Spring 2002
Cover Story: We don't Shhhh anymore
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Something about Mary | Special Collections: Cool stuff you didn't know was in the library | Through the years

We don't shhhhhhh anymore

The outside looks the same. Books still line the shelves and knowledge reigns. But really, this isn't your father's library.

By Rick Waters '95

In the "old" library, quiet was good and silence better. A swift tap of a pencil and a stern look suppressed talk above a whisper. Books were campus treasures and couldn't be taken from the premises. Even the stacks themselves were immobile, bolted into the building's foundation.

In the earliest days, back when men and women were segregated to different tables, if you wanted a book, you requested it through a reference librarian and a runner would fetch it. No browsing. No borrowing.

Mary Couts Burnett Library is certainly less austere today. The collection, once consisting of a few hundred books, has more than 2 million items now, from online archives to traditional bound journals.

Semesters of shushing undergraduates under Miss Nell Andrews' "Rules and Regulations" has given way to a new philosophy: Our students and faculty are not an interruption. They are our reason for being here. Placards with that motto are prominently displayed in the reference and checkout areas.

Clearly, it's not your father's library anymore. But it's not even your older sister's either. Beethoven is piped in over the periodicals. Color LaserJet printers have made their dot-matrix brethren obsolete. Students converse among themselves -- and with professors -- over lattes in the lobby's coffee bar, Bistro Burnett.

In other words, controlled commotion is in.

If that sounds a lot like a neighborhood chain bookstore, that's because it's supposed to, said University Librarian Robert A. Seal, who has guided the library's metamorphosis since 1994. The traditional academic culture of dusty books and researchers immersed in self-directed study has been transformed into a service-oriented, multimedia world of Web publishing software and full-text searchable databases.

Having trouble with a PowerPoint presentation? The library can help.

Password problems? There's an expert for that, too.

Need search tips for the latest e-journal on Shakespeare? Someone will show you.

Older library users may still regard TCU's library as a cathedral of learning with its trademark Palladian windows, but today's users are making it a meeting place for group study.

Designated quiet zones do exist and serious study still prevails, but now students can get a double hit of espresso with the latest copy of Psychology Today. As 30-year reference librarian Hugh Macdonald puts it, "We don't need the library to be a mausoleum."

There's no arguing with the results. While other collegiate libraries are experiencing faltering attendance, turnstile counts at TCU have doubled. Library traffic has grown from about 8,500 visits during a typical week in 1997 to more than 17,000 visits per week in fall 2001.

Further analysis yields another amazing fact: Almost two-thirds of the TCU community visits the library at least once a week.

What in the name of the Dewey Decimal System is going on here? The omnipresent computer and modem were supposed to keep students in their dorms, accessing the archives through fiber optic lines.

Not so. The addition of technology and infusion of creature comforts have made the library the place to hang out at TCU as never before.

The transformation began when the computer lab was moved out of the basement to the main floor in 1998. Students began to crowd the remodeled space to check their e-mail between classes. Now, they can also create spreadsheets for course projects or write papers at an annex of the Writing Center.

Professors are also taking advantage. They are working with reference staff to add links to lecture and reference material on their home pages. They're getting electronic reminders when the latest issue of an academic journal in their field arrives.

While relics of the old library can still be found -- like the giant light-up globe -- many vestiges of the the past have been assigned new uses. Empty card catalogs, for example, are used as a backdrop at one of the most visible and celebrated signs of the changing library -- Bistro Burnett.

The nine-table lobby cafe -- opened in September 2000 -- teems with traffic all morning and afternoon. Operated by the campus food services vendor, it features Starbucks coffee, juices, fresh fruit, Krispy Kreme donuts and other non-crumbly snacks specially selected for easy cleanup.

Business has been brisk.

"It's helped transform the traditional academic library into a modern facility," Seal said. "The library already was the campus center for information resources, but now it's a popular place for social activity and intellectual interchange as well."

More importantly, it has kept students inside the library. In the past, many left to get a bite to eat and never came back, but the bistro allows them to grab a snack and keep working.

It makes sense. After all, students are eating around books when they go home.

The cafe is the trendy feature that has garnered attention in publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Christian Science Monitor, but Seal is quick to point out that the bistro is only part of a larger effort to make the library a more desirable place to study and conduct research.

In addition to a cafe, Seal wanted classical music in the periodical reading room with comfortable sofas and chairs that people could sink into and stay awhile. He envisioned a larger computer lab with plants and lots of space -- not the rows-and-columns approach everybody else was using. Ultimately, he wanted undergraduates to see the library as more than a warehouse for books.

So far, mission accomplished. Walking into the periodicals area (the old reading room) is like entering your grandparents' den. Symphonic music wafting in the area has actually quieted the room as students are hesitant to talk over the music.

Blond oak tables and chairs adorning either side of the aisle are neighbors to cushy, high-backed seating arranged around small tables in the corners. Grab The New York Times and decompress.

Beyond the periodicals, signs in the west wing mark a designated quiet study area where students lumber in, unload their backpacks and go to work among columns of old bound journals.

In the east wing, stacks of reference books have been moved to make room for the library's technology muscles -- the expanded computer lab and the newest wrinkle in library services, the Information Commons.

