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From the Ashes of Alexandria: What’s Happening in the College Library?

Sam Demas

Creating the New Alexandrias

For several generations, academic librarians were primarily preoccupied with the role of their library buildings as portals to information, print and later digital.1 In recent years, we have reawakened to the fact that libraries are fundamentally about people—how they learn, how they use information, and how they participate in the life of a learning community. As a result, we are beginning to design libraries that seek to restore parts of the library’s historic role as an institution of learning, culture, and intellectual community.

The design of public and academic libraries is beginning to embody an egalitarian renaissance of the ideal of the Mouseion at Alexandria. Generally remembered as the Library of Alexandria, the Mouseion was indeed a great synoptic collection. However, its larger purpose is lost from popular memory and is indeed largely missing from our conception of the library in higher education today. The “temple of the muses” was a research center, a museum, and a venue for celebrating the arts, inquiry, and scholarship.2 Until recently, this ancient ideal of libraries as ecumenical centers of art, culture, research, and learning was preserved primarily in the great, freestanding national libraries and private research libraries of the world. Within the academy, by contrast, libraries became dry, technical, and isolated shadows of their legendary progenitor.

But things have changed. Academic libraries of the twenty-first century—as they reinvent themselves in response to digital libraries and to changes in learning and teaching—are revisiting and updating parts of this historic ideal. This essay is not a reactionary call for a return to Alexandria; it does not reject the incredible advances in information technology and call for a return to simpler times. Rather, it suggests that the college library look to the Mouseion as one model for further integrating itself into the community it serves and for providing a unique cultural center that inspires, supports, and contextualizes its users’ engagement with scholarship.

The promise of digital libraries speaks to one key part of the Alexandrian ideal: to provide access to a “universal collection.” College library collections have experienced dramatic expansion of scope and depth through access to a wealth of databases and e-journals. Another facet of the ideal is the creation of special places in which collaborative learning and research, and creative work generally, take place. The Mouseion hosted 30 scholars in residence; provided spaces and services to support research, discussion, performance and artistic expression; and was a magnet for scholars throughout the classical world. Academic libraries are evolving to more actively support the social dimensions of information and learning. They are creating welcoming spaces, explicitly associated with tolerance and culture, for social interaction and intellectual discourse.

As I will illustrate in this very personal and local essay, I believe that college libraries are on their way to becoming the “new Alexandrias” of their campuses. Based in large part on what is happening at Carleton College’s Gould Library, the essay summarizes our experimentation in creating a sense of place befitting a highly academic, residential learning community. It is largely anecdotal, based on watching and conversing with library patrons, supplemented with studies of user behavior and perceptions.3 The essay begins with observations about what people actually do when they visit a college library and about how college libraries are responding to users’ activities. It concludes with some thoughts on library and museum collaboration.

There is a growing literature on “library as place” and a lively, nuanced debate within the library profession about library futures.4 My fellow librarians and most faculty members will therefore find little that is new here. The audience I have in mind is policy makers, administrators, trustees, parents, and others who rarely spend time in college libraries but who have an interest in the future of libraries and in how colleges set priorities and allocate resources.

Why Do People Come to Libraries?

Our success in building the virtual library makes it increasingly unnecessary for people to visit the physical library to meet most of their day-to-day information needs. Why, then, are public libraries and well-designed and well-maintained academic libraries as busy as ever, onsite and online?5There are still more libraries than McDonald’s restaurants in this country, and three times as many people visit libraries as go to the movies in a year (Weigand 2000). Libraries are among the most heavily used buildings on campus at many colleges. If this is so, then why are librarians on the defensive? Why do they sometimes fall into the trap of seeming to do anything they can to get people in the door?

Well into the 1990s, a persistent cluster of popular myths clouded visioning about library futures. These myths centered on the theme that technology is rendering the library obsolete, and that anyone who believed otherwise (e.g., librarians) simply didn’t understand the transformative power of the Web. In the euphoric early days of the information revolution, many people believed that we were on the verge of a paperless society,6 and that the Internet would replace books and result in “deserted libraries.”7 A kind of siege mentality developed in the library profession, reinforcing a narrow view of libraries as being solely about access to information. Some librarians felt threatened by the promise of digital libraries; indeed, some seemed to fear being stereotyped as curators of “mausoleums of the book.” Discussion about library as place and about the larger cultural and educational role of academic libraries was marginalized by many librarians’ determination to “get with the digital program.”

