Academic libraries: Social or Communal? The nature and future of academic libraries by J.T. Gayton

Gayton, J. T. (2008). Academic libraries: “Social” or “Communal?” The nature and future of academic libraries. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34(1), 60-66.

I’m reproducing the author-provided abstract here to facillitate the discussion.

    The apparent death of academic libraries, as measured by declining circulation of print materials, reduced use of reference services, and falling gate counts, has led to calls for a more “social” approach to academic libraries: installing cafés, expanding group study spaces, and developing “information commons.” This study compares these social models with the traditional academic library, whose spirit is best understood as “communal.” It argues that this communal spirit is unique and greatly valued by academic library users. Efforts to create a more social academic library threaten this communal spirit and may do more harm than good.

This is a rare cry amidst the huge wave of Library 2.0 and Librarian 2.0 literature. It questions the dominant library model which Gayton terms “social” and argues that the advent of this model is threatening the true value of the academic library. True value being encapsulated in the “communal” model which Gayton describes as “the experience of seeing and being seen by others, quietly engaged in the same serious studious activity.

I get what Gayton is trying to say. Our own library’s survey has revealed the students want more quiet study area. The problem is that they are not necessary quietly studying library materials. In that sense, this need can be replaced efficiently by reading rooms. Equally quiet, equally seen and more economically viable. I think it is hard to justify to university management for money to provide quiet study area…unless the next University President is Kishore Mahbubani or Tommy Koh.

But Gayton’s argument is attractive. I am one of those who like to visit libraries, browse book shelves, pick up a book, pick a nice quiet spot and read. It is very calming and I like it when serendipity steps in and I learn something interesting in a book.

One axe to grind. Gayton, like others, oversimplify the causes of declining academic library usage. It is not just the Internet per se. The tertiary education scene has changed a lot. I remember as a young undergraduate, I used to have to look for recommended books myself. Now, students buy course packs with all the readings conveniently printed and organized. Why would they need to come to the library?

More group assignments mean higher division of research labour. Less people are consulting the same materials. Less time to contemplate and dig in. We used to have an entire year to learn one subject. Now, a course is over in 13-14 weeks. If they can’t even finish reading their course packs, where would they have time to expand their reading to related fields?

On a lighter note, I would like to mention that there is another common use of the library.

Another common use of the library
Is this considered social or communal?