Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Commencement 2012

This past Saturday was the third time in four years that I participated in the college's main graduation ceremony. The weather cooperated, and the whole campus sparkled. Librarians marched side by side with faculty and other administrators. I did not particularly enjoy these ceremonies when I was a student, I think because I took graduation for granted, but I have come to genuinely appreciate the annual rite of passage while working at the college. It's a positive event, in the sense that there are so many sad stories at the community college, and this is a celebration of achievement. I like to see the students who made it through and seem likely to go on to good things.

I remember when one student in particular, who graduated this year and has plans to transfer to a university, began classes here two years ago. Before the semester even started, he came to the library and wanted to know everything about it. Subsequently he was in the library studying in the mornings before I arrived at work, and I usually saw him throughout the day in the building. I've heard from faculty about his many academic successes. I'm also aware that he comes from a needy background, and that English is not his first language. But I would vouch that any financial aid he receives will pay off, which is reassuring in light of the increasing attention that student loan debt is generating. (The federal government has so far been willing to absorb much of the uncertainty, but there are cracks in the foundation.) 

Another thing I noticed, watching the students walk across the stage, was that I recognized those on either end of the spectrum -- the really good students, and the ones who needed a lot of help. There were a great many in the middle whom I'm sure I've never seen in the library. Now I'm wondering whether that's really OK. Is it a reflection of the library's success, that our services -- which are meant to support independent work -- function the way they are supposed to? Or is it a reflection of apathy toward the library and an indication that they never used it? My lack of recognition is the same for either condition.

Lastly, and this might sound strange, but at other times in the year it's not always apparent that we're all working together as part of a big team. Commencement is a welcome reminder.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Ideal Book

There exists a current of thought upholding the idea that the best book is still one that is printed on paper (see the back page of the Book Review a few weeks ago for an example). When I forget that I work in a library and have immediate, easy access to most of the printed books I want, I tend to agree. It's during my forays away from the library that I realize why some of the features of e-books are so attractive. And while I'm not ready to abandon printed books entirely, I can see how a hybrid model might be ideal.  

The concept of a book is largely irrelevant to networked devices, and one big reason that book-related words (page, library) are making the transition to the online world is because books are easy to use. (This is in addition to the reason that books have so far been a common frame of reference.) Taken a step further, e-books exist because printed books are so easy to use.

A hybrid book has the potential to be best of both worlds, in that it could exist both as a physical object and an online object. Most media are being forced to choose between one or the other type of existence, but I think books are fundamentally different and may not have to make that reckoning. Yes, the internet makes it unnecessary to print something out in order to interact with it. But at times, a printed version of a book -- not reliant on a power source or a network connection -- is the most desirable thing to have, no matter how smart your phone is.  (Or maybe I'm crazy. After all, I'm still buying CDs because I can digitize them and also have a nicely packaged version to put on my shelf. When I purchase digital music, I'm irritated that I don't get the object. Unless I make the effort of burning it to a blank CD. Which I don't, and which wouldn't be the same anyway.) 

So, is anyone selling a printed book with an access key that provides a digital copy for the consumer's preferred reading platform? Are textbooks doing this? Would the book-buying public be willing to pay slightly more to have both formats? I think a similar feature is available on certain Blu-Ray DVDs, but from my cursory reading this effort is meant to prod consumers toward the digital version rather than to support use of the disc.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Collection as Legacy

I am a heavy user of our college library, and during the past several years I have been trying to give back to it, with the hope of benefiting others in the same ways that I have benefited.

This has been on my mind because apparently I am not the only person with that impulse: Many of the printed books in our collection were donated by members of the college community. (Information about donors is not broadcasted anywhere, but it is visible in the catalog records and frequently on book plates.)

With limited funds, and with attempts to ensure that there is an outcome for every dollar spent, using college money to buy printed books -- which admittedly do have the potential to go unused and take up real estate -- can perhaps seem lavish. To outward appearances, databases, e-books, and other online resources give more bang for the buck. Yet it is the books that are more enduring, and if someone were to contribute to the college library I think they would be less interested in giving a year's access to an electronic journal.

This may be returning to an earlier model in the history of libraries, but I wonder if civic pride could be harnessed to contribute to the collection. In collaboration with the college, the library could reach out to student alumni and faculty retirees, and/or establish a friends group. We do already have viable channels for accepting donations of money or items, but they are not widely known about.

What would it take to get this started? For one, I like this idea from the Smithsonian Libraries of having a public wishlist on Amazon. That way, potential donors could be aware of exactly which books we would like to purchase, approximately how much they cost, and what immediate impact their contribution would have.

Financial accounting rules are numerous and complicated for the college, but I doubt they would be insurmountable. The main objection I can anticipate is that the college needs money for lots of things, not just for the library. But a printed book is a modestly-priced item, relative to a new building, and it is something simple that people concerned with higher education might really connect with. I can at least try, right?