Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Academic Library and the Local Community

Next week Monday I will be sitting at a table for most of the day with a laptop and a giant picture of a driver’s license asking people to get themselves on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry (administered through Gift of Life) for the Michigan Libraries for Life event.  Why?  Because I believe libraries, even academic libraries, are an integral part of the community around them.

When I was approached by a friend of mine from the University of Michigan about participating in this year’s event, I didn’t hesitate at saying I’d do my best to make it happen.  This is partially because it does relate to my subject area; I work in the health sciences building. It’s also because I think that academic libraries in a general sense could be better about being involved in the local community.

This idea began to surface for me when I was in a meeting discussing outreach and found myself a bit shocked that outreach in this culture meant interacting with students, faculty, and staff.  I needed to make a complete mental shift, as I was envisioning our conversation on outreach to encompass the local community - reaching outside of the university walls.  This is not to say working to make stronger our relationships with university affiliates is not a noble endeavor.  It is, but it is also just part of what we should be doing on a day-to-day basis as an academic library.

Perhaps the thought of our being a part of the Grand Rapids/Allendale community is not something at the forefront of our minds as an organization.  Working in one of the libraries in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, I likely see more community patrons than those out at the main campus.  I know the other downtown library sees even more than the health sciences library does.  This, however, is part of what it means to be a library at a public university.  Too often, I think the local community patrons are seen as a nuisance and not a “customer”; they are, however, customers, even if they are not our reason for existence.

The idea of the public as our customer comes as an even more important ideal as our university draws closer and closer to opening our new library.  The new library has been described as the “intellectual heart of campus” and rightly so.  There will be many new opportunities for intercampus interaction when we have our new space.  Yet, why can’t we also think of the new library as the “intellectual heart of Grand Rapids”?  We will have exhibit spaces, event hosting capabilities, and we will still be a public university library.  Let the public be enriched by our resources and programming as much as our university community.  We shouldn’t just let our major source of impact on our surroundings be our graduates.

While the new library’s ecological footprint will be light, I hope our footprint in the community will be deep.

Want to sign up to be an organ donor in Michigan?  Register here.

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