Monday, December 3, 2007

Our Big Friendly Library

The YU Vent is eager to spotlight guest posts from other other YU fans. Here is a guest post from YU Sophomore Ben Greenfield, author of two excellent blogs, The Kavana Project and The Dvar Torah Project. Please send well written posts to - if they are about YU and well-written, they will be vented.

UPDATE: Dean Berger has acted! Suggestion #1 has been implemented. Thanks Dean Berger! Congratulations Ben!

One down, thirteen to go... :)

The Wilf Campus Library is an unfortunate metaphor for YU as a whole. Both house an immense store of first-class scholarship, while uniquely combining Torah and secular disciplines under a single institutional roof. Both inspire an overwhelming sense of potential: so much to see, so much to experience, so much to become. And both, to their great discredit, have dabbled in the dark art of user-unfriendliness. They suffer from classic symptoms of Big: mediocre communication, aversion to change, poor user-interface, and an uninspiring common culture.

But not all big is bad: some giants are friendly and inviting. These Big Friendly Giants supply that sense of magic, wonder, insight, and adventure that only well-presented hugeness can. The YU Library takes wonderful steps towards being big, but needs to work on its friendly and inviting. To do so, it must focus on two primary goals: 1) Transforming itself into a user-friendly institution 2) Re-inventing itself as a window into the fascinating and inspiring knowledge which it contains. What follows are 14 suggestions towards these ends. Some utilize resources already in the Library's possession, while others reflect services basic to a visitor-centered establishment. Thus, all are simple, inexpensive, and undeniably doable.

(1. Provide golf pencils and paper squares at all reference computers. Yes, I should have come prepared with my own scrap paper and pen, but I didn't. YU should emulate every other human-style library in the country by providing this simple convenience. For free, recyclable, and stylish slips of paper, put out the library's old index cards.
) This has been done!

2. Publish and distribute a Library Map and Guide. It would include such gems as the difference between floors 5 and 5a, what a reference librarian is, which floor is the quiet floor, a guide to the printing system, how and where to check out books, et cetera – in other words, the basic library information which most YU students never really learn. Likewise, it could foster a sense of importance and history by highlighting the Library's special collections and key moments.

3. Put up signs on the ends of each bookshelf explaining what is contained within. The key to friendly is browse-ability. Currently, little signs on each shelf state the Library of Congress subsection (e.g. "575.4-581.2"), which is only useful if you carry a call number in hand. By posting a full listing and description (e.g. 575.4- Maimonidean Theology -- 575.5- Maimonidean Medical Writings, etc.) of the volumes shelved, the Library will enable its visitors to browse and wander and lose themselves in the fascinating material that lines each shelf. At the least, forgetting one's call number will no longer mean a lengthy trudge back to the computers, but a quick glance at these useful signs.

4. New floor numbers for a new library culture. 2a, 3a, and 5a may seem like minor technicalities, but they inspire more groans, chuckles, and negativity than perhaps any other decision in the history of Yeshiva University. It's time for a change.

5. Mix the circulation and reference libraries. Walking between floors is annoying and seriously detracts from the all important ability to browse. A "C" sticker on circulation material should suffice.

6. A "New Arrivals" shelf. New books should be showcased on front and center shelves. They encourage interest, spark curiousity, and show off the library's new and burgeoning resources.

7. A "Featured Books" section. The library should request 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. Once again, it would stimulate interest, spark conversation, and endow YU students with insight into their professors and Rashei Yeshiva.

8. A "Microfilm of the Week". The Library currently owns 11,000 microfilms representing 11,000 ways to collect dust. What a tragedy – they're so cool! From the Gottesman website: "Of particular note are . . . Hebrew manuscripts from the Vatican Library." Wow! Would I ever inconvenience myself by asking a librarian to locate one of these guys, set up the machine, and teach me how to use it? Certainly not. However, a prominently placed machine, set up and running, displaying a featured microfilm and a paragraph of explanation would open up this tremendous resource to students who would otherwise continue to ignore it.

9. "Past in the Glass" – a selection of the Library's rare tomes open and on display. Who isn't intrigued by the crystal palace of antique seforim on our Library's 6th floor (a.k.a. 4th Floor). Alas, that palace has become a prison and the transparency of glass is but a lie; a simple display case will give the average student a taste of the magic.

