Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Medium Sized, Somewhat Friendly Giant: A Library Update

Last Thursday, I sat with Mrs. Pearl Berger, Dean of Libraries, to discuss the suggestions posted here for improving the library. What follows is a point by point update, broken into three sections: Success, Keep Me Posted, and Never Say Never. Preceding, however, are two statements of faith:

User friendly doesn’t mean offering great services, it means offering pretty good services that are convenient, easy to use, and time-efficient enough to merit a snappy “Oh, it’ll only take a sec” and not a grudging “I’d love to, but I’m a busy student.”

Books can sit in a warehouse; it’s the little things that make a library.

When we reach Never Say Never, we’ll have an opportunity to revisit these two themes.

1. Offer YU students Color Printing- The Library is working on it. In real life, that means we’ll have to wait a semester or two. Large institutions move with relative sloth- all we can do is urge the Library to get it done as soon as possible.

2. Put old magazines into circulation- The Library is happy to put a small number of publications into circulation. While I see no reason to not go all out, this is certainly a satisfactory test-drive. I’m working on the list of which magazines will be included, in case you have any suggestions.

3. New and improved suggestion boxes- They’re on their merry way.

4. The Sixth Floor (aka 4th) is a quiet floor, even for librarians- Tell them to be quiet. Dean Berger agrees- there’s no excuse.

5. Provide golf pencils and paper squares at all reference computers- Thankfully, the Library has really come through on this issue. Unfortunately, though, I’ve realized that most stations are now sans-pencil. It makes sense: public writing utensils aren’t known for their permanence. I pray the Library doesn’t view this “pencil crisis” as a debilitating factor. The tremendous student feedback more than justifies the cost of a few dozen pencils distributed every couple of weeks.

Keep Me Posted: Still in the Works
1. Publish and distribute a Library Map and Guide- Apparently, this has been done before, but without great success: no one actually read them. Nonetheless, the Library is open to giving it another shot.

The key, obviously, is doing it right. The most useable info, in the most useable format. It should be student-focused: detailing material that student’s actually care about. I have visions of “The Underground Guide to the YU Library.” Here’s an example: it won’t expound upon the Library’s special collections, but it will tell you where to find an Artscroll Gemara.

2. New floor numbers for a new library culture- The Library has no objection, but it’s the Department of Facilities’ jurisdiction, so I’ll take it up with them.

Never Say Never: Between Hope and Frustration
1. Put up signs on the ends of each bookshelf explaining what is contained within-
This is the most important suggestion and there’s absolutely no reason for it not to happen. Granted, some shelves contain hundreds of listings, but worry not, they all fit on a single 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. And if not, summarize! True, libraries move their collections around- which means they’re all the better equipped to move around a few pieces of paper.

2. Mix the circulation and reference libraries- Sure, most research libraries in the world don’t do it. So let’s be better than most research libraries in the world. It’s an arbitrary distinction, like housing books of less than two hundred pages on a separate floor, or publishing a Gemara’s Amud Alef’s and Amud Bet’s in separate volumes. Visitors are interested in topics: why should a single topic be split over two floors?

3. A “New Arrivals” shelf- The Library believes in the concept, just not the practice. Their current preference – pinning the book titles on a “New Arrivals” cork board – is not a compromise but a failure. Flipping open a new book only takes a second, stalking it through the halls of the Library is not something that busy students do. It goes from simple task to never-gonna-happen.

4. A “Featured Books” section- The library should request of each faculty member a single suggested volume and a brief explanation stating why it was chosen. From the hundreds of titles, the library could feature a dozen a week. I know the YU faculty is busy, but this is, at most, an annual request of twenty minutes. It’s the sort of little thing that makes a big difference.

5. A “Microfilm of the Week”- Bells and whistles like this are what make a library more than a warehouse. Most places rely on inspiring architecture or cozy-classy interior design. OK, we’ll work with what we’ve got.

6. “Past in the Glass”- a selection of the Library’s rare tomes open and on display. Once again, the Library believes in the concept, just not the practice. Thus, the Library will be thrilled to offer tours and there’s even an all-out exhibit planned for sometime after Pesach. Of course, these totally miss the point. YU students, as Dean Berger agrees, don’t have time for tours. The Library must take these noble ambitions and bend them to the two aforementioned rules. How can we make this a constant, integral part of the library culture? How can we make it quick and time-efficient? No grand tours or exhibits, but a simple, consistent display case.

The Library needs a paradigm shift. The ideas that succeeded improve upon the basic model of a standard research library. On the other hand, the ideas that failed thus far seek to create a dynamic, inviting, browse-able library experience. It’s not an issue of resources, but of vision. It’s a question of blasting away institutional inertia and molding a new culture. It may seem like a monumental task, but it’s the little things that make a library.


Anonymous said...

congratulations ben you've gone and accomplished (or attempted to) something proactive to fix the YU experience, I see the overpowering sense of apathy that pervades the YU campus has not affected you. Now if only more students, and more importantly faculty, took such an initiative this place might actually start to resemble a real university, and not the sycophantic slumbering bureaucratic mess that it is today


Anonymous said...

To solve the pencil problem, why not put in those immovable pens, you with the stuck-on base and a string connecting it to a pen like those found in post offices and banks?

Anonymous said...

Ok, that had a typo in it.

To solve the pencil problem, why not put in those immovable pens, you know, with the stuck-on base and a string connecting it to a pen like those found in post offices and banks?

Tzvi Feifel said...

Great Job!

Thanks for putting in all the effort!

Anonymous said...

I think you should do a rogue bookshelf labeling beta test. Write down one or two general topics contained in each stack (at least for one section of the library), print them up on index cards, and one night just tape them up at the end of each shelf. With any luck, the library will get positive feedback about it and expand on it themselves.

Jesse A. said...

Great job getting something done here. I think, though, that the problems you're focusing on are largely cosmetic, and that the library has larger issues. I'm new to YU, so maybe I've just had some bad experiences, but the YU library system is missing two services which are essential to any functioning research library. The first is the ability to request a book, so that if it's out it will be put on hold for you as soon as it gets in. The second, and much more significant problem, is the ability to recall books, and to penalize people, especially faculty members, who don't return them. For example, if somebody has renewed a book twice, you should be able to recall it, and if not, the fines should go up. Hell, I was once looking for a book I needed, which the library owns. It was due 2 and a half years ago, but it was checked out by a faculty member, so I was told that there was nothing the library could do. As nice as the changes you're looking for are, they don't speak to the fundamental services the library is supposed to provide. Too often the library owns the books you're looking for, but has no way to insure that they are easily accessible to students. This is the larger problem. (Whew... that was a vent. Sorry if it came off as knocking what you accomplished, which I think is tremendous. Nor do I want to attack the staff, who I find very helpful. But the library has far more fundamental problems than floor numbering and a new acquisitions section.)

Jesse A. said...

Make insure, ensure. Should have proofread that.