Designing and Implementing Alternative Library Services

Lan Shen
Purdue University Calumet Library
United States

ABSTRACT: In light of the challenges from increasing digital collections and a decreasing number of patrons visiting libraries in person, this paper discusses a new concept of alternative library services which take leisurely approach, offer a human touch, and provide a collective learning environment for instructional and learning activities that take place inside the library walls. Distinct from the traditional images of library, the alternative library services are designed to attract more patrons to the library by providing enjoyable, interactive and group learning programs. Aside from discussing the concept of alternative services, the paper proposes and designs various feasible projects of implementing such services. Finally, the paper concludes that while promoting digital collections and maintaining traditional learning practices, it is critical for the library to explore and develop alternative services aimed at making a library "renaissance" possible and sustainable.

I. Introduction

In light of critical and ongoing transition from traditional to digital library collections, it seems that most academic libraries are compelled to follow the trend. However, given that diversity will generate new dynamics, the library needs to explore ways of diversifying its functions and seeking a third alternative between traditional and digital approaches in order to avoid the phenomenon of "the deserted library" (Albanese, 2003, p. 34).

It is observed that a library "renaissance" is becoming evident after experiencing the unprecedented challenges of the Internet boom in 1990s (Albanese, 2003, p. 34). In dealing with today’s "flat world" (Freidman, 2005), traditional library is transforming itself in order to survive and thrive. However, numerous libraries have not experienced a stable increase of reference requests, annual gate count, book circulations and current periodical uses. For instance, reference transactions in research libraries fell 21 percent between 1991 and 2001 at an average annual percentage drop of 2.6 percent (Kuchi, Mullen, and Tama-Bartels, 2004, p. 310). Obviously, digitization in library is necessary, but not enough to achieve sustainable library renaissance. While a variety of efforts have been taken to promote marketing services outside the library (Albanese, 2003, p. 36), the real challenge now is to get patrons inside library walls.

To achieve that goal, we need to maintain library as a visible "old bottle" and develop various concepts and mechanisms as "new wine" to attract more patrons to visit library in person. "In libraries, our primary purpose has not changed; the way we achieve it has" (Wilson, 2001, p. 83). This paper will define a new concept of the alternative library services (ALS) and discuss the role of ALS in instructional programs within libraries. It should be noted that this paper does not downplay the role of digital collections, virtual library services, and other traditional services; rather, it is designed to find a win-win alternative between traditional library services and library virtual services.

II. The Concept of Alternative Library Services

The traditional image of library environment can be characterized as a formal, quiet and individual learning place. That is one of the key reasons why fewer patrons visit libraries today. They prefer to stay home to access library information while playing their favorite music and sipping a cup of coffee. "Why walk to the library when all the information you could ever need is available at your fingertips in the comfort of your residence-hall room?" Some students believe that the library is "too quiet to study in" and it is "a sort of museum—a place that belongs to the past, not the present" (Barefoot, 2006, B16). To provide services that are attractive enough for a new generation growing up in a multimedia environment, we need to illustrate and define the concept of ALS before discussing new efforts at implementing them.

ALS can be defined by their leisure approach, human touch, and collective learning services for instructional and learning activities within the library. This definition covers the following three facets.

First of all, ALS must be enjoyable and leisurely in providing reading and learning resources in the library. It is true that library performs its ambiguous functions between work and leisure or between control and freedom, but the library should also function "as a place of leisure and a place of refuge" designed for patrons to "achieve freedom from the classroom" (Limberg & Alexandersson, 2003, p. 13). Related to this enjoyable approach, a leisure library should be green and sustainable buildings which include both internal and external constructions. External constructions for a green library, according to Harrington (2001), should include beautiful landscape, access via public transportation, drive-up to pick up library materials, and drive-up book drops, site, sunshine, airflow and rainwater. Internally, it should provide comfortable furniture and interior design in order to enhance patron and staff comfort, increase library accessibility and greater regional design compatibility (Chism & Bickford, 2002; Powell, 2002). In the view of Limberg & Alexandersson (2003, p. 8), "the architecture and the interior design of the library provide teachers and librarians with the possibility of creating and exploiting spaces as a resource for particular kinds of library interaction."

Second, a human touch and interpersonal communication should play an important role in ALS. Presently, distance education and online search are popular learning formats. However, learning is a human process which needs special interactions and effective engagement between students/patrons and librarians. Louise and Alexandersson (2003, p. 1) argue that two theoretical perspectives can improve the understanding of using library as a learning space. One is a sociocultural perspective in which "the school library can be understood as a ‘cultural tool’ with a communicative function" and the other is a phenomenological perspective which believes that "place and space are never disconnected from people" because locations "are of great existential significance for people," contributing to personal identity. Needless to say, in addition to impersonal factors of resources and environment, ALS should be supported and promoted by personal factors (faculty, staff, librarians, and students) (Streatfield and Markless, 1994) because library is indeed "a cultural tool with a communicative function" (Limberg & Alexandersson, 2003, p. 2).