These myths were a function of the hype around truly remarkable emerging information technologies. They reflected an assumption that the inevitable decrease in the dominance of print in library collections would be accompanied by a diminution in the importance of the place and of the profession historically associated with the storage of print. These myths are rapidly giving way to a more nuanced conversation about the future of libraries, and that conversation has begun to shape new approaches to library design.

Libraries remain valued places of community and of learning and teaching. People continue to come to libraries because they

  • offer security, comfort, and quiet;
  • are free and commercial-free;
  • provide a place to be with other people in a learning/cultural environment;
  • offer opportunities to learn, search, inquire, and recreate; and
  • afford opportunities for choice and serendipity.


These reasons coexist and overlap. The variety and combination of resources, services, spaces, and activities renders the library a destination of academic adventure and serendipitous discovery. This is evident when one looks closely at what is happening in a college library.

What’s Happening in the College Library?

From survey data we know that 36 percent of Carleton students use the Gould Library daily and that an additional 50 percent use it at least once a week. We estimate average student library use at three to four times a week, with an average visit lasting two-and-a-half to three hours. Gate counts show that an average of 1,150 people enter the library daily during the school year in a community of 1,610 students in residence and about 600 faculty and staff.8 The library is busiest Sunday through Thursday evenings, when competition for the 450 seats9 can be intense. Reflecting the ethos of the college, Gould is the largest building on campus. Only the student union is more heavily used.

People who rarely visit good college libraries may wonder why students would go to the library when they have so many other choices. Their dorms and classrooms are fully wired or wireless, and classrooms and labs are open for study in the evening, so why go to the library? The fact is that students today are multitaskers, engaging in simultaneous activities and relishing a variety of stimuli. They come to the library to do many different things, all of which support in some way sustained engagement with academic work.

Following are a personal typology and case study of what students actually do in the Carleton library. In addition to outlining major student activities, each section describes how Carleton, and, in some instances, other college libraries, are responding to student needs and behaviors.

Reading and Relaxing in Safety and in Quiet

Daydreaming, contemplation, thinking, reading, and, yes, sleeping are cherished private, even intimate, aspects of the student experience supported by the library. Where does one go for peace and quiet? This is an important question for people who read and think. Some students are beginning to ask for places in the library without the distraction of computer keyboards, printer sounds, and cell phones. Faculty and staff come to the library to browse the new books and journals, and college staff members frequently spend part of their lunch breaks reading in the library. Even people who do not use the library love the idea of a quiet public sanctuary awaiting a time when they can indulge in browsing and reading.

Many students, especially those coming from high schools with stringent security measures, value public spaces in which they can relax and read without worrying for their safety. As libraries lengthen their hours to accommodate student work habits, they are paying more attention to the safety and security of their patrons.

One of the powerful attractions of libraries is the unique pleasure of being alone, in a quiet place, while simultaneously being in a public place associated with scholarship. Students clearly appreciate the fact that it is socially acceptable to be alone in the library. Interacting with others is possible, but optional.

More-comfortable lounge seating, couches, ottomans, and pillows are supplied to accommodate these activities. Disconcertingly, we find ourselves called upon by students to employ the librarian’s stereotypical “Shh . . .” to make these quiet activities possible in a community space.

Individual Study

Student focus groups and anecdotal evidence portray individual study as both a private and a communal act. Students associate the library with the privilege of being part of a scholarly community; in this respect, it ranks second only to the classroom. The library is perceived as a comfortable, ecumenical, and welcoming place of serious academic purpose. Everyone is there primarily to do academic work; to enter the library is to be motivated to study. Most students identify a favorite place to study and develop a strong behavioral response of immediately getting to work when they go to that place. Dorms, by contrast, are messy, noisy, and full of distractions.

The preferred configuration for library study seating is shifting from individual study carrels (though these are still popular with some students) to table-and-chair ensembles. Nationally, the traditional library reading room is enjoying a renaissance as a place to study in the presence of others; it is a place to see and be seen while working privately. Assigned study carrels, in which one can leave materials and work intensively over a period of weeks, and lockers continue to be popular ways to support sustained student scholarship. The College of Wooster, with its culture of independent study, makes particularly effective use of the assigned carrel.

Group Study

Group study is popular and increasingly encouraged by faculty through assignments. In response, libraries are providing more group-study rooms. These typically include large worktables with seating for three to six students, white boards, and network connections. Gould has 20 group-study rooms and they are filled most evenings. At the urging of science faculty and students, we are experimenting with moveable partitions and furniture that allow students to create their own study spaces adjacent to stack areas they use and in proximity to network connections and printers.

