...even in the midst of the Internet revolution
By Jan McCoy Ebbets
If you think you know all there is to know about libraries, think again. They are no longer the last stop for desperate students -- especially the Smith College libraries, where there beats the healthy heart of the academic campus. Consider a recent day in July.
Here are 10 students, freshly graduated from high school and taking some classes at Smith before joining the class of 2004 this fall. They look slightly dazed as they enter the William Allan Neilson Library on a Friday morning. Dressed in jeans, T-shirts, baseball hats and sandals, they plunk down in comfortable chairs in the library's new electronic classroom, where reference librarian Bruce Sajdak waits patiently and smiles, noticing how eager they are to fiddle with the computers in front of them.
Not far away, at the reference desk in Neilson's core, a clutch of social work graduate students seeks advice from the reference librarian about navigating the stacks. She is one of five who take turns daily at the "front lines," ready to answer all sorts of questions, from "Where are the Newsweeks?" to "What's the best database to research the phenomenon of global ice melt?" to "Can I check my e-mail on one of those computers over there?" Nearby, several students sprawl on couches and scan the shelved titles of new fiction and nonfiction.
And in the bright, spacious reading room of the Alumnae Gymnasium, a half-dozen seasoned scholars and neophyte student researchers have pitched their laptops and staked out sites on lamp-lit tables. Here they type their notes as they sift through the materials in storage boxes, scrapbooks, letters, and printed documents from the College Archives or the Sophia Smith Collection. Others in white gloves-so the oils in their hands won't damage aging photographs-are turning the pages of photo albums collected by Smith women as long ago as 1897. Some researchers will be at the same spot hours later; some will be there day after day for several weeks.
While the Internet Revolution is both transforming and threatening the traditional industry of libraries, Sophia Smith Collection Director Sherrill Redmon and Director of Libraries Christopher Loring say the Smith libraries are meeting the challenge and using new technologies in every possible way.
In the Caverno Room on the third floor of Neilson, a visitor peers at the pottery sherds, Cypro-Mycenaean ware, fragments of a Roman mosaic floor and other artifacts from the classical languages and literatures department collection on display in back-lit glass cabinets. Then she pulls a copy of Homer's Iliad from the shelves and settles in for a quiet read.
Tucked deep in the stacks and nestled against a bank of windows looking out toward the science center sits senior Anjail Sharrief, who hopes one day to become a pediatrician. She is here to take a break from the lab work-on an anatomical study having to do with Tourette's syndrome-she's been conducting all summer in Sabin Reed basement. She's currently curled up in an overstuffed chair reading a stack of booklets about how to apply for both Fulbright awards and assignments with the Peace Corps.
At the circulation desk, Melissa Maday, AC '01, a student summer worker, smiles as she greets a visitor's question about where to find a call number. "Our collection," she notes, "is so huge that we get a wide variety of questions and requests all day long. Some people from the local community come here every day to use the library collection, and there are the social work students, here only in the summer, who may not have been in a library for a very long time."
She personally understands the lure of a library book. "All this information is at your fingertips, just for the asking."
With close to 1.6 million items and 65 staff members located in four campus libraries, the Smith College Libraries collection -- including books, periodicals, microforms, maps, scores, recordings, photographs, and computer-based texts and images -- is the largest of any undergraduate liberal arts college in the United States. Neilson Library, the flagship of the library system, houses the core collections in the humanities and social sciences and serves as the base for library administration, technical and public services and computer networks. Overall, the library system includes three full branch libraries in the fine arts, performing arts and sciences; the nonprint resources center; and three special collections -- the Sophia Smith Collection, documenting the history of women; the Mortimer Rare Book Room, covering the history of printing and the book arts from the 15th to the 20th centuries; and the College Archives, documenting the history of Smith.
What makes the Smith library system unique, says Director of Libraries Christopher Loring, is that it is a hybrid, a cross between a liberal arts and a research library. "The Smith libraries offer collections and services that support the research of students and faculty. Not all liberal arts colleges focus on both learning and research missions."
"The challenge is to make sure that the terrific collection here is not compromised and continues to grow," says Loring. "We need to make sure that the library continues to be a learning environment that fosters inquiry and exploration. We need to make sure we support both the curriculum for Smith students and the research of faculty while leveraging the new teaching, learning and communication technologies and expanding into areas not even thought of 10 years ago."
Smith librarians take seriously their expanding role as educators. They have always offered introductory library orientation and subject-specific instruction. Increasingly, they are teaching students how to find information not only in books and journals, but also through electronic databases and the Internet, with a focus on evaluating the usefulness of all the information they uncover. "Networked resources have created new challenges for us because they've changed how people do their research," notes Loring. "And that has changed how a library presents its resources. It means we are now designing Web sites and tailoring them specifically for our users."
Thanks to all the new technologies and networked information available, says Loring, this teaching of research skills -- called information literacy -- has become an indispensable part of a liberal arts education these days.
Indeed, recent studies on how students conduct their research show that nearly 95 percent of undergraduate students say they procrastinate on completing their academic work because they do not know how to begin their research in the face of unlimited access to worldwide information. They don't even understand how the research process should work.
