Monthly Archives: February 2011

The meaning of “library,” and thinking about privacy

This job gives me endless opportunities to observe and hear about the different meanings that people assign to libraries.

I was recently thinking about this when at the public library (the University City branch).  So many of us come to university libraries straight from our experiences at school and public libraries.  Public libraries are places that, to my mind, are coded as private, domestic, homey spaces, much like public schools.  They are places where we assume we will be safe (or should be safe, which is why assaults at libraries and schools are so jarring).  They are places that are an extension of our homes–they are places where we can be taken care of, learn things, make mistakes and still be OK.  Libraries are where we go if we don’t have a desktop computer at home, or if ours is not working.  They are where we go for books about gardening (to help with our gardens), cooking (to help us eat well), and an array of fiction, DVDs, and music CDs (to help us when we are bored).  Our experiences with public libraries are personal ones.  Perhaps this is why public librarians are so fiercely protective of their patrons’ privacy, in terms of what they borrow.  The assumption is that people check things out of the library because they need that information in their everyday lives.  A book about bomb-making, checked out at a public library, can mean something very particular, something personally sinister, because of the private connotations of the space.

University librarians are just as fierce in their protection of patron records as public librarians–the entire profession sees patron privacy as a crucial part of how they do their jobs. 

It is NC State Law that libraries have the right to refuse to share patron records, except for in very specific circumstances.  The law is as follows:

North Carolina General Statutes § 125-19, Confidentiality of library user records
(a) Disclosure. — A library shall not disclose any library record that identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials, information, or services, or as otherwise having used the library, except as provided for in subsection (b).
(b) Exceptions. — Library records may be disclosed in the following instances:
(1) When necessary for the reasonable operation of the library;
(2) Upon written consent of the user; or
(3) Pursuant to subpoena, court order, or where otherwise required by law. 
It is traditional for most library catalog systems NOT to keep patron borrowing histories on file.  That way,  even if authorities come in with a subpoena, there is nothing to share.  Patron privacy is provided by default, in the lack of history-keeping.
University libraries are professional spaces, places where people do the work of scholarship.  If someone checks out a book on bomb-making, it’s more than likely because of a research project, and the connotaitions of that act of borrowing are less sinister than they would be at a public library.  The function of the university library transforms patron attitudes (somewhat) towards privacy–if the university library knows more about borrowing/viewing habits of its patrons, it can actually better serve those patrons by directing them towards materials that they are likely to find interesting/useful.  Some of our patrons have actually asked for us to direct them, within the catalog, to resources that they might find useful (much in the way Amazon suggests things based on your purchasing and viewing histories).
If we were to do this, we would have to keep patron viewing/borrowing history somewhere on our servers.  Should we ever be served with a subpoena, we would have materials that we would then have to hand over.  So our patrons would have to choose, between more targeted, Amazon-style recommendations from the library catalog system and absolute privacy.
I wonder which one you would choose?

The future of books

Recently the Atkins library participated in a day-long symposium on eBooks.  The keynote presentation was given by Dr. Mark Nelson, the CIO for the National Association of College Stores.  He gave a riveting talk about the potential of the new, electronic textbook:  customizable material, online supplements, video tutorials, interactive quizzes, portability, and much more.

During the panel discussion afterward, UNC Charlotte Student Body president Megan Smith gave the student perspective on textbooks, and e-textbooks in particular.  One of the points she made was that undergraduates do not highly value textbooks–they read them if they have to (i.e., if their grades will really suffer if they don’t read them), but if they can get away with it, they won’t.  Textbooks are expensive –just about any college paper has a regular feature article on just how bad it can get– and part of the cost-benefit analysis involved in buying texts is:  can I sell it back?  Or: can I buy it used?  The buying and selling of used textbooks is a crucial part of student expense management, and eBooks do not offer such options.  It’s hard to even lend an e-text to a friend, much harder than simply handing them the book.

This is the clash between what book sellers and publisher would like to sell students (framed as “what students will be doing in the future,”) and what students actually need.  Perhaps the content of textbooks is better delivered electronically.  Does it need to be an e-book?  Could it be online content, instead, independent of an e-reader?  What connection is there from what the e-book industry (and their allies in publishing) would like to happen, and the work that students are engaging in, in their everyday lives at university?

In my observations of students in the library, and in the classroom, I see them using a variety of media–they might or might not have laptop computers, but they always have something that is paper, either a notebook, a textbook, printed out articles, or (frequently) all three of those.  I see people using their smart phones, but not so much for the studying part of their day as for the other parts of their day–the keeping in touch with friends and family, the scheduling of their activities (yes, that includes academic scheduling, when to get to class, etc).  Paper is still very much a part of the everyday lives of students.  They write notes on paper, they highlight paper textbooks, they write in the margins of articles printed out on paper.  Some of those functions are incorporated into the latest e-readers, and I’m sure those functions will get more effective through time–but at what financial cost?

