- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

College librarians have a well-deserved, no-nonsense reputation that comes from more than a century of shushing undergraduates and hauling them out by the ear if they catch students in the stacks with food or drinks.
It's a reputation Robert Seal knows well but is doing his best to live down as the university librarian at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Under his leadership, the college's library in the fall shifted to a less austere approach, adding a bookstore-style coffee bar at its entrance. Today, students and faculty chat, munch doughnuts and enjoy muted pop music on comfy couches.
It's one of many responses to competition from the Internet and electronic databases, which have thrown the quiet world of the college library into a state of flux. Legislators and even college administrators are looking for proof that libraries still matter to students, who would rather use a search engine than hike to the library for a book.
Book circulation and the number of questions asked of reference librarians at the nation's top university research libraries dropped in 1999-2000 to their lowest level in a decade, according to the Association of College and Research Libraries. On many campuses, libraries are quieter than even librarians would like.
Now, however, there's a nationwide bid to reaffirm the library as the intellectual heart of the campus, with college librarians loosening up on rules and trying to make libraries more comfortable and compelling places to be.
Nearly $500 million has been spent on library additions, renovations and new buildings at 50 different campuses in the past two years, the American Library Association reported in January.
Like Texas Christian University, at least a dozen colleges have incorporated cafes or coffee bars into their libraries, according to an informal e-mail survey of college librarians. Under pressure to be more accommodating, the restriction on drinks and food long suspected of drawing rodents and bugs seems to be loosening.
"Kids check these books out and take them home and read them while they're eating," Mr. Seal says. "We decided food and books could coexist."
Such innovations are only one approach being used to reinvigorate libraries. Another is simply starting from scratch. That's what Eastern Michigan University did in 1988 when it opened the Bruce T. Halle Library, a $41 million building dramatically different from its predecessor. Myriad rooms with picture windows and ubiquitous computer access make it easy for groups or classes to meet and collaborate on assignments. Yes, there's a cafe downstairs, too.
"Our circulation has gone up, way up," exults Rita Bullard, systems librarian at the Halle Library. What she means is the number of books checked out increased about 10 percent in the past three years while foot traffic called "gate count" has jumped about 50 percent.
Although he didn't design the Halle Library, an authority on library design at the Boston firm of Perry, Dean, Rogers says less space for books and more for meeting areas is a key feature of the new breed of libraries.
"In the classic library, which is simply a repository of material, the setup is much more introspective," says Steven Foote, a principal at the firm. "It's typically filled with carrels and emphasizes individual research. That's still available in new libraries, but because of pedagogical changes, the new buildings must have areas for group study."
Most observers, though, say coffee bars and meeting rooms in new facilities are probably not alone sufficient to save campus libraries from the digital onslaught. Yet, ironically, what may save them is the information avalanche itself.
First, information technology is moving so swiftly that information stored in any format is quickly dated. That makes relying on it for long-term, in-depth scholarship problematic. In addition, online database companies and e-book sellers merge or go out of business frequently, so there's the possibility that Internet research sources that exist today may not tomorrow.
Second, the information available online has no overall quality control to assure the veracity of information. That makes most of it useless for scholarship unless undergraduates are carefully trained by librarians to discern which Web-based material is solid.
One place that has adapted to a faster pace is the D.H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University, which in 1998 became what is apparently the nation's only 24-hour-a-day university library.
"The joy in 24-hour access … is that students can go there to study anytime they want," says Matt Flanery, an NCSU senior majoring in chemical engineering. "I may be motivated to go to the library as late as 2 a.m. and sometimes as early as 5 a.m."
Another critical factor he cites is the library as a place of refuge.
"Being able to get away from noisy dorms and distracting television and food and roommates is a great boon," he says, "especially when hard-core cramming is necessary."

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