The Once and Future Library: when Once? and how Future?

At Sacred Heart University I have been leading the first phase of a strategic directions initiative to articulate the highest-level aspirations of the organization, and to mark ways that the Library can leverage its expertise and strengths to enhance the intellectual life of the University and advance its mission.

As part of listening, thinking, and planning together, we have read discussed some truly thought-provoking articles and reports. Two of these in particular are from MIT: Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms, and The Once and Future Library. These are very different documents: the first is a report of MIT’s Online Education Policy Initiative. The second is a report from the MIT News Office, and summarizes remarks by several MIT senior librarians made at (or responding to) a panel discussion concerning the future of the library.

Despite their differences in format and subject matter, the two documents converge on several questions and concerns about the changing role of the library is the quickly-evolving ecosystem of higher education.

  • Preserving the cultural record —both the “wild frontier” of digital preservation and the massive challenge of “analogue” preservation— complements the online education report’s call for fostering thinking communities that identify and develop the change agents and role models for implementing reforms. Without access to the materials, scholarly traditions of higher education, or the “thinking communities” that the report advocates, will be unable to realize the good intentions of the reformers. The past cannot constrain the future, but without it neither reforms can be adequately grounded both in prosaic institutional realities and perennial threshold questions that undergird scholarly disciplines.
  • The future of the collections (at MIT and elsewhere) will be entwined with increasing disciplinary collaborations across fields of research in higher education. Until the past few years it was common inside libraries to think about the “collections” that supported distinct fields of study: British literature, community nursing, entrepreneurship, or cellular biology, to name only a few. As the library’s role of assembling scholarly materials diminishes, however (insofar as so much is available digitally, with or without pay walls), the library’s role of publishing and codifying scholarly materials has grown. This suggests the simple question: What is the library for?  While the report may have intended “fields of research in higher education” to be those it named, from neuropsychology to meta-analysis and assessment, the importance of disciplinary collaborations and interdisciplinary conversation embraces widely disparate fields, and the library has a central publishing and fostering role as a digital and analogue commons. The threshold concepts that critically examine the interests, biases, and assumptions present in the information ecosystem suggest a unified field of varying forces that more hold the scholarly disciplines together than tear them apart –the threshold concepts that are fact "what the library is for" (both as purpose and as advocacy).
  • The Once and Future Library begins by noting how ancient libraries (such as Alexandria) held a lecture hall, refectory, and porch where scholars could talk, collaborate, read, and eat. Now the modern library —such as even Sacred Heart University Library— has versions of these facilities inside, and is far from merely a “reading room” or “book warehouse.” The Policy Initiative recognizes the numerous contributions of fields such as motivation and rewards in learning, health and nutrition, and learning spaces, and “the necessary mix of cognitive, social, and interpersonal skills needed for life and work.” (p. 18)  The library is both a literal and physical learning space.

These convergences (preservation, collaborations, and a holistic vision of learning) strongly imply a spectrum of abilities, practices, and habits of mind, that expands and deepens through engagement with the information ecosystem.  This is close to the definition of the Framework for Information Literacy published by the Association of College and Research Libraries in 2015.  Although higher education as an introduction to “life-long" learning has become a cliché, “life-long” still has great meaning to those on the receiving end of fundamental, continuing, and painful social change.  The disposition towards learning inherent in information literacy offers a pathway through the world as we are finding it.

The confluence of a kind of lazy, informal postmodernism and casual digital culture has led many to wonder whether the constitutive commitments to truth, goodness, and beauty that have characterized Western higher education for millennia have simply ceased to be relevant. Both documents from MIT suggest strongly otherwise —and coming from one of the fonts (MIT) of all things digital, constructivist, and cognitivist, this is surprising and reinvigorating at once.

The dynamic, digital scaffold proposed by the Policy Initiative could be able (or will be able to) extend the necessary mix of cognitive, social, and interpersonal skills that are thresholds to genuine engagement without limitations by the modes of pedagogy, either on-ground or online.