At a time when tuition costs are rising, and it’s increasingly difficult to find employment, assuming that students will be able to pony up for an expensive electronic device when they are already struggling to acquire the paper materials they need for classes is a flawed assumption.

I will be interested to see what happens in the future.  What do you do, to get the materials you have to know to do well in your classes?  Professors, how will you (or will you) change what you require your students to read for your classes?

Information on Library eBook resources can be found here:

A library story

I heard a story yesterday, from a faculty member in the College of Education, about the renovation of Atkins library in the late 1990s.  During that renovation, the two separate pieces of the library, the original building (opened  in 1964), and the tower (completed in 1972), were to be connected by a wrap-around structure (what is now the ground-3rd floors of the library).  A new brick facade would make the three structures feel connected aesthetically as well as physically.

The original plan was to use a state-of-the-art method to face the building with bricks:  a top-down method!  The entire campus witnessed the bricks being put on, the facade creeping down the building.
Finally it was finished.  Except then, the bricks started to fall off.

The facade had to be replaced, this time with a less-revolutionary (but more effective) bottom-up approach to laying the brick surface. 

Top-down didn’t work!  I love this as a metaphor for how a library, and indeed a university should function.  Attention needs to be paid to the grass-roots actions and needs of the university community:  students, faculty, and staff alike.  Out of an understanding of those everyday priorities can arise effective policies.  That is a large part of the rationale for the Atkins Ethnography Project–to ground the decisions we make as a library in a fine-grained knowledge of what our patrons are doing, what they think they need, and what we can effectively provide.

Quiet Zones and where to do work in the library

You may have noticed that furniture is being moved around in the library this semester.  Last semester, we moved carrels out of the ground floor (near the Library Cafe), and moved in the couches, chairs, tables, and whiteboards that are there now .  As of this semester, carrels have been moved from the second floor, on the eastern side of the atrium (in front of the glass wall, in front of the periodical stacks), and replaced by open tables and wooden chairs.

Where are the carrels being placed?

Some of them went to the western end of the library, along the curved wall of windows, overlooking the SAC.  Most of them are going up to the third floor, where open tables are being replaced by carrels.

Why all the moving around?  We are trying to take furniture that speaks of quiet study (carrels) and move it into spaces well-suited for quiet study (the western end of the library away from the main entrance, the third floor).  We shall see if those furniture-based signals translate into actual quiet.  Carrels also make it harder to do group work.  By providing more space on the first, second and ground floors for groups to get work done, we provide a place for people to go when they need to be constructively noisy.

This is on my mind not just because of the furniture moving, but also because of a recent suggestion box entry which stated, “There are many things library could do to provide a good/quiet environment for students who want to study, But library really doesn’t do any.”

I just don’t think this is true.  Our work is far from finished, but we are trying, with the right placement of furniture and policy, to provide both quiet spaces (the third floor, the ground floor in the compact stacks room, and all of the tower floors) as well as spaces where people can work with a steady (yet manageable) level of noise.

Part of the job of keeping the library noise levels manageable is, frankly, up to the people who use the space.  Once we’ve made it clear on our end where you can do what kind of work, it’s  up to you (and your classmates and colleagues) to find the place that fits.  And to pay attention to the furniture cues around you, and also to what other people are doing in the space in which you find yourself.

So, working in a group?  Try a table on the first floor.  Or a group study room.–we’ve created several more study rooms in the last semester.   Or a table on the second floor near the atrium.  Or the new collaborative study space on the ground floor, near the Library Cafe.

Working by yourself, but don’t mind a dull roar around you?  (maybe the noise actually helps you focus?).  Anywhere in the library can be right for you.

Need a quiet place to focus?  Try the Halton Room, at the back of the main floor of the library.  Or anywhere on the Third Floor.  Or the western end of the first and second  floors (overlooking the SAC), or the second floor back in the periodicals, in the eastern part of the library.  Or try the tower floors, or the desks in the compact stacks room, on the ground floor.

We are working all the time to figure out what you need to do, and to try to configure spaces in the library to facilitate that work.  As new furniture arrangements (and occasionally, new furniture) appear, you can help by giving us feedback on what works and what doesn’t.  

You can do that here:

Or by commenting on this blog, sending me an email, or even by leaving a message at the Info Desk.
And we can see what gets used, and what doesn’t, and work further to make things into a better fit.

One final note:  loud phone conversations feel out of place everywhere.  But that’s a larger etiquette problem, one not easily solved by the library alone!