Checking E-mail and Using the Web

The network is an integral part of student life, and computer labs are widely used for nonacademic as well as academic purposes. Many students visit the library several times a day to do e-mail, copy files, and use the Web for club activities and purely recreational purposes. While in the lab, they also use e-reserves, check on interlibrary loan requests, check out a book, talk with a friend, or read magazines or newspapers. At Carleton, the labs in the library are the second most heavily used labs on campus, in part because the building supports such a wide range of tasks.

Finding Information for Class Assignments and Academic Projects

Nationally, librarians at reference desks are painfully aware that many students wandering around the library in need of help will never approach them. Students often function under the misperception that they are good at locating information, when in fact they are unaware of many basic research resources and techniques. This disconnect is at the heart of the redesigned reference room as “information commons” and motivates the move from a passive to a roving approach to reference and to personalizing the contact with expert information support. Libraries are emphasizing the creation of close liaison relationships between librarians and faculty and students of specific departments. At Carleton, faculty introduce students to their liaison librarians in class sessions, and the students get to know the librarians better through library public relations efforts and informal contacts. These experiences have dramatically increased student use of individual consultation services with reference librarians. Students like these one-on-one meetings in the office of “their” liaison librarian, and they benefit from small-group tutorials associated with specific class assignments. This requires office spaces, labs, and reference areas designed for in-depth consultations rather than quick-answer interactions.

Information Production: Computing, Writing, and Creating Presentations

Students combine information from a wide range of sources and genres when producing papers and presentations. They need computer workstations for comfortable group work and expansive surfaces to spread out their study materials. Increasingly, students also require workstations that allow them to scan materials; access and edit music, video, and still images; do color printing; and use software to facilitate analysis and visualization of data. These activities require carefully designed facilities with convenient access to consulting support for finding intellectual content and for using technology to understand and present it. Library planning addresses the convergence of information and technology service programs through the information commons, combining library reference and information technology (IT) help-desk functions. At Carleton, we do not use the term information commons but we have adopted the model. Our joint service point, called “research/IT,” is proving very popular with students because of the convenience of “one-stop shopping.”

As part of this experiment in redesigning the reference room and reconfiguring computer spaces, we are using smart boards (computer-projection equipment that supports browsing and creating and editing a wide range of information formats, including Web pages) to create technology-rich venues that support spontaneous peer-to-peer teaching in the library.

In addition to the centrally located reference room or information commons, there is a need for distributed computing resources throughout the building. The traditional centralized “computer farm,” designed to squeeze as many computers as possible into one room, is giving way to smaller clusters of computers. Spread throughout the building and placed on more-flexible and commodious furniture, these minilabs contain a rich suite of productivity processing tools and act as a Kinko’s-like service center that enables students to find, manipulate, and create information.

Classroom-Based Teaching and Learning

In addition to serving as a place for informal and individual interactions with librarians, campus libraries have become the sites for scheduled, formal classes. Faculty members like to teach in library classrooms because of the handy access to learning resources and the idea of teaching “among the books”; for example, the seminar room in Gould Library is said to be the most sought-after small classroom on campus. Classes are free to move into the stacks, and faculty can easily bring library materials for teaching purposes. Students like the convenience of staying in the library after class or coming in early to work on assignments. Library classrooms are popular group-study spaces in the evening. E-classrooms, combining flexible, seminar-style seating in the center with computers on the periphery, are proving highly adaptable to the teaching needs of librarians and faculty. E-classrooms double as computer labs and small-group tutorial spaces when not in use for teaching.


Serendipitous discovery is one benefit of being in an educational environment. We have no way of knowing how many library users are rewarded each day in their print and electronic browsing by an unexpected encounter that produces a new clue, opens a new train of thought in an intellectual puzzle, or provides the missing link in their argument or understanding. However, anecdotal evidence from students and faculty confirms that serendipitous discovery is a common and treasured experience in libraries. Building expansions and compact shelving allow colleges to keep as much of their collections as possible on campus, preserving the possibilities for serendipity in the stacks.

