The American college library and the student experience: The past, present, and future
This paper was originally written for the History of American Higher Education course taken as a part of the Oregon State University College Student Services Administration (CSSA) master’s degree program (2015).
The past, present, and future of the American college library and its relationship to the student experience is an exploration into the student experience through the lens of the student's interactions with the library as a component of American universities. A look into the past will take the reader to the colonial time period and back to America’s first college. The emergence and function of literary societies as a product of the library and collegiate culture will be discussed. The literature surrounding the student experience in the library of the twentieth century will be explored, drawing connections between the educational environment that the literary societies initiated.
For the purpose of this paper, the present day will be defined as beyond the year 2000 and will examine what current national associations such as the American Library Association (ALA) and its subsidiary, the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL); EDUCAUSE; and the New Media Consortium (NMC); these organizations are defining past, present, and future trends for the American university library. Connections between the literary societies’ intellectual and cultural contributions to the student experience of the past will be examined through the lens of the present-day library. The present-day libraries’ assessment of the student’s experience and outcomes in relation to the use of library facilities will be explored along with present-day innovations in the use and allocation of library space and architectural design.
Current strategic plans of American college libraries will be explored and extended with the author’s own insights into the future of the student experience in relation to the educational environment of the library. A connection between current and historical trends of the student experience will be tied to emerging research and scholarship on the future of college libraries and the information archival system as a whole. Philosophical insight into knowledge infrastructures will envision the library of the future as a space not simply for knowledge organization, recall & curation, but ultimately as a redesigned space that allows students to access such systems and obtain the information literacy needed to make sense of these exponentially growing quantities of information.
Past Student Life
Historically the collegiate library dates back to the first college in America, as two years after Harvard was founded in 1636 it received its first collection of books (Shores, 1935). Louis Shores (1935) states, “significantly enough, American Higher Education began with the library” (p.11), describing the donation of roughly 300 books to Harvard in 1638, effectively becoming the “first educational property in America” (p.11). The early integration of the library collection with the first American college was initially intended for preservation, archival, and only occasional viewing of the material (Shores, 1935; Gyure, 2008). In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the colonial college libraries didn’t function beyond being a status symbol of the college (Gyure, 2008). Gyure (2008) stated that “college administers saw book collections as a way to flaunt a school’s importance” (p. 108). The student population was historically very limited in regard to access to colonial college library books; the facilities were often minute with little space for reading the books, only upper class-men were even allowed to handle the collections (Budd, 1998; Harding, 1959a; Gyure, 2008). The collections in the library were not considered to be new, or even relevant to the students for whom the books would potentially be for, suggesting that the books were not for the students at all (Harding, 1959a).
The literary society is considered to be one of the first forms of student organizations aside from religious organizations, (Harding, 1959a), and they were implemented out of work directly done by an increasingly unsatisfied student population. Budd (1998) describes the early nineteenth-century library:
There are some fairly clear indications of the inadequacy of libraries in meeting the needs of the students . . . One indicator is the hours of opening of the libraries. . . . Another indicator of inadequacy is the phenomenon of literary societies and their libraries. Students frequently created these debates and social societies to further their own educations. They tended to assess membership fees and use some of the proceeds to build book collections for the members’ use. They could control what was acquired and offer much freer access to the society’s library than they had to the college’s or university’s. (pp. 34-35)
The first literary society emerged between 1722 and 1728, at Harvard, and was called the “Spy Club” (Harding, 1959a, p. 2; Westbrook, 2002, p. 341), with the literary society becoming a major part of nearly every college student experience by the late 18th century and early 19th century (Harding, 1959a; Rudolph, 1990; Simpson, 1977; Westbrook, 2002). The colonial-era literary society acted as a student-organized debate club, providing both an intellectual and social atmosphere with student access to the societies’ own personal books and literary collections, (Alire & Evans, 2010; Rudolph, 1990; Shores, 1935; Westbrook, 2002). Harding (1959a) states, “prior to the Civil War, the major, and frequently the only, extracurricular activity of American college students was the literary society,” (p.1). Among expanding social and intellectual awareness, undergraduate students involved in literary societies were often found dealing with a wide range of skills that could be found useful elsewhere including budgeting, debate skills, bookkeeping and organization, facilitating meetings, and other skills that uniquely complemented the colonial curriculum (Harding, 1959a; Simpson, 1977).
