The Third Place

Jan 19, 2018

Words by Cameron Gorman | Photos by Samantha Karam 

Take a moment to think about a library. What comes to mind? The old library in your hometown with reading circles and colorful end pages? The red brick building printed under “biblioteca” in the dog-eared Spanish textbooks from high school classes? Maybe, and, most probably, stacks and stacks, or piles and piles, of books. Leather-bound, thick spines, their pages overflowing with tightly knit lines of the very kind you’re reading here.

Or maybe that’s not what you thought about at all. Maybe what came to mind was not piles of books, but rows of sleek, metal machines. Computers and Adobe help stations. Maybe what you saw looked less like the old hometown library and a bit more like the first floor of Kent State’s University Library.

“The thing about the word ‘library’ … I mean, when people think of libraries, we have this problem internally and externally,” says Kara Robinson, the interim assistant dean for engagement and outreach at University Libraries.

We speak in her office on one of the upper floors of the library, where old photos of library areas line one wall, a bookshelf the other. Bowls of candy rest near our hands as we interact.

“People tend to think about the physical space,” Robinson says. “And the library is a place where books are. But that’s not what a library is anymore; a library’s more than that now.”

In fact, the changes metamorphosing the space have made that clear — a full-service Starbucks recently replaced the small coffee bar offered before. OneStop Student Services has made the library its new home. A new tutoring space has replaced the old microfilm area on the second floor, so students can no longer wander into a room full of machines used to scroll through projected images of newspapers or old documents. And now, the sounds of coffee orders being called out ring through the computer area.

Since Robinson arrived here in the ’80s, she says the changes have been cyclical. What used to be space for books became space for CD-ROM catalogs, and this space in turn made way for the first internet-enabled computers.

“The physical collection is not nearly as big on site as it used to be,” Robinson says. “(It) used to be that second floor was all of our bound journals and our current stuff. Third floor was always offices. Fourth through ninth was all books. And tenth floor was our government documents. And then 11 and 12 was always special collections and archives. Well now, the books live on seven, eight and nine that are here in the building, and our bound journals are on six.”

The sixth floor is one of the first signs one might have of the footprint of the physical collection. Past the student spaces, the open floor plans laden with couches and computer workstations, the elevator finally opens to greet the browser with rows and rows of thick, color-blocked journals. It’s usually emptier than the busier, more colorful floors — and it can feel odd to step foot there, like you’re entering a different building altogether.

“This is my first time on the sixth floor,” says Shaylin West, a freshman studying public health. “I’m usually on the fourth floor, but my best friends brought me up to the sixth floor today.”

She tells me that she finds it a bit weird up there among the quiet shelves, with just a few tables here and there. After all, like many other students, West hasn’t checked a book out from the library unless she needed it for class. And is that so unusual?

“It’s just the way the nature of things have changed,” Robinson says. “I mean, you know, my generation, we were brought up to use print. You guys are the born digital generation. It’s comfortable for you, and so we’re trying to meet your need in your comfort zone. We’ve always tried to do that, it’s just, you know, we’ve had to adapt more currently than we’ve had in the past.”

Robinson does believe the print side of the library may shrink even more in the coming years, and the simplest answer — to digitize the collection — is not nearly as simple as it seems.

“A lot of what we’re digitizing either is university records because they’re public domain, they belong to the university, or things that we have a right to digitize,” Robinson says. “But even owning a physical copy doesn’t give us that right. The copyright owner decides.”

This idea, the idea of digitizing it all, becomes even more complicated when Special Collections and Archives are considered in the equation.

On the 12th floor, above not just the entire library tower, but the entire campus, lives Special Collections, along with an invisible line dividing it from more trafficked floors. Looking out the window, clouds seem closer than people strolling the grounds.

“I think it’s a false sense of kind of like, ‘Well now it’s this way and it used to be that way,’” says Cara Gilgenbach, head of special collections and archives. “I mean, I think there’s a really long transition period where print and digital are going to coexist.”

Now, we sit at a table in the reading room of Special Collections; it is empty, safe for us. Behind a heavy wooden door that you have to buzz into, where you wait for a light to turn on and for someone to let you in, it seems almost forbidden.

She explains that in the case of certain archival materials, digitizing is expensive, time-consuming and difficult, and that’s not to mention what intrinsic value it may lose in the process.