The Policy Initiative proposes a “learning engineer” at the center of that dynamic digital scaffold. At MIT “engineer” is a “good” word signifying “us, what we stand for,” while for those outside MIT "learning engineer" may connote “narrow, technical, and highly specialized” instead. I understand “learning engineer” to be local MIT-speak for “instructional designers,” and the “design thinking” at the heart of educational enterprise. The Policy Initiative’s strong recommendation that such individuals need far greater support and integration with subject-based academics is heartening.  Ironically, it also strongly suggests what instructional librarians have been trying to do for a long time with little fanfare, external comprehension, or support. “Design thinking” is now at the heart of librarianship, and can only strengthen on-ground, hybrid, and digital pedagogies.  In a sense a library is a perpetual "beta" of the Initiative's "dynamic digital scaffold."

At Sacred Heart University Library, our strategic directions initiative has already moved ahead with recalling and creating “the once and future library.” We are searching for an instructional design librarian, intentionally a hybrid kind of work, and we are engaging the university community in planning further library building, collections, and service renovations (re-newing, indeed!). What is most important about this initiative is not the resulting document, but the process itself of listening, thinking, and planning together.

Remarks at the Rededication of the Ryan-Matura Library, Nov. 2, 2011

First, on behalf of the entire library staff I wish to thank all those in the University and in the construction trades which made this day possible.  What a pleasure it was to work with Marc Izzo and Scott Rowland in particular.  I also want to extend my personal special thanks to Patrick Rose, our architect, who patiently listened to explanations of why the library needed one feature or another, and insights from our regular observation of how library users actually use the library.

I also wish to recognize the good work of Amanda Timolat, our Archivist, and Emily Underwood, her student library assistant, in creating the display behind the glass wall at the rear of the Chartwell's Starbucks Library Cafe.

As you may have read, or heard here today, this library was dedicated on September 28, 1968 and re-dedicated as the Ryan-Matura Library on September 11, 1993.  I want to take a moment to recall the first event, in 1968.  The speaker that day was Philip J. Scharper, and the guest of honor was our founder, the Most Reverend Walter Curtis, Bishop of Bridgeport. 

Mr. Scharper was a very active Catholic writer and publisher.  Trained at Woodstock Theological Seminary, a protégé of John Courtney Murray, he never entered the priesthood but instead taught briefly before he became associate editor of Commonweal magazine in 1955.  He was specially consulted by the Second Vatican Council on the Catholic Church’s role in the modern world.  From 1957 to 1970 he was editor in chief at Sheed & Ward before he co-founded Orbis Books in 1970.  Three years later, he edited and published Gustavo Gutierrez’ famous book A Theology of Liberation.  Mr. Scharper remained at Orbis until his death in 1985.

On that day in September 1968 Scharper held up in particular a phrase from the British writer Thomas Carlyle, that “the library is the beating heart of the University.” In 1968 that was a brave hope, as the young University was still coming together, but Scharper connected what this library represented then with the broad intellectual tradition of the Church and in particular the tradition of the love of learning and the desire for God lived out in the Benedictine tradition.  He concluded that the library is not only to be the beating heart of a community of learning, but of a community of love.

Scharper, following Carlyle before him, was attempting to give real life to a phrase that sometimes can become a tired academic cliché, that the library is the heart of the University.  Since 1968 many things in universities have changed, and I am so bold as to suggest that that familiar phrase needs to be re-positioned.   Many of the elements of this University –food service, athletic facilities, public safety officers, library, even the Chapel –could and do exist in other contexts without a University.  For example, the Town of Fairfield has a vibrant and thriving library.  

The real heart of the University is in the daily interaction of teachers and learners.  Without a faculty and without students, together, we don’t have a University.  Those teachers and learners –both faculty and students are teachers and learners in different ways—need a variety of contexts and settings to pursue their work: classrooms, laboratories, overseas locations, offices, clinics, field work, and even a library.

The library is part of the beating heart of the university—that contact of learners and teachers—when it truly enacts and exemplifies part of the University’s mission.  This is the truth that shines through this renovation, and how it shines through can be seen in library architecture. 

The original 19th-century modern academic library buildings were reader-oriented: books in the service of readers.  Large windows illuminated alcoves and bays with natural light for reading; the monastic tradition was strong in these buildings, whether James Gamble Roger’s Gothic Revival Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, or McKim, Mead and White’s Beaux-Arts Low Library at Columbia University.  These libraries featured large ceremonial entry spaces that usher a reader into an immediate connection with books.

