates claim that librarians are needed now to guide students away from fake news and information across social media. According to a Stanford University study students are still having difficulty determining what content is genuine online.

The push to create community gathering places, as opposed to book repositories, is taking libraries in new directions. In order to maximize the use of space through communally based design, physical books are being removed. This has generated debate from many who feel that legitimate books, periodicals, and archived material are separate from the unregulated digital world.

Students are being encouraged to tailor their own learning experience, guided by a librarian or faculty, rather than follow traditional curriculum. The design and layout of the modern college library is meant to facilitate this new learning experience through clever use of space, glass walls and natural light.

There is also greater focus on the protection of digital resources available in college libraries. Unlike a book that can be left on a shelf for decades, digital material needs to be maintained in a readable format as software and technology changes make it obsolescent.

College libraries are evolving to maintain their place in the modern digital world.

I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book… Groucho Marx.

Martin J. Young is a former correspondent of Asia Times.