At Cornell University, a new student-run bike-sharing program has arrived just in time for spring. Called Big Red Bikes (“Big Red” is the moniker for Cornell), students can check out a bicycle and helmet at one of the library’s circulation desks.
Like overdue books, those who don’t return their bikes are subject to hefty fines.
High above Cayuga’s waters, the environs around Cornell provide a splendid place for a pedal, given that you are inclined for the incline. It is a hilly but beautiful landscape with a lake and plantations nearby. And if you find yourself stranded downtown, city buses are equipped with bike racks to get you back up the hill.
The fleet of vehicles, 20 bright-red Electra Ladies Townie Original 3i Bicycles — selected for their versatility for different size and shaped riders — is now available from Uris Library. Soon, students will be able to check bicycles out from several other libraries around campus.
For those of you wondering whether libraries are buying bicycles instead of books, the program is financed entirely out of student activity fees with student volunteers providing routine maintenance of the bicycles.
First coffee, then gaming, and now bicycles?
Like other progressive university towns, Ithaca has a lot of community-centered ventures. You can share in the local produce that comes from its many CSAs, or share in the cost of owning and maintaining a car. There are co-op housing, art, and grocery stores as well as parent-run childcare programs. Did I tell you we have our own tofu company? Adding a bike-share program fits into the collective culture that makes Ithaca special, and the library should be thanked for helping to provide infrastructure and support for the program.
In the wake of similar trends that brought coffee, comfortable seating, and computer gaming to the academic library, I do wonder whether taking on bicycle rentals will ultimately begin eroding what patrons –and more importantly, the provost and deans– think of the academic library. To be more direct, are we at risk of diluting the brand of the library?
The traditional concept of the library is a collection of scholarly documents with reader services built around it. “Reader services” is a dated term, but I think it still encompasses everything that academic libraries still do today: build collections, mediate access, provide training and support, and provide a location for scholarship to take place.
Libraries take scholarship seriously, and its profession ensures it. Most academic libraries in the United States require MLS degrees or some equivalent. Many librarians have second Master’s degrees, and a good number even have doctorates. The institutional culture of librarianship respects scholarly behavior, and most librarians are required to go through tenure or similar academic review process. While they may not have teaching or research responsibilities, librarians view themselves as academics.
But this is not what the patron sees.
Patrons generally are unable to distinguish information assistants (or paraprofessionals) from professional librarians. The person checking out your book, pointing you to the restroom, helping you with a reference question, pulling an espresso, and now checking out your bike lock and helmet is, from the perspective of the patron, a librarian. When you are 18 or 19 years old, anyone with graying temples and bifocals is a librarian. Experience and professional status is only something that colleagues see.
My library has really great coffee, and yet, when I hear a graduate student say to another, “Let’s meet at the library for coffee,” I cringe a little. Similarly, when an exhausted undergraduate flips open his cell phone to tell his friends that he’s going to the library to sleep off a hangover, I start pining for the days when the chairs were not over-sized and comfy but made of rock maple.
The problem with offering great coffee, comfy chairs, and bicycle rentals to the library is not that these amenities are unwelcome — indeed, they are appreciated by most patrons. The problem is that they start diluting the brand of the academic library. And a dilution of the academic library brand may make it more difficult to justify hiring, retaining, and compensating highly trained academic staff.
When I hear people talking about the library, I want them to say things like, “I saved hours of research by working with a librarian,” or, “My librarian did her graduate work on this very topic,” or, “I got an email from my librarian alerting me that a book in my field was just purchased.” In sum, I want patrons and provosts to think of librarians as scholars and libraries as places of scholarship. In order to do that, they need to promote a single value. It also means turning down popular services that have the potential of diluting that brand. Starbucks also makes a great cup of coffee, and your local bike shop will gladly rent you a bike.
While we have spent the last decade trying to imagine new roles and futures of the academic library, we need to understand that community and recreation centers simply do not evoke the same brand.
Don’t get me wrong, I love biking as much as I love coffee. Library bike rentals just don’t evoke scholarship to me. Is it time to start peddling a different brand?