Nonlibrary Uses

Reading, studying, browsing, doing research, and creating papers and presentations are the sorts of activities with which academic libraries are traditionally associated. What follows in this typology of student behaviors and library functions and roles are activities that have been, until recently, less often discussed. These activities are highly valued by students, but are often viewed as frivolous or “off mission” by those who do not depend on the library as their primary place for doing academic work. These library roles connect the student or scholar with the larger academic community in ways that are often hard for them to articulate but are deeply felt. Collectively, they enhance and embody the larger purpose of a liberal arts education, connecting students who are searching for their muses with a long history of scholarly traditions reaching back to Alexandria.

Shill and Tonner’s research (2003, 2004) shows that many functions traditionally considered “nonlibrary” were included in 182 surveyed academic libraries built or renovated between 1995 and 2002. For example, 25 percent of survey respondents included art galleries, 32 percent cafés, 20 percent auditoriums, 53 percent seminar rooms, 83 percent conference rooms, and 17 percent writing labs. It is important to note that the survey authors found no evidence that including these functions increases overall gate counts. This reinforces my conviction that libraries should not diversify their facilities and services simply to bolster use figures. The purpose of offering what are now quaintly termed nonlibrary services is to qualitatively enhance the library as a resource and to create an atmosphere conducive to sustained, serious academic work. The following activities are aspects of humanizing and updating the library’s program for students who are serious about academics. They are social and cultural dimensions to a program of engaging students in enjoyment of the larger life of the mind that is such an important part of the undergraduate experience.

Using Other Academic Support Services

Colleges and universities have spawned a host of academic-support services such as writing and tutoring centers, teaching and learning centers, international programs, career centers, offices for multicultural affairs, and academic computing support. These grew up incrementally and were initially located wherever space could be found. Campus planning programs have since attempted to plan their locations more strategically, and academic administrators are continually looking for ways to find programmatic synergies among the growing array of support services. At Carleton, we are experimenting with branch locations of the Writing Center and the Career Center in the library.

Meeting and Socializing

Many students spend countless hours in the library and appreciate an environment that places study in a social context. They say that rather than distracting from one’s work, opportunities to meet and socialize make the experience of spending long hours in the library more pleasant and rewarding.

Libraries are a “commons,”10 both intellectual and social. Every community’s “real estate” comprises public, commercial, and private spaces. Many public spaces are closely identified with specific functions and subgroups; for example, at a college, academic buildings house a specific set of academic departments. People who do not belong to those subgroups (e.g., students not majoring in the department and its staff and faculty) rarely enter these facilities. Common spaces, by contrast, are designed to welcome everyone in the community. On college campuses, these include chapels; pedestrian quadrangles; pathways; gardens, arboretums, or natural areas; gymnasiums or recreation centers; cafeterias or other eating places; student centers; museums; and libraries. While socializing is not necessarily their primary purpose, these spaces are prized for the opportunities they create for socializing. People who do not travel in the same disciplinary, social, political, or economic circles frequently meet and greet each other in these common spaces, helping build and maintain a larger sense of community. In a college community, most common spaces are primarily social; others, the library and the museum, are directly associated with academic work.

Libraries are among the busiest, most welcoming spaces on a college campus. As egalitarian common spaces associated with learning and culture they hold a strong appeal. Free and open to everyone, they are distinctly noncommercial and operate on a uniquely communitarian character and business model. Well-run and well-designed libraries serve, in effect, as a form of academic community center.

Eating and Drinking

Students require prodigious quantities of coffee, water, and other beverages to sustain them. Libraries have changed their policies to adapt to this reality and initiated public relations campaigns to instill notions of respectful library behavior. Enforcing food and beverage rules is a prime example of the challenge of balancing conflicting uses in a library. Such enforcement requires students to understand and respect place-specific rules of conduct but rewards them with the ability to meet yet another need (thirst/caffeine) in the library. A building that clearly bespeaks its mission, in architecture and appointments, makes this respect for the mission and its code of behaviors easier to engender among those who frequent it.

Borrowing from bookstore and café culture, more libraries are including cafés inside of or adjacent to their service areas. When done thoughtfully as part of an overall strategy for library development and stewardship, cafés can be a positive element in creating a sense of place in a library. However, introducing a café in hopes of boosting flagging circulation or gate counts is a sorry substitute for addressing substantive deficiencies in library support and services—deficiencies that would also be much more costly to correct.