Considering the fact that the emergence of the literary society was related to the students’ dissatisfaction with the accommodations and content of the colonial college library, the acceptance of the literary society by faculty and the administration of the college and library was remarkably positive in most accounts (Simpson, 1977). Speaking about the time period of 1783 to 1830, Simpson (1977) states “the college looked upon the society libraries as extensions of a formal college education. Perhaps this is why nowhere in the records of any of the societies is there mention of harassment by administrators or trustees” (p. 218). Students of literary societies were often intellectually stimulated by the diverse array of recently published, non-classical literature, that enabled many members of the literary societies to envision solutions and possibilities of reform of the American college (Rudolph, 1990, p. 143).
Several things occurred after the Civil War that lead to demise of literary societies, and to the societies’ book collections ultimately being purchased and / or absorbed college libraries. Initially the Western State’s literary societies were not affected by the post Civil War trauma, but those in the North and South did not recover after the Civil War as the higher education environment was deep with uncertainty (Harding, 1959b). In the early 1800's the Yale library offered a room accommodation for its two literary societies, a trend that would continue until the majority of the literary societies were absorbed by the college library around the first decade of the twentieth century (Harding, 1959a; Simpson, 1977). It can be noted that by acquiring the majority of library collections from the student literary societies, the student body was placed in a unique role that encouraged many libraries to increase both the access and quality of their services to students (Budd, 1998; Harding, 1959a; Simpson, 1977).
At least three events in 1876 contributed to the significant change of the college library and to the collegiate literary society (Budd, 1998). First, the American Library Association (ALA) was founded in 1876 and subsequently increased professionalism, staffing, and desire to move beyond storing books and towards serving the university (Alire & Evans, 2010; Budd, 1998, p. 36; Harding, 1959b, p. 111). The emergence of the ALA and its subsequent support of the college libraries' hiring and development of staff led to a reorganization of resources providing more access and content for students and faculty (Budd, 1998; Harding, 1959b). Second, 1876 nationwide surveys of libraries known as the study of “Public Libraries in the United States of America,” (Harding, 1959b, p. 105), provided a detailed account of the status of the nation's libraries - including the collegiate libraries. A side effect of this study was the observation of the literary societies’ still massive book collections, even more, apparent due to the ability to compare the collection numbers gathered to previous estimates (Budd, 1998; Harding, 1959b). Third, Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876, proving to be extremely influential in increasing the pressure for libraries to increase the access, management, and quality of their resources (Budd, 1998, p. 37). Largely based on the research intensive scholarship of German higher education, John’s Hopkins initiated a move away from the lecture-focused education and towards the development of the teacher and the student (Budd, 1998, p. 37). As Johns Hopkins University and additional research-based doctoral university programs emerged in the United States, the twentieth-century library saw an expansion of facilities, and access, as literary collections began reaching one million items or more (Alire & Evans, 2010; (Budd, 1998; Cohen & Kisker, 2009; Rudolph, 1990).
When looking at key components of the student experience and the library, literary societies appear to be the best indicator of the student’s relationship to the college library prior to the establishment of the American Library Association in 1876. Literary societies can be considered the second type of student organization (Harding, 1959a), and they can also be seen as an incubator of ideas, a social club, and a forum for intellectual development and debate that complements the curriculum of the American College (Harding, 1959a; Rudolph, 1990; Simpson, 1977; Westbrook, 2002). Students' interaction with the college library was to be dramatically different in the 20th century. With the rise of academic research many other national professional science and academic research-focused organizations emerged and influenced the organizational structure of the institution of higher education (Budd, 1998, p.40). The library became an invaluable resource for the faculty who were now expected to perform scholarly research and inquiry, thus enabling the library to dramatically increase their collection quantity and quality (Budd, 1998).
