Friday, August 12, 2011

Restoring the Sterling Memorial Library nave at Yale

Yale is beginning a project to restore the nave of the Sterling Memorial Library. Our new UL, Susan Gibbons, asked staff to share their ideas about how to restore the nave. Here is my idea.

I'll start with the past. The nave originally held the public card catalog. Because of that and because Yale's scholarly information collections were much of that time primarily paper-based and held mostly in Sterling Memorial Library, the nave/catalog was _the_ portal to Yale's collections. One had to use the catalog and the nave to use the library and one had to use the library because that was where the knowledge was stored. Staff and users stood side by side in the nave at the catalog--creating it, maintaining it, and using it. The nave was vital to the life of the mind at Yale, and it was a vital center of the community life of scholars at Yale. That era is gone and now the nave is empty. I refer to it among friends as the "Dead Zone." The soul of the nave has fled. Only the shell of it remains.

Let's turn to the future. We can only restore the nave by breathing a new soul into the space. Reverence for what was will not restore the nave. Nostalgia won't either. How do we breathe new life into that space?

The nave was alive when it was full of scholars (undergrads and up) and librarians using the great collections at Yale to advance their knowledge. We can restore the nave to life by bringing back purposeful scholars and librarians (not attract tourists). The restored nave must become again a tool for discovery and use of knowledge, a portal into a great scholarly workshop.

The nave (and such other spaces as the periodical, newspaper, L and B, and main reading rooms) must combine desirable spaces with available tools--digital and analog--in such a way as to become a sharable, collaborative workspace. It can't just be a bank of computers, or a coffee shop, or a classroom, or a study hall, or a co-working space--though it may need something of each of those; it must be a space for labor-intensive interactions among scholars, librarians, archivists, IT specialists, etc., and the collections--digital and analog. The key to the success of such a scholars' workshop is a mix of vision/conceptualization, tools (not just banks of computers), and, most importantly, skilled staff that generates a vibrant scholars' workshop.