Participating in Cultural Events and Civic Discourse

Libraries have historically played active roles in the intellectual and cultural lives of the communities they serve. In our democracy, the right of peaceable public assembly is included in the First Amendment, and libraries actively support civic and intellectual discourse. Today, many academic libraries host community activities, including poetry readings and author events, debates, concerts, discussion forums, and lectures. The Gould Library Athenaeum, an elegant reading room and a cultural venue open to all, joins with academic departments and other campus entities in cosponsoring cultural events during the school year. The library hosts about 65 events, involving about 2,300 participants, each year. Students studying in the library sometimes take a break to attend an event they would have missed if it were held in a classroom building. Faculty members are grateful for the logistical support and elegant space provided in cohosting appearances by visiting scholars and artists. Members of the college and local communities take pleasure in gathering in the scholarly atmosphere of the library for cultural events. When the library acts as a welcoming and lively host, engaging the community in discourse and in enjoyment of the life of the mind, the community perception of the role of the library on campus begins to change. The library becomes a true cultural center and an agent in community building, and library staff and programs become engaged with the community in more and different ways.

Having Fun

Libraries are places of serious purpose, imbued with the palpable, but invisible, patina of generations of faculty and students reading, writing, and thinking. But staff and patrons enjoy occasional bursts of pure fun in their hallowed halls. Liberal arts college libraries in particular have developed a wealth of fun traditions to leaven the intense scholarly atmosphere.

Amherst College throws a dance party in the library for first-year students—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to let loose in the library. St. Olaf College hosts an annual benefit miniature-golf game that has patrons putting through the library’s far reaches. Agnes Scott’s library recently hosted the premiere of a musical theater piece about a mixed-blood slave who worked in the Library at Alexandria (this piece will go on to be performed in libraries around the world). Mt. Holyoke’s library hosts a student theater production in its lobby each year. These are but a few examples of the fun side of library life. Each library finds its own ways of celebrating community and its role in community building.

Carleton sees itself as a serious place that does not take itself too seriously. The library mixes serious work with special events and collections, encouraging fun in many ways. With gifts from travelers we are creating a ludotheque, or game library, that invites students taking a study break to engage in interesting intellectual puzzles and games from around the world. Students post a playful “word of the week” in the library and have offered a prize for the best piece of writing using all the words presented in a single term. The library makes the list of the student newspaper’s “10 best places to make love on campus.” During study week, the student Friends of the Library group hosts a nighttime study break (outside the library) with hot drinks and snacks. A longstanding campus-wide tradition on the night before exams in spring term is “Primal Scream,” after which catharsis students gather in the lobby of the library (no one remembers just how or when this started) to enjoy performances by the college a cappella singers and comedy improv groups. Athenaeum events celebrate Burns’ Night with a bagpipe processional around campus and around the library; Shakespeare’s birthday features readings and enactments (the sword scene in the final act of Hamlet, performed by student fencers, was memorable). Finally, receptions to student-curated exhibits or student art exhibitions are always fun.


College campuses are magnets for people passing through town and for friends and families of students and faculty. Because they are open long hours and prominent in location, the college libraries are one of the few truly welcoming, comfortable campus spaces for visitors. The library is seen as a reflection of college values and as a symbol of college pride, and its appearance and atmosphere play a role in shaping the perceptions of visitors. Middlebury College, in its new library, has established the “library concierge” as a central campus information desk to provide visitors and others welcome and information about the college.

Viewing Exhibitions

In the Carleton library, students encounter a variety of exhibits featuring books and artifacts, artwork, and student projects. Curated by a team of students, faculty members, and library staff, and connected to coursework or campus conversations, our exhibits often highlight library and archives collections and other campus resources. About 24 such exhibits are produced annually, under the direction of the curator of Library Art and Exhibitions. Prominently displayed in the library lobby and frequently accompanied by opening events, this student work is read and viewed by the entire community. While labor-intensive, such exhibits support student work and connect them with the larger community in an intellectually substantive and creative way. As our exhibits model evolves, the ideas for exhibits and the work in mounting them increasingly come from members of the community. People now think of the library as a prime venue for an exhibit highlighting issues they wish to bring to the community for discussion.

Appreciating Art, Design, and Nature

Students respect and respond with appreciation to well-maintained places of beauty on a college campus. While virtually all libraries contain some art, it is rare to find a library with a thoughtfully curated, lively art program. The 1984 library addition at Carleton was designed, in part, with the display of artwork in mind. The purpose was “to educate the eye and aesthetic judgment of students through familiarity with artistic works of high quality in a space they frequent.” In cooperation with the College Art Gallery, and with the expertise of a part-time library curator, the library has made a serious effort in recent years to fulfill this vision for the library addition. By tastefully incorporating artwork, elements of natural history, and interesting design features throughout the library, we have dramatically enhanced the power and pleasure of place in the library. With as many students visiting the library in a week as visit the gallery in a year, we are dramatically increasing students’ exposure to art. Students enjoy perusing the works on display throughout the building and increasingly use their enjoyment of particular works as one of their criteria for selecting a favorite place to study.

