Friday, February 20, 2009

Henry Madden Library Reopens

I have been looking forward to today for over a year. Our recently renovated CSU Fresno library opened its doors this morning for the first time. It’s a nice building, with tall windows and massive concrete pillars. It’s a modern building but it isn’t overdone. It’s certainly a library to catch your eye.

When I moved to Fresno last year, I promptly drove to campus to check out the library. I was quite disappointed when I discovered that it was closed for renovation. The good news was that the construction was impressive and a great deal of money had been invested to build it (including gambling money which I find to be a bit unusual). The bad news was that it wouldn’t be finished until the end of the year (several months away).

Well, as expected, the end of the year came and went and the library still wasn’t open. January was an overly optimistic target and so was Valentine’s Day. But I soon learned that a firm date had been set when I checked out the library website and noticed a clock marking the days, hours, minutes and seconds to Opening.

On campus today, the most common remark I heard was that the library was “huge”. Having experienced larger campuses and larger libraries, I was a bit amused by this apparent provincialism but I did have to admit that the building was spacious. There is a lot of open unused area inside, but I think this is a good thing – there’s plenty of room to grow.

I am a bit tentative about priorities however. There seems to be a lot of space dedicated to administration compared to the space allotted to books and journals. If the unused space gets used for what libraries are supposed to provide – books that is – then it will be well spent and the campus administrators will deserve our praise. If the same relative allocations continue, however, I’m not sure the gamble will have paid off.

Part of the reason for the small space allocation for books is that there is a very impressive series of shelf-compactors. Almost all of the books are on the lower level in what is claimed to be the largest self-compacting system in the United States. It is quite impressive. It seems that the science of compactors has been around long enough that many of their earlier problems have been overcome. It used to be that they took a long time to move and you often had to wait your turn to open the shelves if somebody was in a nearby isle. The compactors here are much shorter than I’ve seen in other libraries making room for more isles. No doubt this will still be frustrating during peak periods – such as midterms – when students have to wait around for isles to clear. But over-all, it seems to be a good use of space.

I have to admit, however, that I’m not a big fan of shelf compactors. I’m too old-fashioned I guess. I prefer walking up and down the isles looking at whatever volume catches my eye – the dustier, the better. Shelf-compactors make this difficult and much less rewarding. They are just fine for the individual with reference number in-hand who knows just where to find what is needed. They frustrate the library soul in search of serendipity.

Another frustration is the lack of hiding places. Libraries have charm to the extent that they have secret hiding places where you can cozy up to a book and pass the silent hours. Fresno’s new library is much too practical for this. If you need to sit down and read, you pretty much have to find a chair in the large open area full of tables, and read next to a dozen laptops and sundry groups of students. There are reading rooms nearby that can be closed for privacy. These will, no doubt, be useful when chairs are added. Today I preferred sitting on the floor alone in one of them to the chairs in the “lunchroom”.

I say “lunchroom” only half in jest. There is, after all, a convenient coffee shop on the second floor next to a large reading area. I know that many campuses these days have such vending services in their libraries. They seem to be copying Barnes & Noble Booksellers who has been successful at combining books and beverages. It’s sad that these are the busiest places in the library. Maybe they exist as a form of literary bribery. Maybe they just help boost patron numbers in order to justify such big buildings. I guess I shouldn’t complain.

I should also mention the frustrating arrangement of the current journals. They are placed alphabetically. I realize that young students, unfamiliar with how libraries are arranged will find their favorite magazines more easily this way. But it is a real headache for somebody wanting to review the recent literature on a given subject. You have to run back and forth to find the issues you need and then you’re not sure if you’ve seen everything there is. It seems to me that it would be much better to educate our students in call numbers and arrange things as they should be arranged.

This may sound a bit negative. I don’t mean for it to be. Our new library is definitely something to be proud of, and I look forward to many hours of enjoyment here. There are areas that I haven’t seen yet (particularly the South Wing) that I look forward to exploring. I also need to look more closely at the map collection – apparently it is one of the best in the state.

And I admit to being quite pleased, while walking across campus, to overhear a couple of different students tell their friends that they had to go “check out” the new library. I hope I hear the same thing for a long time to come.

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