Third, ALS should focus on collective and group learning rather than individual action(s) that characterize the traditional library culture. According to Jamieson (2005, p. 6), campus libraries should be required to "shift from their traditional role as repositories of information and other resources for individual, passive learning to places where learners meet, collaborate, and interact in learning processes that are much more dynamic." In the view of Limberg and Alexandesson (2003, p. 6), the school library is no longer "a warehouse for books," but "a space for collective rather than individual action" because "collaboration and team-building have become common components of the teaching and learning process throughout the curricula" (Forrest & Hinchliffe, 2005, p. 296). Moreover, according to Rafste, "library use is not limited to formal educational activities; it is about students’ daily activities" (Rafste, 2005, p.1). To identify the differences between classrooms and library, Dressman (1997, p. 161) indicates that "while classroom is space devoted to literacy as work, library is space devoted to literacy as the pursuit of personal desire" because spatial practices in library "help constitute subjectively objectified meanings and consolidate social and power relations" (Limberg & Alexandersson, 2003, p. 13).

In view of online information available to all, it is vital to accept and develop the concept of ALS in providing enjoyable, personal and collective learning services aimed at attracting more patrons to perform their learning and teaching activities inside library walls. Otherwise, "the deserted library" may not be a term but a reality.

III. Implementation of the Alternative Library Services

In accordance with the concept of ALS, the library needs to provide a leisurely environment through serving various functions of entertainment and social activities. The essential goal of ALS is to attract more patrons to visit libraries in person. Digital collections and online information will not and can not replace the traditional library. Indicated by a survey conducted by the American Library Association in 1998, borrowing books is the main purpose of visiting library for 81 percent of patrons (Wilson, 2000, p. 82). A 2006 survey shows that 94 percent of patrons agree that the library is still a place for life long learning (American Library Association, 2006).

First of all, in order to present the library as an enjoyable space, the library needs renovation to make it beautiful, unique, bright, and attractive. The Skillman Library of Lafayette College "replaced the building’s original concrete facades with glass-walled additions to provide views from indoors while welcoming students from the outside."(American Library Association, "Cultural Icons", 2006, p. 32). Besides, interior design and facilities are critical in encouraging patrons to spend more time in the library. Experiences at Emory University indicate that library should pay attention to providing colorful furniture, wireless and mobile computers, interactive white boards, instructor’s workstations, and rolling upholstered chairs with tablet arms (Forrest and Hinchliffe, 2005, p. 297-80).

Meanwhile, the library needs to establish a partnership with food services and local business agencies to build a coffee house in the library. As many libraries have demonstrated, the library can contract with local food and coffee businesses in "offering a coffee shop and allowing food, smoking and drink in some restricted areas of the library" (Albanese, 2003, p. 35). Academic libraries should also work with student government to bring entertainment to the library coffee house, which can serve as a regular meeting space for student social activities during the weekend. Lafayette College Library underwent a renovation and expansion to create new community space for interactive learning, including the addition of a gallery, café, digital media lab, and new reading room. (American Library Association, "Cultural Icons", 2006)

Additionally, the library should provide a special space for music practice and art exhibition. Chicago Public Library has initiated a wonderful project in providing piano room for public practice. It has attracted those who are interested in music and arts to visit library regularly. The University of Texas’s Fine Arts Library is generating visual interest through the display of student art and that of guest artists, along with a grand piano suspended overhead. (American Library Association, "Cultural Icons", 2006). Also, the library ought to identify local technology information enterprises to provide up-to-date high tech equipment and software to make services faster and easier in order to pull patrons back to the library. Indicated by the practice at the University of Texas at Austin, its undergraduate library has included "computers, a coffee shop, comfortable chairs, and 24-hour technical help" (Barefoot, 2006, B. 16).

In addition to providing leisure services, ALS also needs to improve the human touch and interactions between teaching and learning groups. "Providing the personal touch is part of what makes libraries so close to people’s hearts, and part of the reason people can become so emotional and nostalgic when libraries were threatened" (Wilson, 2000, p. 84). To be sure, ‘teachers and librarians are the key actors and need to interact differently with students" (Limberg & Alexandersson, 2003, p. 12). The library is supposed to provide both formal and informal knowledge, "as well as providing a meeting place for social discourse between students, teachers, and the school librarian" (Rafste, 2005, p. 3). After all, the library is instrumental in improving students’ life skills and fundamental learning capability (Williams and Wavell, 2001).

Therefore, the library should implement a one-stop shopping service providing mentoring and advising to students. In order to enhance the level of teaching and learning engagement, the library should help students not only find resources and do research, but "offer a range of instructional services" (Albanese, 2003, p. 35). Accordingly, it is necessary to make various equipments and resources available in libraries, including free laptop loan service, video conference room and up-to-date multimedia and wireless networking with free print available. Once the hardware is on hand, the library needs to provide multimedia instructional service to help individual patrons use the hardware effectively. In this regard, library staff members should be trained before they can pass on the techniques to their clients. "We are used to providing staff with the traditional skills of library work, but we have a tendency to leave IT skills to the IT workers" (Wilson, 2000, p. 83). It goes without saying that the role of librarians in instruction should be enhanced through "training in the use of course management software" (Cervone and Brown, 2001, p. 148) and other technology training. Integrating both technological resources and instructional advising, ALS will ensure the library’s popularity and publicity.

