Although there is a trend toward more social libraries on college campuses, I present a defense of the traditional, communal academic library. Academic literature supports the communal model as a unique place for students to find an atmosphere conducive to serious study habits. Let us examine both models and consider which best meets the purposes of an academic library.
The Communal Library
Gayton (2008) describes the differences between the communal library, in which scholars are studying in the same rooms, yet individually, and the social library, which has more of a coffee house atmosphere. One argument in favor of retaining the traditional, communal model is that there are no other places in America where one can sit among large numbers of people quietly concentrating on their studies. According to Antell and Engel (2006), who surveyed academic library use among faculty and graduate students, “Younger scholars were far more likely than older scholars to make statements reflecting the idea that the physical library is a unique place that facilitates the kind of concentration necessary for doing serious scholarly work.” They initially thought the students and younger faculty would prefer a more social atmosphere. I believe the younger scholars appreciate the quiet, communal atmosphere more because they have come of age in a world of noise, interruptions, and technological distractions. Perhaps the academic library is their refuge: the one place they can be alone with their thoughts, yet not isolated from the larger scholarly community.
The Social Library
The social library comes in various forms. It may resemble a coffee house or living room, or may look like a traditional academic library with additional rooms for group activities, teleconferencing, or video production. Many professors now encourage collaboration and assign group projects, so scholars do need to meet together and make some noise. These social spaces should, however, not be built at the expense of the traditional reading rooms and other quiet areas of the academic library. After all, students have many places at which to engage in social, collaborative activities. They may meet in dorm rooms, apartments, coffee houses. Professors have access to their offices and to conference rooms. The social library, unlike the communal library, is not a unique place.
Listen to the Silence
In a world of noise and distractions, where few people seem to engage in much quiet reflection, we must preserve some special, quiet place. The traditional, communal library is a refuge for scholars who need to escape from a noisy roommate or an office phone that rings constantly. Scholars are refreshed and inspired by the sight of a room filled with like-minded scholars, all working individually on serious academic pursuits. Without the communal academic library, where could they go?
Antell, K. (2006). Conduciveness to scholarship: The essence of academic library as place.College & Research Libraries, 67, 536-560.
Gayton, J. (2008). Academic libraries: “social” or “communal?” The nature and future of academic libraries. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34, 60-66.