"Incoming Smith students arrive on campus with some familiarity with the Web," Loring notes, "but often when they are in an Internet environment, there's a troubling suspension of critical thinking, as they evaluate the electronic information they come across. So we have to make sure that by the time they graduate into an information economy-where, to be successful, they will need to know where information came from, how to evaluate it critically and how to use it-the critical thinking skills for each and every graduate are finely honed. How we teach critical thinking is what information literacy is all about."
The staff of a library, says Loring, are the crucial guides who lead students through this information maze. Reference librarians teach information literacy skills to more than 250 classes a year at Smith.
Much of that instruction now takes place in Neilson's new electronic classroom. Completed last January, the classroom is equipped with 21 computers, projection capabilities, an instructor's workstation and moveable furniture for lectures and small group reference work.
Overseeing the planning and construction was Bruce Sajdak, a 20-year veteran librarian at Smith. He mulls over how the new technologies and the Internet revolution have changed the nature of his job.
"Ten years ago students came into the library in desperation while they were working on a paper, wondering if they were ever going to find what they were looking for," Sajdak says. "Now students believe they can find everything they're looking for on the Web, immediately. Our job is to help students find their way through the electronic forest to find that one tree they are looking for." That "tree might even turn out to be a book."
During a recent session in the electronic classroom, Sajdak promises his group of neophyte researchers, all members of Smith's summer Success program, "We are going to try to make your lives easier. I'm going to help you find the right resources you need for your papers." To begin with, Sajdak prepares Web site study guides, accessed through www. smith.edu/libraries and tailored specifically for various classes and programs, including first-year seminars and the Success program.
Turning to the Web page he has prepared for this class, Sajdak teaches the students how to search for relevant scholarly articles and books for their class assignments. They click on "overview articles" to find reference materials, "library catalog" to locate books that can be checked out on-line, and "expanded academic index" to search through an electronic database of journal articles.
But one place their search does not take them is the Internet. "Don't waste your time Internet surfing for this assignment," warns Sajdak. "You'll get creamed on the Internet. There's too much easy information on-line and a lot of it is garbage."
Instead, Sajdak wants to steer students
toward the hard-bound reference materials in the stacks, library
books that can be found through the on-line catalog, and the
latest electronic journals that can be located on-line through
expensive commercial databases that have been licensed by the
libraries. More than 140 popular and scholarly electronic databases
worldwide are available to students as well from the libraries'
Of the Smith library system's vast
resources, both print and nonprint, among the most unique are
its three special collections. They are open to all visitors
The Sophia Smith Collection was founded as the college library's distinctive contribution to Smith's mission of educating women, according to SSC Director Sherrill Redmon. "Margaret Grierson (the first director) wanted to make a place where the roles women were playing in history could be described. Before then, women's stories were never making it into the history textbooks because men were writing the books."
Today the SSC is an internationally recognized home to materials from the late 17th century to the present day. Its holdings authenticate the historical experience of women in the United States and abroad from the colonial era to the present. Its subject strengths include birth control, women's rights, suffrage, the feminist movement, the professions, and middle-class family life in 19th- and 20th-century New England.
"There are things in the collection I never thought I'd see," says Hanna, who graduated in 1999 with a degree in women's studies. "I've held in my hands letters, diaries, drafts of speeches written by all these amazing women, a cookbook bound in pigskin from the 1600s -- all pieces of women's lives that I could experience."
The SSC sponsored a conference this
fall to celebrate the opening for research of eight collections
of 20th-century wom-en activists and organizations. Among them
are the collections of feminist leader and journalist Gloria
Steinem, Smith class of 1956, plus the records of the National
Congress of Neighborhood Women, a grassroots feminist organization.
Until now these collections have been difficult to access but
The Mortimer Rare Book Room, renowned for its active use of rare books and manuscripts in teaching undergraduates, came into being when 15th- and 16th-century books were removed from the Neilson Library stacks in the early 1940s. Books, as technical, social and cultural artifacts, are to be "held, explored and experienced," says Martin Antonetti, curator of the rare book room's collection.
Today, this collection includes not
only the beautiful and unusual, but also examples of incunabula,
the earliest books ever printed. The collection also contains
literary and historical manuscripts, as well as the personal
papers of a variety
"We have an international reputation
among scholars for our Plath and Woolf collections," notes
Antonetti, "but what we're known for on campus is how the
rare book room contributes to the curriculum and the mission
of Smith College. Ruth Mortimer, who was a renowned and longtime
curator here, understood the value of primary source materials
in undergraduate pedagogy."
The College Archives houses an unusually
rich collection of material in all formats -- paper, audiovisual,
and CDs -- documenting the history of Smith College from the
1860s to the present. The mandate of the archives is to preserve
The archive materials are in constant demand. More than 400 researchers from all over the world visited the College Archives last year, and over 1,000 inquiries and transactions were handled over the phone, or via e-mail, fax or correspondence.
"The information that comes from the materials all around us is really wonderful," says College Archivist Nanci Young as she gazes out her office door toward the visitors at work. "My personal philosophy is that I want to make this material available to anyone who walks through the door. We're not keeping a warehouse of records that no one can ever see. The papers that are here are to be used, because they tell such wonderful stories."
And here's the beginning of one story we found in The Alpha Paper, 1878-1880, Volume I. It was a paper written by a Smith student and later read before the Alpha Society of Smith College:
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