But the tidal wave of publishing and new books in the 20th century required a new paradigm, the book-centered library.  Butler Library at Columbia University exemplifies this: a steel-framed structure of 18 levels of central stacks are surrounded by offices and seminar rooms with a ceremonial main reading room on the front end.  Essentially the book-oriented library is a warehouse, one hopes an elegant warehouse, and these buildings were progressively enlarged not to accommodate additional readers or services, but additional collections.

The original modular design of this library, designed by Val Carlson of Shelton, followed the book-centered paradigm of library design: a maximum of flexible space for a growing collection, designed to be expanded back into what is now the parking lot as necessary.  Over the decades, areas of this building have been re-purposed so many times that it is difficult to envision what this library was originally intended to be.  In any case, the advent of information technology began to put and end to book-centered library design by the 1990s.

This renovation represents a third paradigm of library design, the learning-centered library.  These spaces have been re-designed to host and facilitate learning interactions in many ways: group interaction, individual study, interaction with digital collections far away from this building, and especially interactions with every member of the library staff.  Some people look at this library and see a building, others see a collection, but I see people: students, librarians, faculty, and how they interact.  This is a learning-centered library, and all our librarians are educators in the context of the University. 

Above all, the learner here is meant to take responsibility for her or his own learning.  There is no one moment when this happens, but it happens whenever study becomes learning: how history majors become historians, how biology majors become biologists.  This library is a set of spaces, resources, and above all people that foster effective intentional learning.  We are a teaching and learning enterprise, and we join our student and faculty colleagues here as collaborators enacting the learning mission of this University.  The goal of self-directed learning is meant to become a reality here.

The E-Books Are Coming (… or not)

book sellers, librarians, and readers should all be panting for e-books and
e-book readers, according to the breathless press reports surrounding the
introduction of Apple's new iPad by Steve Jobs on January 25. But are they?

that e-books will completely replace printed books (“p-books” or “tree-books”)
have been around since the advent of the computer, often in tandem with
predictions about the “paperless office.” (Have you seen one lately?) To be
sure, authors, publishers, book distributors, and librarians have been
preparing for e-books –already Sacred Heart University Library has leased
access to approximately 50,000 available e-books and tens of thousands of

moment of truth, however, has not yet arrived. The reasons vary.

  • The e-book market right now
    is device-driven. Everyone who sells an e-book is also interested in selling
    –or supporting– a device, and the devices aren't compatible. You can play a CD
    or an mp3 music download on many different players. Not so with Kindles, Nooks,
    E-Readers, etc. To buy a Kindle is to decide to buy e-books from Amazon, and
    only Amazon. Book retailers won't push e-readers until there's more in it for

  • The devices aren't cheap.
    The major market for Kindles right now isn't young people, but people aged
    35-50. Why? They (sometimes) have the several hundred dollars available for an
    experimental purchase. Some of these people travel often, and a Kindle has real
    benefits for a business traveler. E-book readers so far –the iPad will probably
    be an exception– are largely single-use devices. How many college students
    want to pack a Kindle along with a laptop, books, phone, iPod, and what-else on
    campus every day?

  • The devices have often been
    hard to read for a long time. Kindle users say they get used to it. No one
    knows about the iPad yet. A e-book reader is rarely a love-at-first-sight

  • Publishers are extremely
    nervous about piracy and uncompensated file sharing. Ironically, the most
    egregious piracy comes in the form of ordinary scans of printed materials into
    .pdf files which are then easily readable almost everywhere on the Web. Who
    else could read a pirated Kindle book in Mobipocket format? Even the .epub or
    OEPBS (Open Ebook Publication Structure) which can be read via Firefox is
    unfamiliar to most people. Publishers' squeamishness about legal copies –their
    core business, after all– has contributed to reluctant embrace of e-books.

Apple can penetrated the technologically all-important youth market and the
hard-pressed and captive textbook market (markets which overlap on a college
campus) has yet to be seen. What will be the Cool factor of an iPad?


which leads to the question: so how do people really interact with e-books and