The Library as the Center of a University

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Shelby Foote, the famous author and historian of The Civil War: A Narrative, famously stated that a university is simply a group of buildings surrounding a library.

Obviously a university is more about the people: the students, faculty, and staff; those who given the university a reason to exist, those who provide the education and impetus for those students, and then the people who actually enable the university to function on a day to day basis. However, I think Foote is largely correct in that for a university to fully function, which at UNC Pembroke means “changing lives through education,” the library needs to be at the center. Geographically, intellectually, and even emotionally, the library is what I call the pivot of a university education. Only the library transcends the lines of all the disciplines and brings together all the knowledge and resources of what used to be called a “liberal education.”

The discussion of a “liberal education” is a subject for another day, but it is nonetheless important. I’m old enough to have attended a public high school where I took four years of Latin and old-fashioned enough to still consider that one of the most foundational experiences in my educational path.

As I take up the leadership of the Mary Livermore Library here at Pembroke there are several tasks in front of me. “The Library of the Future,” a discussion that has been going on for the last 25 years needs to become the library of the present here a UNCP. However, the so-called library of the future isn’t a place where all the print books and periodicals are cast of to the re-cycling bin and the shelves are replaced with rows of seats and computer terminals. That experiment has already been tried and spectacularly failed. No, books aren’t going away anytime soon. As a corollary, I’ve read several articles in the last year about the resurgence of independent bookstores in America. The now defunct Borders and the increasingly dominant Amazon (which is now much more than books and amazingly is now opening “brick and mortar” stores) may have briefly broken the hegemony of the small bookstores, but there is something lasting and permanent about books and the small stores are coming back stronger than before.

In the library books are no longer the exclusive repository of knowledge and experience, a vast array of technological innovations and advances have seen to that, but the library of the future will require balance. Besides information, in whatever form it may take, that the library provides two vital components for student success: expertise and space.

In terms of expertise the library provides “librarians” those who have the academic training in what is called “Library and Information Science.” The librarians are generalists in terms of working across the across the academic disciplines, but they are the specialists in terms of “information quality.” Just because it’s on the web, or published in a study, or even in a book, the question remains, “is it true?” While one can argue over the nature of truth and criteria for its determination, the quality of information has clear and objective standards that the librarian is trained to discern. Behind the print, or the blog, or the online article, or the speech, there is information. Is the information good? Are the conclusions made on this basis of the information valid? What and where are the best sources for information? The sheer quantity of information today has created its own haystack and finding that needle of the information that is just right for that assignment or project or research is what the librarian does; even, I daresay, better than the professor in an individual course. That is the expertise a library provides.

The library also provides space. While it is certainly true that the religious can “worship anywhere” it is nonetheless true that worship is more focused and precise in the particular sacred space dedicated to worship. A student can certainly read, study, and research, anyplace; however, it is in the library that the reading, studying, and researching can be focused and obtain precision. New studies and research are increasingly pointing to that “quiet space” where students can thrive. The library of the future will not only incorporate the informational resources, but also enhance the quality of the information professionals, the librarians, as well as provide that “sacred space” of study and research.

The library will undergird the motto of the university, “changing lives through education” as we “enhance education through research.” This quote is one we are using on our new brochures:

The library is the central pivot of a university education; a place of scholarship, intellectual community, growth, and freedom.

I want to thank all of the university family, especially the chancellor and provost, and the library staff for welcoming me so warmly to UNC Pembroke. Brave Nation has a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to. I’m looking forward to the library being front and center helping to lead the way to the future.