Where these days you don't hear 'Shhhh!' very often

If the film version of The Music Man was made in 2009 instead of 1962, Robert Preston might never get the chance to sing “Marian the Librarian” to Shirley Jones. In that brief but maddeningly catchy song, Preston laments the impossibility of talking to Marian, the object of his affection, because every time he goes to the library and raises his voice enough to speak to her he gets shushed.

These days the library is not a place where people hear “Shhhh!” very often. In fact, if Puget Sound’s Collins Library was in River City instead of Tacoma, Preston would have encountered musical performances, art exhibits, lectures, and vast digital resources intermingled with the stacks, and Marian would have spent a lot more time teaching than enforcing silence.

“We’re not just helping students with term papers anymore,” says Jane Carlin, director of the Collins Memorial Library who came to Puget Sound last June from the University of Cincinnati. “The library today is an active learning space, an extension of studios, classrooms, and laboratories. It’s a place for inspiration and creativity that reinforces learning with active events and showcases our special collections and materials. For example, coinciding with the Obama inauguration, we exhibited materials relating to democracy, voting, and presidential history.”

During an Asian cultural event in January, the library presented books, materials, and music about Asia as a way to align itself with campus events. And local talent is spotlighted, as well. In January, Jasper Tollefson ’10 performed classical guitar music, and Tacoma artist Holly Senn, a librarian at Pacific Lutheran University, exhibited artwork she creates from discarded library books. A few weeks ago, Tibetan monks spent three days making a sand mandala.

“We want to feature art that reflects traditional craftsmanship involved in the making of books and printing,” Carlin adds. “This is a great way to introduce students to how objects are made and give them the opportunity to contemplate how communication has changed over the years.”

And libraries are no longer confined by reading room walls. They now reach around the world and deeply into cyberspace. With just a click of the keyboard, ARTstor (www.artstor.org) offers up nearly 1 million images in art, architecture, and the humanities, and the Atlas of Our Changing Environment reports on the human footprint around the globe.

“We have one foot in the analog world and one in the digital world—a balancing act of meeting the needs of students in both places,” Carlin says. “Traditionally, people think of libraries as somber, quiet places. We’re trying to demonstrate that this is an exciting place to be.”

As we enjoy the lightning speed and accessibility of digital information, it’s easy to forget the darker side: Misinformation travels just as fast. But librarians aren’t taking that sitting down. They’re getting out from behind their desks and into classrooms to teach faculty and students research methods. 

“Even though we’re in this wonderful time of access to so much information, understanding that information is critical for our students’ success,” Carlin says. “In the fall semester of 2008, our librarians taught more than 86 classes, working with the faculty to make sure students weren’t just using Wiki and Google searches, but doing the kind of research that represents the academic intensity we’re so proud of at Puget Sound.”

With all the exhibits, special events, and musicians, what happened to the quiet space so essential to contemplation and creativity? It’s still there, Carlin says, especially in the reading rooms and study zones. The decibels don’t pick up until farther into the building, where students work together on podcasts, posters, and PowerPoint presentations. 

“Creating blended spaces has always been a challenge at libraries,” Carlin adds. “We need a variety of places for students to come together to learn as a group as well as through individual study.”

Carlin understands that students today work differently than those just a few decades ago. Some rarely step foot in the building. Others like to camp out to study. To help them out, the library staff worked with student government to expand library hours to 24/7 during peak study times.

“I like to challenge the traditional role of libraries and confront stereotypes about our role in higher education,” Carlin says. “I like to stir things up and show what we can offer to our community.”

— Lynda McDaniel