10. The 6th Floor (a.k.a. 4th) is a quiet floor, even for librarians. It's annoying and in bad taste. Sure, some conversation between librarians is inevitable and understandable, but everything else is just insensitive.

11. Offer YU students Color Printing. Black and white doesn't always cut it. If it is significantly more expensive, then charge significantly more for it. Very few students are short on printing credits.

12. Put old magazines into circulation. I understand why new issues are not circulated - it's not fair to the other twenty sophomores dying to spend Shabbos with a Sports Illustrated. But last month's New Yorker? Last year's Atlantic Monthly? These are some of the Library's most enjoyable publications.

13. The overdue problem is overdue. It's frustrating to search for a title only to find that its two weeks overdue. I hope the Library extends some effort in hunting down the responsible parties and here are few suggestions in aiding the process: 1) Put the name of the culprit in the search engine. The student searching for his book is the most motivated to bug him to return it. 2) In my Israeli yeshiva, they held my passport until I returned my books. It worked. I suggest a hundred dollar library deposit, to be returned upon graduating over-due free. 3) Steeper fines and a freeze on library use. I've been guilty of late returning, but I've never felt guilty from late returning. The kind librarians have let me off, allowing me to continue borrowing books while reducing the fine I would otherwise have to pay. I appreciate it, but I admit that its wrong.

14. New and improved suggestion boxes. The Library already has suggestion boxes, just inaccessible ones. Let's assume that communication is a good thing. That being the case, the boxes should be prominently placed, complete with bright and clear signs. The last time I visited a suggestion box the appropriate complaint forms were missing. I was about to suggest we get more, but, well, like I said, the appropriate forms were missing. It's a vicious cycle.

The library is one of the most professional and forward-thinking parts of our University. Apart from the Batei Midrash, I would venture to say that the library is the only building on campus that excites a sense of fondness and memory. Occasionally, however, the small sins of user-unfriendliness and gaps of untapped potential build to a peak of legitimate frustration. Following these fourteen suggestions will present a proud message to the students of YU: while every institution has a little bit of backwardness built into its foundations, the library can quickly and cheaply turn itself around.


Eli said...

First of all, I'm not a librarian and don't play one on TV. But in any case, I disagree with a few of your points.

1. This is annoying. But, to be honest, every other university library I've been to (6, off the top of my head) did not provide such luxuries. But if I had to change one thing in the library, this would be it, hands down.

3. Again, I've never seen this anywhere. But this is more a failing the general library standard, and not YU. The truth is, though, after a few searches in an area you're interested in, you'll know the call numbers (the first place I go in any library is the QC section).

4. Do floor numbers really matter that much? What bothers me, however, is that the buttons in the two elevators are not aligned the same way. One elevator can go to an extra floor, and they transposed the buttons in a stupid way. Check that out...

5. Again, a library standard. While it would help browsing, libraries seem to be more about organization than accessibility.

So, it seems to me that a number of your complaints are regarding the overall library system, which, overall, YU's library does a fine job of maintaining. And you are not alone lamenting the usefulness of the Dewey decimal system and related things that limit library's usefulness. Have you tried Google Book Search?

Student said...

I actually work in two libraries, and I must say that most of your suggestions are good, and are usually a standard, including 1.

5 however is a bad idea. Mixing the reference with the circulation will just result in student confusion and complaints about being able to take out one book and not the one next to it.

6 Having a new/current section just means that people looking for the book won't be able to find on the shelf. It's frustrating and time consuming for the student.

A problem you haven't addressed is the lack of books at the Stern library - usually a negetive where libraries are concerned

Ibn Avraham said...

I'm not a librarian (I have played several dozen on TV), so I had little experience with libraries in general. However, I had plenty of quality time with the Gush library, which employs many of the suggestions that I mentioned in my post.

The Gush library houses a significantly smaller collection yet harbors a significantly stronger sense of love and adoration. The difference is simple: browsability. A shana alef guy can spend a year strolling through the rows of knowledge and wonder in Alon Shvut, searching for Truth, God, and Torah. A YU student can spend a year strolling in the YU library, lost and unsure where he's going.