A striking trend in library design today is the inclusion of decorative touches that give spaces a sense of warmth, style, history, and locality. These include fireplaces, the use of local materials for floors and countertops, decorative stairwells, globes, ceiling paintings, busts, quotations, and elegant, but comfortable, reading rooms. The artful use of plants and natural light, care in opening and preserving views to the outside, and display of natural history objects (for example, we have on display a remarkable stuffed emperor penguin with ties to our institutional history as well as a prized topaz owned by the college) give a library a sense of life and of connection to the natural world.

The inclusion of art and artifacts in the library harks back to the Mouseion and looks forward to a celebration of the liberal arts in an era of increasing specialization and alienation. We recently commemorated this connection by dedicating a commissioned work by our first artist in residence, Jody Williams, who graduated from Carlton in 1978. Her “Observing, Thinking, Breathing: The Nancy Gast Riss ’77 Carleton Cabinet of Wonders,” is a book artist’s rendition of the Wunderkammer. These eclectic ancestors of the museum, like libraries, are catalogs and cabinets of wondrous objects that have been assembled to enliven the imagination, stimulate research, and evoke discourse and discovery. The Carleton Cabinet, containing tiny books and objects, is permanently installed in the heart of the library—the reference room. It is both the artist’s personal depiction of her experience at Carleton and an embodiment of something universal about the experience of the liberal arts.


The Mouseion at Alexandria created an atmosphere and a set of intellectual resources conducive to teaching, research, discussion, and appreciation of knowledge across the disciplines. This maps closely with collegiate aspirations to nourish intellectual curiosity, support independent learning, and encourage interdisciplinary thinking. The ideal of the Mouseion speaks directly to our contemporary interest in combining knowledge across disciplines and in creating a sense of academic community in an increasingly specialized academy.

Higher education supports libraries as essential components of the academic infrastructure, but its view of them is often rather narrow and technocratic. As the landscape of scholarly communication and of learning and teaching changes, it will require imagination and collaboration across the academy to optimize and leverage its enormous investment in libraries. Scott Bennett asserts that a new vision is needed to realize the potential of the physical library building and to create the library of the future. He has appropriately suggested the concept of the learning commons as a model for consideration (Bennett 2003). I propose that the not unrelated, but broader, Mouseion also be considered as a model in library planning. Adopting this model in toto is neither possible nor desirable. Nevertheless, the legend of Alexandria provides a useful metaphor for emerging trends in library design, and it can serve as an inspiration for planning the continuing evolution of our cultural institutions.

Successful library planning will involve collaboration among faculty, academic officers, librarians, and architects. It will be rooted in how students learn, how faculty members teach, and how teaching and learning patterns will change over time. Planning will be based on what students are actually doing in the library, on what they really need in a learning environment, and on changes in scholarly communication. Finally, it will engage the community in thinking imaginatively about how the library can best contribute to the cultural life of the campus. If we follow these steps, I think the results are likely to resemble new Alexandrias.

Revisiting the Mouseion: Opportunities for Library/Museum Collaboration

Libraries and museums, our great civic collections, standing at the nexus of all disciplines, are direct descendants of the Mouseion at Alexandria. Both have evolved into highly specialized institutions but are still dedicated to the premise that vast collections of objects and ideas, appropriately assembled and classified, are essential to the human quest for meaning, understanding, and beauty. Once closely united as parts of the temple of the muses, the musaeum, the studio and studiolo, and the cabinet of wonders (Wunderkammer) (Findlen 1989), they are now distant cousins, barely speaking the same language but politely acknowledging that they “should get together sometime” to discuss their common heritage and what it might mean to them today. The current climate of (once again) reinventing libraries and museums makes this a propitious time for collaboration.

Both museums and libraries are deeply involved with strengthening their educational roles; redefining their relationships with users; rethinking the use of space for people and collections; creating, organizing, and delivering digital content; and engaging in advocacy and outreach for culture and for new forms of literacy. Both types of institutions are concerned about predictions of diminishing audiences and shrinking budgets. These are some of the challenges on which the Institute of Museum and Library Services, for example, is focusing as it funds a range of activities to encourage and support increased collaboration between libraries and museums.

