Breaking the silence
The Central Library has become a hot spot for socializing as well as studying
by Laura Hanna
Gone are the days when the library was a place of quiet rooms and dusty books. At UTA, the Central Library is an increasingly popular destination to drink coffee, meet with friends, work on computers and utilize the latest technology, as well as to read and study.
As students mill about the entrance, many head to Java City, where there’s often a line for coffee. Others study quietly in the nearby computer section, filled with plush leather couches, chairs and computers. Students work alone and in pairs at the computer stations, oblivious to the chatter around them.
“There could be twice as much change in the next five years.”
– Libraries Director Tom Wilding
Some visitors work in the secluded Digital Media Classroom, a high-tech, self-service area that provides multimedia production and training on scanners, audio/visual equipment and Dell and Apple computers running more than 30 software applications. Users can polish their skills at digital audio and video editing, graphic and animation creation, Web site creation, photo and image manipulation, and multimedia authoring. Projects can be burned to a CD or DVD, saved on a Zip disk or network drive, published on a Web server or printed on large-format color printers.
In fall 2001, 41,000 visitors were recorded per week. Indeed, the library has evolved into a mainstream gathering place, said Tom Wilding, director of UTA Libraries since 1993. “The community thing was really brought home to me on Sept. 11 ... and I realized that we had become a community center.”
The concept of having something for everyone means leaving part of the library a traditional silence zone. Large signs on the fifth floor clearly designate it as such. Before that distinction was made, Wilding heard about it.
“The biggest complaint I got was, ‘I can’t find a quiet spot.’ ” He said solving the problem requires “recognizing that people need different spaces.”
Teresa Fernandez prefers the tranquility of the quiet area. “I pretty much just study for exams,” she said. A business management major, she opts for the library because “there are just too many people at home.”
The fifth floor is more austere compared to the accommodations on the main floor. The quiet area reminds one of the libraries of old; one cough can disrupt an entire section. “I like it,” Fernandez noted. “It looks kind of old, but I don’t need anything fancy.”
The library has gone from collecting volumes of books to obtaining some products electronically to better suit the customers’ needs. “They want to be able to access information from home or office or wherever they need it,” Wilding said.
With all of the updates and technological improvements, there has been some backlash from those who prefer the traditional library structure.
“I think more of it comes from faculty than from students,” Wilding said. But most have made the switch with no problem. “Our faculty here went to digital information very, very easily.” The downside to the electronic age is that it is producing “a whole generation of point-and-clickers” rather than readers, Wilding said.
Science Assistant Dean Paul Medley teaches geographic information systems in the library’s fifth-floor classroom. Using the database of geographic attributes is crucial to his presentation. “It allows you to look at the world in a different way,” he said. “It allows you to do quite a powerful analysis of geographic data.”
Peggy Kulesz, a senior lecturer in English, enjoys the versatility of the learning classroom in the library basement. It accommodates 40 students, each of whom has a computer. The teacher can control what is on a student’s screen for initial instruction, and then the students can navigate on their own while learning how to best research their topics.
“It is very, very hands-on and practical because they are working on a class assignment,” she said.
Kulesz praises the library staff.
“Students feel welcome there,” she said, adding that the librarians help with databases during the training sessions and offer ways to make library tools accessible. “The library really is taken to the students.”
Before the changes came about in recent years, library usage had lagged — particularly in the 1990s, when enrollment was down. The trend in library transformation is more of a university phenomenon than a city public library issue, Wilding said. The range of what they can offer in the way of information access may make it harder for non-university libraries to compete. “It will hit them real hard in the next five years,” he said.
With the spring semester came expanded library hours. The Central Library is now open around the clock from Sunday morning through Friday night, with regular hours Saturday. By the third week of extended hours, an average of 200 people were coming to the library each night, Wilding said. This move is expected to have an ongoing impact, and it and all the other changes are only the beginning.
“There could be twice as much change in the next five years,” said Wilding, citing the Internet as an example and noting its widespread popularity now versus several years ago. He believes electronic books could become more popular as well. “I think people will get more comfortable with electronic reading.”
And what better place to engage in electronic reading than in an all-electronic venue like the Business Building Library, located in a cozy space across from the administrative offices on the first floor. The site is part of a focus to open smaller libraries around campus instead of building a $70 million library and learning resource center, a top priority when the campus master plan was announced in 1999.
“We take the library to the community,” said Terry Wang, coordinator of information services. “There are so many resources that we have electronically, so the physical building is not as important.” Other plans include reopening the library at the UTA/Fort Worth Campus.
Above all, Wilding said, the Central Library is a learning center. “We are — and should be — a center for the community.” He thinks of the library as a service rather than a building. And it provides lots of information services and amenities in one place. “In a way, it’s like The Parks [at Arlington] mall.”
As more and more students socialize with friends while sipping a cappuccino,
it’s hard to disagree.