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College libraries not just books

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Like schools around the country, Rhodes College has made a refreshing discovery about libraries: They can do a lot more for a campus than just store books.

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Rhodes' old library was a dark, dank building that many students never visited and "smelled like the 1950s," according to Carter Lawnin, who graduated last spring. After class, students returned to the isolation of their dormitories to work -- hardly a good thing at a liberal arts college that prides itself on community.

But today, the new $40 million Barret Library is by all accounts "the campus living room." Its traditional feel blends seamlessly with Rhodes' other handsome Gothic buildings, while inside it has all the modern amenities students expect. Now, between classes, students come here to read in silence and work in teams, with regular breaks to chat with friends or visit the coffee bar.

Such is the building's popularity that the librarians held their noses and took it as a compliment when they found bottles of Febreze lying around -- a sign students were camping out at the expense of showering.

"At first we were kind of ticked off," said Bob Johnson, Rhodes' vice president for information services. "But then I thought, 'Well, they're studying.'"

Among college architects and administrators, there's a lot of talk these days about an idea called "the third space." Many colleges have plenty of buildings that were designed for either living or working. But they're short on "third spaces" -- spots where communities naturally gather and interact.

Fancy student centers have tried to fill the role, but they lack that intellectual vibe. Amid the endless distractions of the modern campus, students repeatedly say in surveys they want a quiet place where they can get serious work done. But they never want to be more than a short walk away from a latte.

A number of colleges are looking to libraries to fill the role. Big research universities, such as Duke, are among those remodeling libraries, but some of the more interesting designs are coming at smaller schools like Rhodes. In Pennsylvania, Lafayette College's award-winning new library has produced a nearly threefold increase in usage, while nearby Lehigh University opened a $20-million renovation to its humanities library this spring.

Centre, Eckerd and Lake Forest Colleges have also recently built or redone libraries. Washington & Lee and other colleges also have projects in the works. Many places are trying to both stitch their campuses back together and revamp eyesores built in the heavy-handed architectural style of the 1950s through 1970s. And they're driving traffic by including classrooms and offices like career services.

For centuries, library designs have been weighed down by an overwhelming imperative: store as many books as possible. Today, space is still a concern, but books are now stored more densely on moveable shelving. There's also more sharing among libraries. Electronic back-ups mean there is less need to store old journal articles. All of that means more flexibility for library architects.

"The real change is a kind of a Copernican change, from putting books at the center of the library and then fitting people in somewhere, making them the secondary residents," said Neil McElroy, Lafayette's head of libraries. "We've put people at the center."

The move to electronic resources have given designers more "arrows in their quiver," says Geoffrey Freeman, an architect whose library projects include Rhodes.

"Before these were hallowed halls where you'd come in and maybe ask a question and do your work and leave," he said. "Now, we're talking about making everything happen inside -- but still doing it with an intellectual bent. A library is lost if it becomes a student center."

These big investments come at a time when not everyone thinks traditional academic libraries have a future. Some colleges have been reluctant to "bet on books," considering universal wireless access means most anyone can access library resources from anywhere.

But far from dying out, books remain colleges' single-most important source of information -- and the stacks are growing.

Some schools have found technology can complement books. Lafayette's new library is circulating 20,000 more items per year to students than its old one did. The statistic suggests electronic resources help students navigate book collections and find titles that would otherwise go unused.

"Librarians have accepted the fact that they have to (change), that the library we had 15 years ago, 20 years ago is not going to satisfy the research needs of today's students," said Pamela Snelson, librarian at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and a past president of Association of College & Research Libraries. "They need a cup of coffee, they need to work together, they need to have more space."

Rhodes President Bill Troutt notes another advantage of an elegant library: It's a statement to alumni, parents and touring prospective students about a college's seriousness.

Working under a giant window in the new library late last spring, Rhodes student Marjorie Schwahn of Atlanta said she spends three to four hours per day at Barret.

"Everyone's around," she says. "If you have a question, you can probably find someone in your class."

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