College libraries and art galleries and museums are particularly well positioned to provide leadership in collaborations designed to connect collections with curricula and to cultivate the next generation of supporters of the arts, of libraries, and of museums. Why? Colleges are relatively small and more flexible than their university counterparts. They operate on a more intimate scale and have close connections to the curriculum and to their communities. Their liberal arts graduates go on to pursue lifelong learning and to occupy positions of influence. As larger institutions are, colleges are under pressure from the administration to find ways to contain costs and to optimize the value of existing institutional resources.

We are beginning to see more collaboration between libraries and museums in higher education, particularly in the digital arena. Following are some areas for collaboration that have potential to advance educational goals, develop programmatic and cost efficiencies, and demonstrate how academic support units can cooperate to expand information access. These collaborations will inform how campus learning spaces are designed, equipped, supported, and located.

Development of Visual Literacy Programs

Librarians, curators, and IT personnel are logical cooperators in campuswide initiatives to strengthen visual literacy—i.e., the ability to analyze and critically evaluate messages within a visual format—in the liberal arts curriculum. Working with faculty, they collaborate in supporting teaching, course redesign, and curriculum development focusing on the use and appreciation of campus collections; using image databases and creating and managing personal-image collections; and using tools for the visualization of information, for editing still and moving images, and for the creation of multimedia. As libraries are redesigned and equipped to support a wide range of information retrieval, management, and editing tools, support of the museum education and other visual literacy initiatives should be considered.

Collection Sharing

I am an advocate of thoughtful experimentation with displaying, interpreting, and promoting books outside the library and art outside the museum. Museums display only 1 percent to 9 percent of their collections at any given time; the balance is in long-term storage. A tiny fraction of the art in museums’ storage collections (i.e., that part with distinctly lower security and conservation requirements) can be identified for potential display in campus libraries and other spaces frequented by students and specially designed for the purpose. A long-range facilities program to gradually upgrade the conditions in selected campus venues is required for a distributed approach to display of artwork.

Wunderkammer photo

Gould Library commissioned artist Jody Williams to create this Wunderkammer, or “cabinet of wonders,” for permanent display. Like the ancient Wunderkammer, libraries and museums assemble and classify vast collections of objects and ideas, a role that is essential to the human quest for meaning and understanding. [“Observing, Thinking, Breathing: The Nancy Gast Riss ’77 Carleton Cabinet of Wonders,” by Jody Williams.]

Cooperative Exhibition and Gift Programs

Libraries can fairly easily cooperate with the campus museum to display works that complement and promote museum exhibitions. Special-collections materials and artists’ books can be displayed in the museum and in properly designed departmental exhibit cases. An arrangement for giving the museum first right of refusal for gifts of art to the library should be in place, with workable provisions for coordinating the museum’s curation of such gifts with their display in the library. Library/museum cooperation on student-curated, curricular-based exhibitions—employing books, manuscripts, art, and artifacts—provides students with real-life experience in designing and curating exhibits that cross the traditional boundaries between libraries and museums.

Creating, Organizing and Delivering Visual Information

There are obvious benefits to sharing expertise and joint planning in providing network access to visual resources, and this is the area in which libraries and museums are already collaborating to the greatest extent. Librarians, curators, and art or art history faculty cooperate in offering access to resources such as ArtSTOR and coordinate efforts to digitize, catalog, and provide network access to slide collections and campus art collections. This often leads to wider discussions of management of visual resources, including the implications of making departmental and individual collections accessible to the campus.

Collection Management and Sharing Spaces

Identifying up front any overlap between library and museum holdings and collection- management needs, however large or small, can inform facilities design. There is the potential for sharing at least some facilities and equipment for the use, storage, and conservation of art on paper, archives, and special-collections materials. On many campuses, neither the museum nor the library can independently support a full-fledged print or special-collections study room or conservation lab. Together, they may be able to achieve more than is possible separately.

In the spirit of the creative move toward joint-use facilities,11 more schools are locating galleries in their libraries, a longstanding tradition in public libraries. Eventually, some college or university will likely take the leap and emulate the contemporary Bibliotheca Alexandrina, designing a twenty-first century Mouseion for a college campus.


Bennett, Scott. 2003. Libraries Designed for Learning. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.

Carlson, Scott. 2001. The Deserted Library. Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 16): A35–38.

Crawford, Walt. 2003. The Philosophy of Joint Use Libraries. American Libraries Online (December).

