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Libraries in the digital age: Facilities revamped as exhibit, study spaces still draw students

Staff at three universities across the United States - Emory University in Georgia, North Park University in Chicago, and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, near Atlanta, outlined how they’ve revamped their library facilities and adopted digital technology to remain competitive in an increasingly digital world.

While the advent of e-readers, search engines and electronic versions of research tools, more and more of what used to be exclusively the domain of the library has moved to the digital world. However, libraries have so far withstood the test of changing times and declining print mediums, adapting to become ‘third places’ where students gather to read, study, meet in groups and use tools not accessible to them individually.

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg explores the concept of third places in his book “The Great Good Place.” He emphasizes the importance of free or low-cost public spaces, like libraries, in informal settings where people can gather and share news. He argues that these places, called ‘third’ because they are not home (first) or work (second) are vital to creating healthy and balanced communities and getting to know people from different groups. 

Staff at three universities across the United States - Emory University in Georgia, North Park University in Chicago, and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, near Atlanta, outlined how they’ve revamped their library facilities and adopted digital technology to remain competitive in an increasingly digital world.

Pat Graham, director of the Pitts Theology Library at The Candler School of Theology, Emory University, said he’s seen more students using the library in the past few years, not fewer. However, he thinks it could be used more.

The library had 73,000 visitors last year, Graham said, and 13 percent of those were non-Emory students. Many of those included ministers and other church staff.

“We have quite a few people from the neighborhood come to use our library,” he said. “[But] it’s not used to the extent it should be.”

The Pitts library, which reopened in a new facility in 2014, is home to more than 600,000 volumes, Graham said. Additionally, the library subscribes to more than 1,100 periodicals and usually adds about 7,000 volumes annually. Students often can’t afford to access these types of resources on their own, and that’s an advantage of visiting the library. Other resources are old or rare, and not online.

The Pitts library is also a member of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) and shares content with other ATLA libraries. Pitts specializes in sub-Saharan African journals and content, Graham said, and other libraries buy up content from other parts of the world. By dividing and conquering, so to speak, each facility can get more representative collection than if one library tried to get materials from all over the globe.

“ATLA has performed a really valuable service, bringing [together] theological libraries and people from around the world,” Graham said.

Kelly Campbell, director and associate dean for information services at Columbia Theological Seminary’s John Bulow Campbell Library, says her staff also market the library as a gathering space.

“During the past three years, we’ve focused on opening various small meeting spaces filled with technology for our users,” Campbell said. “We [also] provide a yearly ‘You Asked For It’ list to our community.”

Campbell said they’ve crowdsourced equipment requests like portable whiteboards, extra coffee hours, chairs for an outdoor reading space and Adobe Pro software to make sure they’re providing exactly what students want.

Many non-students also regularly use the library, Campbell said, which is located in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta.

“We are open to the public and about 40 percent of our daily users are community patrons—church leaders, students from other schools,” she said.

Despite widespread Internet use, Campbell still sees many students in the library - like Emory, many use it as a quiet study space, taking advantage of its central location on campus and WiFi access.

Columbia’s library is also an ATLA facility, Campbell said, and through the membership, staff have been able to take part in trainings and professional development opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. It’s also beneficial to students and patrons, because the library can resource-share both print and electronic resources with other ATLA facilities, she said.

At North Park University in Chicago, library director Matt Ostercamp says he’s seen a drop in circulation at Brandel Library over the past five years.

“We believe many factors contribute to this, including declining seminary enrollment, increasing number of seminary students working significant hours outside of school, changing of seminary curriculum with less emphasis on languages and growth in online classes,” Ostercamp said.

While many students still make regular use of sections like biblical commentary, reference works, and archives, especially for history classes, staff are rethinking how they can market the library and its resources to get people in the door.

Ostercamp and his staff have prioritized online materials at the library, hiring people who specialize in digital work and who help curate and grow the library’s digital resources, such as ebooks and academic journals.  Still, he said, some students have said they prefer materials in print to ebooks.

At North Park, they’re also marketing the library as a gathering space, but Ostercamp said they want to ramp up this effort to get more students in the door.

“A couple of years ago the library hosted a free pizza lunch in the seminary building. We wanted to go to their space to communicate that the library is more than a building, but is a suite of services, “ he said. “We try to host a variety of events in the library and really market our space to our undergraduate community as a third space.”

The future of theological libraries is an ongoing discussion. The issue was addressed in the April issue of “Theological Librarianship” a journal published by ATLA. In the essay, “The Future of the Small Theological Library” Myka Kennedy Stephens of Lancaster Theological Library wrote, “Small theological libraries will not succeed by denying change, and we will not progress  sufficiently by only translating and following trends. We must change our habits.”

For her, she said, that means listening to the community she serves, using library resources appropriately and understanding changing realities.





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