a, Opinion

Campus Conversation: McGill libraries

Two McGill students and the Dean of Libraries consider what defines a modern library, and how the library contributes to university life.

Zachary Carson, columnist

Libraries are integral to university life. They are where the vast majority of students work and study, and are the main repository of knowledge. Some might argue that this is no longer the case with students being able to access online books and journals, but most of students’ abilities to do so are due to the online resources of the library itself. Although many people would define a library simply as a building that houses physical texts, it is important to distinguish between the role of a public library and a university library. The role of a university library should be to provide students with knowledge, and a modern library should use all means available to provide knowledge in the most accessible way to as many students as possible—even if that means shifting the focus from physical volumes.

I love reading real books. I am the guy who has to print off every reading if the class doesn’t have a course pack because I cannot read off of a screen. But I am also a pragmatist. When I go on a vacation, as much as it pains me to do so, I bring my Kindle because being able to bring 10,000 books while only carrying the weight of 1/10 of a book is a hard deal to beat. Fifty years ago, the most efficient way to provide students with knowledge would have been to prioritize physical collections in an accessible way. But that is no longer the case. Today, electronic books and articles provide benefits that physical collections never could. An infinite number of students can access the same book simultaneously, and they can never be lost or stolen. And this is not to say that physical collections will not be available, but that prime library real-estate should not be given to resources that students are using less and less. I cannot deny the feeling of awe that comes from walking through the aisles of McLennan, looking for that one book you need for a paper, and feeling like a part of all the accumulated knowledge that surrounds you.

But one has to look at the facts. According to the assessment study sponsored by the Friends of the Library, 51 per cent of physical space across McGill’s library system is taken up by physical copies, while only 7 per cent of students who visit the library do so to consult physical collections. On the other hand, students intending to work make up 81 per cent of those visiting the library, while only 32 per cent of physical library space is being used for students. The implication is apparent—too much library space is taken up by books.

The purpose of a modern university library should be to provide students with knowledge. Ensuring that there is space for students to work together and individually would fulfill that mandate. This is not to say that the library should be transformed into one giant workspace, and that there is no place for physical volumes. Physical books will always be a part of the library, but realities have changed. McGill is one of the few major Canadian universities that holds all of its collections on site, unlike the Universities of Toronto, British Columbia, Montreal, and Alberta, which all hold some amount of their physical collections off site. I think it’s fair to say that if a student has not used a book in 20 years, then it might be safe to store it elsewhere. This does not mean the book becomes permanently inaccessible—it will just take time for it to be transferred from another space or a matter of minutes to be retrieved by the Automated Storage Retrieval System (ASRS). With the issue of continued accessibility to physical collections solved, the only argument left is that libraries need to house physical collections so that everyone can see them in order to satisfy an outdated, static definition of what a library is—a place that holds books.

The classic conception of a library, with aisles and aisles of dusty old books, is a romantic one; however, that ideal no longer represents what students need in order to access knowledge today. Just like when I look at my carry-on suitcase, filled with books that I want to bring but know I do not have room for, the answer here is simple, although it might be hard to accept.


Chloe Forgie-Williams, contributor

A modern library has a diverse collection of print books in all manners of subjects and a vast online collection of e-books. A modern library has row after row of neat, well-lit desks with endless databases and resources, all with the purpose of maximizing productivity and efficiency. The books are stacked high on their motorized shelves, expanding when we want them, then quickly retreating to their compact state when we don’t. On the quiet floors, the clicking of keyboards and the low hum of computer monitors have replaced the sound of turning pages. This is almost the ideal space for studying, but one essential element that defines a library—print books—are slowly being replaced by e-books and databases.