Demas, Sam, and Jeffery A. Scherer. 2002. Esprit de Place: Maintaining and Designing Library Buildings to Provide Transcendent Spaces. American Libraries 33(4): 65–68.

Findlen, Paula. 1989. The Museum: Its Classical Etymology and Renaissance Genealogy. Journal of the History of Collections 1(1): 59–78.

Fister, Barbara. 2004. Common Ground: Libraries and Learning. Library Issues 25(1).

Kratz, Charles. 2003. Transforming the Delivery of Service: The Joint Use Library and Information. C&RL News 64(2): 100–01.

Lancaster, F. W. 1999. Second Thoughts on the Paperless Society. Library Journal (September 15): 48–50.

Miller, William, and Rita M. Pellen, eds. 2002. Cooperative Efforts of Libraries. Binghamton, N.Y.: The Haworth Information Press.

Ransheen, Emily. 2002. The Library as Place: Changing Perspectives. Library Administration and Management 16(4): 203–207.

Shill, Harold B., and Shawn Tonner. 2003. Creating a Better Place: Physical Improvements in Academic Libraries 1995–2002. College and Research Libraries 64(6): 431–466.

Shill, Harold B., and Shawn Tonner. 2004. Does the Building Still Matter? Usage Patterns in New, Expanded, and Renovated Libraries, 1995–2002. College and Research Libraries 65(2): 123–151.

Wiegand, Wayne. Cited in January 28, 2000 e-mail “Call for Papers” for special issue of American Studies on “The Library as an Agency of Culture.”


1 In his CLIR report Libraries Designed for Learning (2003), Scott Bennett found that “most planning was based on assessment of library operations, without any systematic assessment of the modes of student learning and of faculty teaching . . . and that the research process remained primarily extrapolative, responding strongly to traditional needs and ideas of library services.”

2The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opened in 2002 and designed by Snohetta/Hamza Consortium, is an architecturally spectacular resurrection of this concept. Its collections and activities are the nucleus around which operate a theater, three museums, six art galleries, seven research centers, and gardens.

3 Our library has learned a great deal about library use through various assessment activities, including LibQUAL+ and local surveys, interviews with students and faculty, focus groups, and architectural-planning discussions related to a library renovation. In addition, I conducted personal research during my first few years at Carleton, living in an apartment in a campus dormitory to get to know my constituents. I wandered the campus and visited the library at night, chatting with students and trying to understand how, when, and where they studied and what they wanted and needed to work outside the classroom.

4 Some notable treatments of library as place may be found in Shill and Tonner 2003; Shill and Tonner 2004; Bennett 2003; Ransheen 2002; Fister 2004; and Demas and Scherer 2002.

5 The important pair of articles by Shill and Tonner (2003, 2004) report the results of empirical research on the impact of building improvements on the use of physical facilities, clearly demonstrating that updating and improving libraries is essential to ensuring that they meet the needs of patrons (and therefore continue to be used and useful) as scholarly communication and pedagogy change. In terms of online use, libraries are finally beginning to measure the use of their virtual services and resources; while the results are partial and largely unreported, it is clear that increases in the use of library e-resources dwarf the reductions in circulation of print materials by orders of magnitude.

6 F. W. Lancaster, who seems to have coined the term “paperless society,” wrote an interesting piece decrying the dehumanizing effect of technology on library services (Lancaster 1999).

7 Scott Carlson’s article “The Deserted Library” (2001) touched off a rich discussion on the role of “library as place” and on how libraries measure use and what factors affect use. This was a great stimulus to efforts to look more closely at what students actually want from their libraries and what they do while there.

8 Following a typical pattern, gate count at the Carleton library increased significantly in the wake of building improvements, then dipped slightly and is now holding steady at 285,147 per year. Patterns of use are changing. While aggregate circulation of print materials declined by 26 percent over the past decade, interlibrary loan increased by 448 percent. The use of full text e-resources has increased by 1,328 percent in the past four years.

9 This is the theoretical seating capacity; but realistically it is probably one-third less. While students like social study settings, the need for “personal space” in seating choices dictates that many chairs in a grouping will never be occupied as they are, in effect, part of the personal space of the person sitting next to an empty chair.

10 As used here, the commons refers not only to England’s communal lands where individually owned livestock grazed, and to an open square, but by extension, a public trust and resource open to and stewarded by all.

11 For an overview of the creative ferment in combining different kinds of libraries, see Miller and Pellen 2002; Kratz 2003; and Crawford 2003.

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