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The Modern Library: Learning in Community

by Roger White

Surrounded by assorted computers, laptops, notebooks, tablets, and smartphones to multitask their way through an array of information streams and delivery channels, students congregate daily in the most dynamic learning spaces on campus—the libraries. Working independently, side by side with friends, or in collaborative groups, they process ideas, seek answers, and imagine. Students today recognize that learning happens in community, and they eagerly take advantage of the opportunity. Nearby, writing tutors and a technical support network offer specialized assistance, a coffee shop fortifies and comforts them, librarians bring their unique brand of expertise to those navigating the library’s ever-expanding resources, and yes, real books still live on the shelves.

The digital age, however, prompts university library professionals across the country to reconsider the purposes of libraries and their role in the modern academy. Many colleges and universities respond by restructuring their libraries, while others opt for significant makeovers. Since many materials typically kept by libraries are now available electronically, and online searches increasingly mimic traditional reference desk services, some universities go to great lengths to transform the library to reclaim its position as the hub of information processing on campus. Some institutions have eliminated bound books to create innovative study areas. Others have blended physical space with art galleries, museum exhibits, and technology-free zones to promote alternative places for contemplation and reflection. In all instances, librarians have developed new skills and embedded themselves deeply into the curricular needs and classroom life of specific subject areas. Under the leadership of Paul Gray, Ed.D., dean and professor of University Libraries, APU’s libraries stand uniquely positioned to take advantage of these opportunities and innovations. Gray’s vision for the future of the library includes three major initiatives that reflect the best thinking in library science and address critical research and curricular needs of the modern academy.

The first initiative involves helping students understand the basics of dealing with information. The American Library Association defines information literacy as the ability to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Recently, the APU’s Faculty Senate and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the university’s accrediting agency, mandated that every undergraduate syllabus include information literacy learning outcomes. Though librarians have promoted these skills for years, the copious amount of information and technology formats now available and necessary sparks a renewed emphasis on how to find, appraise, and use information wisely. In an era when some advocate that educators be “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage,” librarians go further by serving as “sages on the side,” knowing that education entails learning how to learn and how to process scholarly information.

The second initiative involves supporting faculty members’ scholarly pursuits by storing their professional work in a digital archive called an institutional repository. Comparable to combining a library with an academic publisher, this creates a virtual display case filled with APU faculty-generated scholarship. In addition to faculty materials, institutional repositories can host professional journals, student dissertations, administrative documents, and works such as videos, music, and images. Making these resources freely available to global researchers serves the broader learning community, displays a generosity of spirit, and advances the reputation of the university.

The third initiative promotes the advancement of Special Collections, an area of the library that seeks to re-enchant the research process by providing ancient manuscripts, historical artifacts, fine printings, and rare books. Not all primary source materials effectively translate to a digital format, and scholars often desire to experience the original texts. As APU Libraries’ Special Collections celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the university continues to acquire and preserve materials pertinent to the research interests of the faculty as well as the educational needs of neighboring communities to honor, protect, and celebrate shared heritage and stories.

Today, APU’s libraries rise to the challenge and adapt to the needs of the modern academy in many ways. The online school librarian master’s degree, as well as other degree programs under development, continues the tradition of the library science profession. Increased seating capacity in all three libraries promotes collaborative learning and extends services to more students. Also, remarkable exhibits supplement the libraries’ resources by offering rare opportunities to view primary sources firsthand. These exhibits have featured Dead Sea Scroll fragments, African-American women authors, the writings of C.S. Lewis, and commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the 75th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and the 50th anniversary of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This year the library celebrates the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten and illuminated Bible in more than 500 years.

The evolving APU Libraries invite seasoned and emerging researchers as well as visitors to join in creating an interdisciplinary learning community that honors the diverse scholars who preceded us, celebrates a research legacy that inspires us, and recovers primary sources that connect us with the past. All of this richness reflects a spirit of discovery, listening, reflection, and surprise as together we create a scholarly environment that adds to the ongoing research conversation made possible when redeemed imagination and hospitable community meet.

Roger White, Ed.D., is a professor in University Libraries and the Department of Graduate Ministry, and curator of Special Collections and Rare Books. rwhite@apu.edu

Illustration by Michael Musa '15

Originally published in the Spring '14 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).