No question this is a work zone. There's no music, but there is plenty of activity and noise of a different kind. Keyboard clicking and muted conversations permeate the spacious layout as students dart from computer terminals to four high-speed printing and multimedia stations that feature scanners, Zip drives and Web publishing software.

Here, where information and innovation are king, 100 Pentium-powered computers loaded with Windows software are constantly in use. Available terminals are at a premium during the lunch hour and late evenings in the expanded lab, which interior design students helped design.

Farther inside the reference section is the innovation that has put TCU at the forefront of academic library service -- a combination reference help desk and computer information services center called Information Commons.

Strategically located between the computer lab and checkout desk, this multipurpose help desk has become a one-stop shop for research and computer assistance.

After fielding scores of questions about password problems and slow computer servers, the library staff brought in the university's computer brain trust, Information Services, and created a technology center in the middle of the reference stacks.

The idea was simple: location, location, location. This "Super Help Desk" eliminates time-consuming cross-calling between departments and serves students and faculty more efficiently.

This partnership helps students navigate the ocean of information available deep inside the library's impressive computer and Web-based resources.

Yes, there are more than 900,000 books on the shelves, but thanks to full-text databases and electronically scanned and downloadable reference materials, a student could conceivably get through four years without cracking a library book.

Users start with TCU's Internet jewel, My Library, a customizable Web site that every student and faculty member can tailor to their needs. From that site, a nursing major looking for information on smallpox and vaccines can click "online resources" and access the database MedLine for full-text medical abstracts. Or click on "services" and check out data a professor posted on electronic reserve, request materials from reserve storage or borrow a book through inter-library loan.

Students find that My Library is better and more reliable for scholarly material than the rest of the Internet.

"We have a lot of students come in and say they did a search on Google and came up with 10,000 returns, and most of those aren't any good," said Marianne Bobich, head of reference and online services.

It's that information avalanche that keeps the students coming back to the library -- and librarians scrambling.

If the library is the campus' intellectual heart, its librarians are the brains. Cataloging, material acquisition and selection development are behind-the-scenes work that makes life easier for researchers. But because information technology is moving so swiftly, information stored in any format is quickly dated. Relying on it for long-term scholarship is problematic. Sources available today may not exist tomorrow, which makes librarians who keep up with all the changes a valuable commodity.

Librarians also work with faculty to acquire materials that match their curriculum, ultimately making database searches more fruitful.

Although the library allots about $2.8 million annually (or roughly half the library's overall budget) for acquisitions, librarians must purchase materials judiciously. The goal is to maintain the most comprehensive archives but also to pick the best of what's available.

There's also the process of teaching information literacy -- training undergraduates to discern which Web material is solid. It's a role librarians are happy to take on. They've become information social workers and knowledge counselors because students still need and want the guidance of an expert, even though TCU's electronic resources are available from any computer terminal.

James Lutz, who oversees the library's administrative services, calls it the "Hey, Mom" effect.

"It's like standing in front of the refrigerator and knowing where the food is, but you still want Mom to help you make it," he said. "A lot of students want some validation. They want to know that they're on the right track."

Getting on the information fast track isn't something only serious students do. These days professors require it for even the most basic classes.

Whether it's pressure from colleagues or superiors, or just a fear of falling behind, professors have felt compelled to adapt to a technology-infused curriculum. A 2000 survey by the national Campus Computing Project, which conducts annual studies of computing in higher education, reveals that more than 40 percent of all college courses now use Web resources, up from 11 percent in 1995.

TCU religion professor Andy Fort has his upper level and honors students keep a computer journal, but he requires all of his students to write papers based on Web and database material and get their assignments off his Web site.

Chuck Williams, a business management professor, expects students to get "heavy, heavy use of electronic resources" and produce slick presentations using PowerPoint and Excel.

Nursing professors Diane Hawley and Lazelle Benefield require extensive use of the MedLine database in their courses.

Space is a challenge facing Mary Couts Burnett Library. As more people use it and resources grow, technology will play an ever more important part in making room.

As the library pursues the purchase of the latest electronic journals, it's also updating backwards. Back issues of journals and periodicals that used to be on shelves are now online, freeing up areas which can be turned into people spaces.

If the library continues to expand its innovative service model and require more room, the staff will have to consider moving more materials to storage or use high-density compact shelving or a robotic storage system, which would be a return to the old days of limited browsing.

Still, with all the technological advances, the library will never return to the impersonal days. Modern-day librarians may struggle to keep up with the latest computer software, but face-to-face contact with people who can empathize is still needed.

"The mission of the library is service," Seal said. "We're not just a buyer of books. The fundamental tenet of a library is finding a way to bring the user and material together."

What does the Mary Couts Burnett Library of the future look like? Students may be able to use PalmPilots to access databases. The library will initiate new partnerships with groups on campus, such as Career Services and Instructional Technology. Library users will be able to seek reference help in online chat sessions.

"Certainly, everyone will be using the computer more, and we'll buy more electronic resources," Seal said. "But we'll still need real people to evaluate collections, offer research guidance and help you with your password."

And someone has to serve cappuccinos to the early risers.