Since its founding in 1876, the American Library Association (ALA) continued to be a strong influence in the development of the academic library as a profession, as a resource, and as a crucial component of the American university (American Library Association, 1998). The ALA continues to be a source for credible, informative reports on the status of the American academic library (Alire & Evans, 2010). One such report generated by the ALA (1998) states the following:
Some fifteen to twenty years ago higher education began to focus on measuring the outcomes of its programs as the primary indicator of quality. The forces that impelled this focus included a restructuring of the criteria of the regional accrediting agencies to emphasize assessment, the interest of state legislatures and federal agencies in requiring accountability of the institutions they that fund, and the desire of the institutions themselves to market their product as "high quality" to a (then) shrinking population of college-bound students. Virtually every state higher education coordinating board now requires public institutions to annually provide accountability data in terms of output measures. (para. 1)
A newly established commitment to market the university library as a place for students showcases a stark change in the mission of the academic library that encompasses a student-centered approach. A similarly based report released by the ALA (1989) suggests “organizational redesigns should seek to empower students and adults through new kinds of access to information and new ways of creating, discovering, and sharing it” (committee recommendations, para. 2). This educational environment of learning continued to evolve in the library throughout the twentieth century, resulting in the emergence of library instruction of information literacy, assistance in academic inquiry and research, and an increased amount of scholarship done on the Librarian profession itself (Alire & Evans, 2010; Association of College and Research Libraries, 2015; Dowler, 1997, p. 7).
Academic research in higher education in the later twentieth century continues to move toward to student-centered approach, with accreditation agencies and the government alike becoming more interested intangible outcomes that demonstrate student learning outcomes, indicators of a positive educational environment, and focus towards a more inclusive institutional climate (American Library Association, 1998; Dowler, 1997; Moniz & Moats, 2014). A paper published in 1983 looks back to the days of literary societies for solutions to declining student interest in college, Engle (1983) notes “in the literary society, knowledge was not drilled and drilled in mercilessly, but discovered and experienced. The groups offered speakers the more orthodox faculty shied away from” (p. 38). The student body was certainly capable of getting their voices heard, and influencing real institutional change through their actions as student activists, and literary club leaders (Budd, 1998; Engle, 1983; Greenstreet, 1996; Harding, 1959a; Simpson, 1977).
Present Student Life
The ALA continues to focus on the accreditation of the American university, as well as on those involved in the library profession, with a constant focus on the outcomes of the library users: the students, the faculty and staff, and in many cases, the general public (Alice & Evans, 2010; Association of College and Research Libraries, 2010). Students in the present day can be found on library advisory committees and hold a key voice in the creation and implementation of the library’s practices and policies (Benefiel, Arant, & Gass, 1999). Current research in higher education has identified a connection between literary societies and current pedagogy (Westbrook, 2002), as well as the library’s connection to the “campus culture for learning” (Hufford, 2013, p. 288; Greenstreet, 1996; Steele, Cronrath, Vicchio, & Foster, 2015). Greenstreet (1996) stated, “contemporary scholars might note what students found in these organizations: literary societies provided fellowship, a sense of belonging, and a sense of achievement to their members” (p. 12). This sense of belonging that students desire is a major focus of the policies governing the academic library environment of the 21st century as well as higher education in general (Carnes, 2014; Hufford, 2013; Saunders, 2015; Stoffle, Renaud, & Veldof, 2015; İmamoğlu & Gürel, 2015; Steele, et. al., 2015).