The e-book satisfies student demand for accessibility and convenience—but then what is the point of print books? Why bother calling the McLennan-Redpath Library a library if we intend to slowly move the books underground and out of sight? Why not ‘McLennan-Redpath Study Space?’ A library should be more than just a mass collection of information. The Internet already serves that purpose; why waste the land and the space to have books and shelves when you can have everything on your laptop at the tip of your fingers? The answer to all of these questions is the atmosphere. The atmosphere should act as a portal for people to transport themselves as they read all sorts of books set in a variety of times and places. The chairs should be soft and the only noise should be the flutter of a turning page. While a good portion of the library needs be devoted to studying space, students would benefit from having a comfortable space devoted to reading and quiet contemplation. Therefore, as people continue to streamline our researching and information storage, universities must be careful not to lose the legacy and tradition that make libraries so special. If a modern library is to be successful, it should incorporate the useful technological advancements such as databases and e-books but it should never do so in place of traditional reading space and print books.

The library is the heart of the university—a place for students and academics to gather and share knowledge. The library is a place where students can be alone with their thoughts in peace and quiet, yet be surrounded by other people. The peaceful and scholarly atmosphere provides a refuge from the packed lecture halls and the pages of a book are the perfect place to rest tired eyes. Sitting amongst shelves filled with the research and knowledge of scholars and students before us motivates us. Libraries help students focus; they draw minds away from the dirty dishes left in the apartment, a bad grade on a midterm, or missing home. By creating a calm peaceful environment, libraries help students get through what begins as an overwhelming amount of readings and assignments to something manageable. Students leave the library with a little less weight on our shoulders.


C. Colleen Cook, Trenholme Dean of Libraries and Archives

If I ever have any doubts about just how important the library is to McGill’s students, all I need to do is take a stroll through any of our branches during midterm or final exam season. Seat after seat, room after room, and floor after floor, the library buildings are full to the brim with hard-at-work students who have chosen to make the library their home away from home.

During stressful times, these young women and men, some of the best and brightest minds in the scholarly world, turn to the library to be their intellectual safe haven—the place they know will provide them with the academic, informational, and technological support to achieve their goals. On average, the library welcomes 2.3 million visitors per year, an average of 60 visits per enrolled student every year.

Much has been made of the supposed decline of libraries. Nobody takes out books anymore, they say. It’s true that a significant portion of our physical collection rarely circulates. Technology has radically altered the very mandate of libraries. While the book will always be a part of the library landscape, information now comes in many forms and the library must deliver materials whenever, wherever, and however students need them. The demise of the library, like the death of Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated.

Today, libraries are incubators for innovation, the great forums of modern times, where great minds congregate to learn and discover. But rather than poring over tomes in flickering candlelight as did scholars in the first libraries, today’s minds crave technology and innovative spaces to meet their deep drive and determination.

Our students’ needs are changing. We’re ready to evolve with them.

The preponderance of feedback we constantly receive from students is clear: We need more user space in buildings open 24 hours a day. Currently, we are facing a significant seating shortage; students want to use the library but just can’t find the room to study effectively. Last Fall during exam time, groups of students resorted to kneeling on the ground using benches in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library hallway as makeshift study tables.

It’s that type of student feedback that led us to embark on the Fiat Lux Feasibility Study to reimagine the library to meet the needs of our 21st century students. The ambitious but prudent vision, designed with input from representative stakeholders across campus, would rebuild the McLennan-Redpath Library Complex as the vital center of the campus. An automated storage facility under the Lower Field would allow millions of physical books to be transferred from the library, freeing valuable floor space to double effective user seating and services space. Innovative study and research environments would be created in the Humanities and Social Science Library, with books still being retrievable at need within a few minutes.

We librarians can be a nostalgic bunch, enamored with tales of monks in ancient scriptoriums and the grandeur of the Great Library of Alexandria. Since the dawn of libraries, all librarians have shared a common raison d’être on behalf of humankind: To acquire, organize, preserve, and make accessible our recorded knowledge. That mission hasn’t changed over the centuries, but the manner in which we fulfill it is constantly evolving.

The library remains the heart of this university. While libraries have always existed so that no one had to re-discover, re-learn or re-teach what came before, the university library of the 21st century is also where great minds meet physically and virtually, our time’s forum for discovery, learning and teaching.



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