How Popular Should Academic Libraries Become?

In hard economic times, more people are turning to their local public libraries for their information and entertainment instead of the bookstore or the video rental store. But as this article in the U Penn Daily Pennsylvanian points out, this increase in traffic has not necessarily spilled over into the academic library setting, in large part because academic libraries often don’t have popular materials.

This raises an issue that has long faced university and college libraries: to what extent should they offer popular books and media, and how should they balance their collections between scholarly titles and not-so-scholarly titles. Should academic libraries stock bestsellers? Should we encourage our patrons to come to us both for their academic or professional information needs AND their recreational needs? These matters directly affect the mission and the vision of academic libraries. Indeed, such questions are especially pressing in hard economic times when materials budgets are shrinking and there seems to be no end to the increases in the price of serials and databases and scholarly monographs.

As a literature and film studies selector, I have to make some tough decisions all the time when I get book requests. Should I buy genre fiction when our students are asking it or should I save my book budget exclusively for “serious” tomes that faculty and graduate students would use? Should I just turn them away when they ask if we can buy the latest installment in a science fiction series, or Would drawing in more students because we have the latest Stephanie Meyer book help to make those students more comfortable with the library and more open to turning to us for help? Should we be taking advantage of the increased traffic in libraries today to help build a support base for our future survival?

I know many who regard university and college libraries as cold ivory towers, but love their local public library as their “third place” when not at home and work. Perhaps it is time for academic libraries to try to be more inviting, as many in this state already have. We must support the educational and research missions of our institutions first and foremost, but perhaps by trying to broaden our collections a bit we can some new supporters.