A leading organization in educational trends and technology is known as NMC: “NMC (historically the New Media Consortium) is an international community of experts in educational technology” (“About,” n.d., para. 1). According to a recent report commissioned by the NMC on the future of academic libraries, trends in technology do not show any sign of slowing down, and continuous understanding of technology and its effect on both the library institution and its student users is advised (Johnson, Becker, Estrada, & Freeman 2015). Another international leader in educational trends and research, known as EDUCAUSE, worked in collaboration with NMC to identify trends affecting higher education as a whole, illuminating the rapid transformation of the system in which the academic library currently resides (Johnson, Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2014; Johnson, Becker, Estrada, Freeman, & Ludgate, 2013). The library is well known to be strongly influenced by the educational environment and culture of the university it is a part of (Alire & Evans, 2010; Dowler, 1997; Gyure, 2008; Hufford, 2013; Steele, et. al., 2015).
New areas of academic research have been ignited as a result of innovations such as the computer, the internet, and other information & communication technologies, shifting the focus of academic research to new types of knowledge collection, retrieval, and generation (Alice & Evans, 2010; Ernst & Parikka, 2013; Meyer & Schroeder, 2015). With these new knowledge infrastructures, libraries are actively researching student’s use of new technologies, and are currently working to ensure that the library environment is tailored to student use in a way that both promotes a positive student attitude toward the library as well as a benefit of the student’s academic experience (Steele, et. al., 2015). Emerging trends in library research also include the increased use of data analytics to assess and research students’ use of library facilities as well as determining connections between student success, student achievement, and library use (Johnson et. al., 2013, 2014 & 2015).
Future Student Life
Based on the past and present trends of academic libraries, the student experience will continue to become more of an area of interest for library professionals. The initiative and leadership of the colonial students allowed them to create an intellectual environment in addition to the curriculum that they were presented with. Clearly, access to the library was of interest to the students, and only after they built robust extra-curricular spaces that rivaled the current curriculum did they begin to get the attention of college and library professionals.
With the extensive amount of literature and knowledge being generated in the twenty-first century, the library will no doubt always be needed as a resource to make sense of this new knowledge. It is not likely, however, that the library will be a storage place for information as it was in the seventeenth century, with the internet providing an entirely new platform for information curation, recall, collection, and production (Rainie & Wellman, 2012). Students have shown that they need environments that are innovative, relevant, and not outdated. Reports generated by reputable leaders in international higher education show that the increased prevalence of massive online open courses (MOOCs) is proving to be disruptive to the physical higher education learning environment (Moniz, & Moats, 2014). Students will continue to find places to socialize other than the library, such as the college union or coffee shops, and they will definitely do so if they are not provided the access and resources that meet their demands.
Research on the future of libraries shows that MOOCs, mobile communication technologies, and the information infrastructure of the internet will absolutely redefine the library as a space not to find information, but as a space to understand information (Moniz, & Moats, 2014). The library of 2050 will likely become an information literacy learning center that is open to the public. As the line between the producer of information and the consumer of information becomes blurred, so too will the barriers between knowledge producers and knowledge consumers. The student population of 2050 will be attracted to spaces that are tailored to them. With technology continually being able to fill this role, higher education facilities will need to establish themselves as future-focused, non-stagnant, institutions of change.
Students of the colonial era created their own student experience through the literary societies, identifying what was important to them and their education. Higher education administrators eventually absorbed most of the intellectual ecosystems that the students had created, leading to libraries of the present that are now continuously evaluating their contribution to student’s success. National accreditation through the ALA enabled the libraries to better serve their student population. This, however is not a guarantee that the students will not find other needs and desired outcomes when they come to college. With the internet and mobile communication technologies making physical location less of an issue, universities will continue to find the need to prove their value and commitment towards student learning and student success. With students on the library and educational boards at some institutions, perhaps their voices will continue to be heard by the university. The library itself is going through a sort of identity crisis and needs to be able to think broader than the physical storage of books. Over time, the library has shifted from archival like preservation of information towards a mentor to those who intend to be literate in the 21st century. Students have shown an intellectual curiosity, and desire to have their own educational environments that are social, accessible, and challenging enough to create social change.
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