To enhance its human touch, ALS should include active services to distance education so as to minimize the negative aspects of distance learning. It is worth noting that providing distance education does not discourage any face-to-face contacts in the library. Rather, given the lack of communication between distance education students and instructors, the library should take extra efforts to encourage both faculty and students to frequent the library where interaction could be engaged. Due to the fact that about two-thirds of the U.S. ARL (Association of Research Libraries) libraries in 1998 provided services to distance education learners and more than three-fourths of them offered free document delivery and interlibrary loan services to distance education users (Yang, 2005, p. 95), the library needs to improve its service through more human touch with distance learners. For instance, "to ensure that distance learners are well provided with the literature and information they require, there is need for partnership between those who plan and implement these programs" (Kavulya, 2004, p. 25). The library should be actively involved in the online multimedia course design and development process through serving as a member of instructional design teams at an institution. Moreover, the library should be required to assist faculty with obtaining necessary copyright permission for electronic reserves and work with faculty to emphasize lifelong learning through information access (Yang, 2005, p. 93). To maintain interactions between distance learning instructors and students, the library also has the responsibility for "identifying, developing, coordinating, providing, and assessing the value and effectiveness of library resources and services designed to meet both the standard and the unique informational and skills development needs of the distance learning community" (Kavulya, 2004, p. 18).

Furthermore, the library should use its human touch service to help patrons on the issue of technical assistance. Traditionally, personal interactions between patrons and librarians focused on the procedural or technical dimensions of the task, such as searching for the right keyword or the right site. However, students repeatedly asked for technical assistance in the library, including "fixing broken connections or failing net works, providing technical assistance for photocopying or other machines in the library, as well as finding books on the shelves" (Limberg & Alexandersson, 2003, p. 9). Obviously, librarians can not decline those "non-professional" requests as one of components of ALS because the librarians’ attitudes and performance in dealing with technical issues will constitute an important part in augmenting the library’s attractions to its patrons.

In respect to improving collective learning services as the third element of ALS, since "students need space to meet, to talk, and to collaborate" as a new trend of learning style (Forrest & Hinchliffe, 2005, p. 296), librarians have to direct their interest and activities more to students’ collective learning "as well as to increased collective action as opposed to the prevalent pattern of individual communicative interaction in the library" (Limberg & Alexandersson, 2003, p. 13). For instance, the library should sponsor debate or forum designed to introduce and discuss some new and/or controversial publications. To encourage students’ participation in the debate or forum, the library should work with faculty and the bookstore to provide free copies of textbooks and bookstore coupons for participants. Additionally, as an incentive for faculty authors to promote their own books on campus, the library should provide a forum to introduce their new publications in order to enhance the research culture on campus.

As a common practice, numerous academic libraries are offering information literacy courses. They should also devise alternative requirements and programs to encourage collective learning in the library. For instance, librarians should design a database search contest as one of the course requirements for students and ask professors to be reviewers. Once a request of database searching is received, each group of students must try their best to search for the required information as accurately and quickly as possible. This kind of contests will get both faculty and students involved in the teaching and learning process within the library. Also, as another alternative service, librarians should get directly involved in the delivery of first-year programs. Indianan University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, for instance, "considers librarians as essential part of the instructional team in first-year learning communities," and Bowling Green State University "has a librarian who works with professors to design special programs and services for first-year students" (Barefoot, 2006, B16).

Besides, the library should fully utilize its space in providing regular research forums, workshops, symposia, and even controversial exhibits (Reece, 2005). For example, regular student research posters can be set up in order to attract more students, faculty and parents to visit the library. Moreover, freshmen orientation must require all new students to visit the library. Also, special small rooms within the library can be provided for housing a student counseling services and a writing center. In other words, it is not only necessary but imperative that we change the traditional image and perception of the library as a warehouse for books. Instead, the library should function as a place for intellectual interaction (Limberg & Alexandersson, 2003).

IV. Conclusion

Dealing with the dilemmas of growing digital collections and declining library patrons, it is urgent for librarians to identify alternative services and functions to balance online library service and traditional in-house service. While developing digital collections, new ways need to be explored to continue and improve the library’s in-house service. Librarians should make aggressive and revolutionary efforts to fill "new wine" into the existing "bottle," that is, to invent a leisure library that offers an indispensable human touch and provides a collective environment within the traditional structural confines, thus dispelling the prospect of a "deserted library."


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Submitted to CLIEJ on 24 August 2006.
Copyright © 2006 Lan Shen

Shen, Lan. (2006). "Designing and Implementing Alternative Library Services." Chinese Librarianship: an International Electronic Journal, 22. URL: