A Laboratory of Collaborative Learning

Brian Taylor

August 07, 2009

When I was an undergraduate, the college library was more important to my education than anything except for my relationships with professors.

But even 20 years ago, I could see that the library was underfinanced relative to the dorms and athletics facilities that seemed to draw unlimited resources. I was a commuting student, so I never really participated in the proliferating luxuries of residential college life, which seemed to constitute a separate world of privilege outside of, and even hostile to, the academic program.

So the library was my home on the campus. It was a quiet place to study (and sometimes nap), but I also spent many hours browsing the collections, reading anything that interested me. Eventually, I became an English major, and I used the stacks for dozens of research papers on, say, Frankenstein and arctic exploration, Macbeth and post-Reformation witch hunts, and Dante's Inferno and the politics of Italian city-states.

Apparently, I had a Gothic sensibility as an undergraduate, but I still regard those years in the library as a golden time in my life. I was discovering how much there was to learn beyond the received knowledge of textbooks and the banalities of popular culture. And I was making those discoveries in the context of relationships with accessible faculty mentors who could guide my reading.

My undergraduate research projects were not particularly original, but I did learn that there was a continuing conversation on almost any subject that I could listen in on through books and—in those days—printed journals. The library taught me to take responsibility for my education and to question anyone who claimed to possess the one-and-only correct interpretation of any subject.

Now that I have taught undergraduates for more than a dozen years, I find that they often think of the humanities—as I once did—as a static body of knowledge: an unchanging anthology of canonical works, an established chronology of historical events, or a timeless sequence of ethical debates with which one should become familiar (though the "should" is fading rapidly). One of the hardest tasks I face as a teacher is getting my students to understand the contentiousness of all those seemingly solid things when so few of them have the kind of relationship with books and libraries that I took for granted. A significant percentage will probably leave college having never visited the library once after their first-year orientation session.

Undergraduate libraries have never been revenue generators, but, if this pattern of declining use does not change, many of them may soon seem like costly anachronisms. I imagine that librarians at small colleges live in dread of the Sauron searchlight gaze of administrators. Libraries cost so much to maintain, to heat, and to staff; the cost of journal subscriptions is going off the charts; and then there are all those books that are being purchased, stored, conserved, and not read.

Sooner or later, someone powerful will ask: "Why do we even need a library anymore? Why not simply teach students to rely on a portfolio of online resources that they can pay for directly so the college can recapture all those lost expenses? (The tenured librarians—before their services are outsourced entirely—can be moved into a windowless bunker where they can be on call 24/7 to answer questions about research papers that are due in 40 minutes.) And then we can make our obsolete library into a gorgeous new student center, with climbing walls, a food court, and a bowling alley. It will look great in the online campus tour on our new Web site, and it will attract hordes of new students. The donors are already lined up! It's practically a done deal!"

How can libraries counter such modest proposals?

For one thing, it is worth recognizing that a library is not just a warehouse for books; it is a physical representation of a set of cultural values that have accumulated over thousands of years. Libraries salvaged and preserved Western civilization; they have been a hub for intellectual exchange, a ladder of social mobility, and a promise of continuity from one generation to the next. It is not mere courtesy that causes people to become silent in the library, as they do in a church: Libraries are sacred places. That reverence for learning embodied in a physical space is not something we should squander lightly, even though what's inside that building may have to change and adapt to new conditions, much as churches have adapted new music and styles of preaching without abandoning the core values of their traditions.

For undergraduate libraries, those changes might include, for example, offering even more online resources, providing more-flexible work spaces for students, offering more extensive digitization services, providing local expertise on copyright and intellectual property, training faculty members and students in the use of new media, and, perhaps, providing food services in a collegial atmosphere.

Experimenting with such changes does not mean that libraries need to capitulate to the worst tendencies of collegiate consumerism and techno-boosterism. None of those changes is inconsistent with the traditional mission of college libraries, and all of them can be done in the context of the preservation and study of books and other research materials. In fact, I want to argue (though not in this column) that hands-on, archival research—the cultivation of traditional scholarly sensibilities—should be at the center of the undergraduate liberal-arts experience.

Of course, in making such adaptations, libraries will face many challenges, not the least of which is finding money to support them, but the greatest challenge from my perspective is the separation of faculty members from the undergraduate library and the professionals who staff it. There needs to be a stronger alliance between content experts and information managers, between the professors and the librarians, in order to achieve our allied goals in a rapidly changing technological, economic, and cultural context.

Professors and librarians are socialized into different professions with different values that can make us mutually incomprehensible: One emphasizes individual scholarly productivity; the other looks to provide the context in which that work can take place. The two professions are also separated institutionally by different chains of administrative accountability, separate reward systems, and separate budgets. Librarians sometimes seem remote from the usual politics of faculty life, and, increasingly, there are fewer opportunities for collegial exchange between faculty members and librarians.

When it comes to research, professors are more like our students than we might care to admit. As much as academics of my generation and older may love books and libraries (see "Stacks Appeal" and "Red-Hot Library Lust"), we do not use them the way we once did. Thanks to the library's online services, I can access most journal articles online almost instantaneously (a miracle of ease compared to the hundreds of hours and dollars I once spent copying them from bound volumes).

Moreover, at this stage in my career, I own nearly all the books that might be relevant to my research, and, if I don't, I can find them on Google Books, buy them (used or new) from, or, if they are newly published, download them onto my Kindle. Fetching books from the library (or worse, waiting for them to arrive via interlibrary loan) has become too much of a hassle to be bothered with. I have passed whole semesters without setting foot in the library, even as I urge and require my students to do so.

Housed in separate buildings, with fewer occasions for interaction and mutual understanding, faculty members and librarians may develop a weak sense of solidarity regarding their complementary roles in the institutional mission. My experience is that librarians are working hard to reach out to the campus community. Orienting new students, playing host to training sessions on research, and coming to classes to talk about Banned Books Week, the librarians are on call all the time.

Faculty members, on the other hand, apparently need to make a better effort to incorporate librarians in our collegial networks instead of treating them, as we sometimes do, as mere support staff: "What do you mean, I can't renew 50 books over the phone? Do you know who I am?" No doubt, some librarians come to feel the cumulative effect of those kinds of encounters, and retreat into their fortresses of silence, order, and continuity, making it even harder to cultivate institutional teamwork in a period of rapid change.

Apart from finding ways to foster collegiality, we as faculty members can work more effectively with librarians to design research projects and to develop collections that support the undergraduate curriculum. We can design assignments in consultation with librarians so it becomes impossible for students to pass through college without learning how to write a research paper, produce an educational video podcast, or accomplish any other goal that requires the critical evaluation of sources. If we can reconceptualize our teaching as collaborative research with students and librarians, then the library could become analogous to the laboratory in the sciences, and it would become impossible to imagine the future of any college without it.

By working more closely together, and responding to new technology while preserving the traditional culture of scholarship and books, I am convinced, professors and librarians can put the library back at the center of undergraduate education, where it belongs.

And the first step, for me, in the coming academic year, will be to reconnect with my undergraduate "home." I plan to move into an office in our campus library, become more familiar with the library staff and the way a library works, and teach at least two of my courses there. My hope is to create something that could be called "a laboratory of collaborative learning in the liberal arts" that capitalizes on traditional resources as well as new technologies. The outcome of that experiment—the failures as well as the successes, if any—will be the subject of future columns here.


Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at