“In the case of rare books or manuscripts that also kind of have a sort of physical — I use this term ‘artifactual’ — value, we don’t really want to get rid of the originals because the experience of going through a book that’s 600 years old where the paper is all handmade …  parts of it may have been printed on a printing press, but they’ve put decorative initials and illuminations throughout the text by hand, it’s really not the same experience to view that piece online as it is to interact with it in person,” Gilgenbach says. “We’re trying to get at that as well that the physical object has some value in and of itself, and so I think most archives would tend not to get rid of the originals.”

This value, the value of the printed page or the corporeal words, the feeling of physically holding something in your hand, isn’t necessarily a practical one. But, it seems, it is still there.

Robinson says her father-in-law, a literature and humanities professor, visited the library last summer. “I told him we’re moving our microfilm collection, and we’re turning this space over to the tutors; he was heartbroken,” she whispers.

There are, too, valuable reasons for the remaining books.

“I certainly think for young children it’s absolutely important that they get some of their material from actual, physical books rather than screen time,” says Stacey Richardson, director of the Kent Free Library. “We know that doctors advise against so much screen time for young children, but we also know the importance of being exposed to reading and words and vocabulary before kids enter kindergarten. So I do think that there is incredible value in still having print materials.”

She also explains the Kent Free Library is vibrant, a “third place” for people to gather outside of their homes and workplaces.

“The nice thing about a public library is that we’re one of the few places in town that you can come to regardless of your religion, your political beliefs, your background,” Richardson says. “We are open and affirming and welcoming to anybody that would come through our doors.”

Walking through the open areas of the public library’s fiction and nonfiction sections, broken up by a huge central staircase, I had noticed those milling around ranged from families to older people, wandering alone through the aisles.

“I would hope that in the future, whatever libraries become, I would hope that they still exist to at least offer a place like that in the community,” Richardson says. ”Especially just in the world that we live in today, there aren’t many places I think that do that.”

Richardson still estimates the digital holdings in the public library will continue to increase, but the print collection will eventually decrease. The library also offers digital downloads of music, television and magazines with services like Hoopla, which offers digital streaming of media like eBooks and movies with a public library card, and Zinio, through which users can view digital magazines.

But if there are no books in a library, is it a library at all?

Robinson says it depends on what you make of it. “For me that’s been the hardest thing,” she says. “I occasionally joke with people about that because there’s so many other things in the building. But if the service is there, the service that focuses on information, acquiring it, making it available, showing students how it applies to their world, then I think it is still a library.”

She says the focus isn’t about where you are and what you have, but what you can do to help students succeed.

I walk with Gilgenbach back behind the reading room at the university library, into the space that holds the special collections. It almost seems like a normal library at first glance — the usual collection of current and dog-eared books. And then I peer closer. The books are old and weathered, the spines are unlabeled, dust-jacketed, some crumbling, some hand-designed.

We pull one intriguing title from the shelf, bright yellow, and marvel at the strange name. Her Other Self, by the elusive May Emerson. 1901. It’s signed by the author.

We walk further into the stacks, all the way to a safe, which creaks open after a couple tries.

“This is one of my favorite books, just from a sort of physically beautiful standpoint,” Gilgenbach says, un-Velcroing a tiny white box. “It’s called a … I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a book of hours.”

She opens the box and reveals a miniscule manuscript book. Inside, the pages, ancient and yet somehow not weathered, are gilded and illuminated with vibrant portraits, perhaps those of saints, and handwritten letters visible from some bygone artist. It’s completely made by hand, and when I touch the soft paper made of vellum, I am touching 1475.

“So imagine that being done all by hand,” Gilgenbach says. “And that’s super old but it’s very bright, I mean it hasn’t faded, so it was obviously a well-loved book that was kept safe.”

When walking with Robinson, we step onto the seventh floor, where the juvenile collection takes up most of the open space and only the rows that extend from windows are safe from books, allowing for an “aisle of light,” as she calls it. On the floor, brown marks are visible, ghosts of when the stacks used to sit much closer together, crowding each other for space, leaving only narrow margins for the people who would browse them.

I tell Robinson how I feel about the collection, about the print books. It’s almost like a record, a history, I tell her.

“In a lot of ways, that’s been the tradition of how libraries collect,” Robinson says. “You collect for the future as much for the present.”