Big Red BikesFirst came coffee, then gaming, and now bicycles.

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?

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


31 Thoughts on "Bike Sharing Comes to the Academic Library"

“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. ”

Is this based on personal experience, or some survey?

When I was at University, there was a small cafeteria attached. The staff there were clearly (from dress, attitude, role) not librarians. They were friendly and nice and professional in their own way. Anyone capable of getting value from reading a book ought to be able to draw such distinctions, given a little help from those who arrange the rooms and architecture and presentation of the services….

Interesting article. I agree that the role of a university librarian is often misunderstood – true academic librarians must spend their lives explaining how they differ from the Miss Marple lookalikes at the council library.

IMO one of the most exciting developments for libraries in recent years has been their increasing involvement with ‘academic output’- scholarly publishing. From prominent figures like Robert Darnton to librarians from smaller universities, it seems (to an outsider) like librarians have decided to stop being dictated to by their suppliers and start getting involved in the publishing game themselves. With the open access movement growing this is a role that university librarians are perfectly positioned to take.

I wonder – at the campuses where libraries are adding these services, how is the Student Union/Center? These are the kinds of things that could be housed in some kind of student life center, but if the campus lacks one (or lacks an innovative one), or if the hours cannot match those of a building which is often open more hours than any other on campus that does not serve food, perhaps there is some adjusting to do.

I see your point, but I don’t think academic libraries are diluted by offering more fringe services. Those services get more students in the door, and once they are in the door they are more likely to get help.

I’m a library assistant at a small college library, and last year we opened a smoothie shop in the library (it’s run by the franchise, not the library staff.) Since the shop opened, the library gets more foot traffic, and more students stay longer because they don’t have to go to another building to get a snack or a drink. Yes, some students just go into the smoothie shop and leave, but many students get a smoothie, wander to the circulation desk, and tell me this is the first time they ever came in the library. Then I get to make my sales pitch and explain to them everything we do. That’s when they usually pull out the research assignment they’ve been putting off, and I lead them to the reference desk and introduce them to a librarian.

If the librarians were only making coffee and checking out bikes, I’d say that academic librarianship was being diluted and all those graduate degrees and brainpower were being wasted, but this is not true. Student assistants check out books and do most of the grunt work. Librarians do reference interviews, make bibliographies, buy news materials, work with faculty, embed themselves in online courses, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe students don’t need to fully understand what academic librarians do as long as they get the right help at the right time at the library, whether that’s a red bike or a scholarly article.

Perhaps next librarians should offer binge-drinking recovery services for undergraduates after party weekends and psychotherapy services for junior faculty going up for tenure. The possibilities are endless….

FYI – Steven Bell, vice president/president-elect of the Association of College and
Research Libraries recently suggested academic libraries could help their institutions address the issue of student binge-drinking. In, Thorns In Our Side: Google, Facebook… Budweiser?, Bell writes “Reaching out to students who drink too heavily to help them improve their academic standing—and use of library resources—isn’t one of our traditional strengths, but that shouldn’t stop us. In many ways, our future depends on our ability to move into new areas where our institutions have needs no one else is filling.”

Fascinating article. In reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the quote from the free range librarian, “meet your users where they are, not where you want them to be”. There’s also the quote form Jeff Jarvis “If the news is important enough, it’ll reach me”. Implicit in your article, Phil is the idea that libraries are trying to get their users to come to them. Reaching the users ‘where they are’ is a hard problem to solve, but perhaps, that’s where the focus needs to be.

Just returned from trip to China where a common theme in meetings with librarians at Beijing and Shanghai institutions was that students do not visit the library very often. Perhaps the Big Red Bicycle idea might go down well in China though….

You make a good point – what is it mean to be an academic library if you do lots of things beyond the core mission. This is especially challenging when resources are tight – we can’t do it all so we have to be thoughtful about where we put our effort. But in all the conversation about how we continue to stay relevant and deliver meaning in the future, I would tend to err on the side of being entrepreneurial and looking for opportunities wherever they might exist at an institution. To me that means being opportunistic and looking for unmet needs where no one else is stepping forward to meet them – especially where it involves learning support. But bike lending has nothing to do with learning. However, we’re already set up and have experience at lending stuff and we have the systems for it – so why not offer our services to another campus office. You have to consider the value of establishing partnerships with other campus offices and how that can help us down the road. And as others have suggested, you never know what the outcome will be of having a student who never comes to the library coming for a bike – and discovering the library has lots of other things to offer. Why are you not thinking of the value of someone saying “I went to the library to rent a bike, and I learned they have a great selection of NYT bestsellers” or “…and I met a librarian who is also renting a bike” – you can’t underestimate the value of any opportunity to build relationships with the community – and hey – in terms of what it means to delivery a library user experience – doing something really different from every other provider of information may be a good thing.

I appreciate Stevenb’s comment and respect his general view — but would like to take issue with the notion, a hazardous one in my view, that academic libraries (or any libraries) are in the business of ‘delivering meaning’. I don’t want unduly to impute any inclinations or intentions or stances to him that he doesn’t have, and maybe it’s just me, but this seems to me the kind of overweening rhetoric (and by extension pretense?) to which we regularly incline, and which is more likely to seem weird and to put others (e.g., our users) off than it is to enhance our standing and to win friends and sympathizers. We *do*, of course, structure and facilitate access to the documentary records that others can use — and do, in ways that are characteristically opaque and inaccessible to us — in the process of creating meaning for themselves. Doing so as efficiently as possible — even if invisibly, though ultimately, one hopes, not without recognition at least from those who pay our bills — is difficult enough, and accomplishment enough in its own right. Complete concentration on the task of doing just that, ever better, is preferable to any amount of concern with high hats and image-cultivation. The latter can even be an impediment to the former, and I dare say often is.

And on a (perhaps) lighter note: I’m not all that sure that “bike lending has nothing to do with learning” — e.g. when one thinks of things like the environmental and sustainability dimensions of anything that can be done to promote a mentality shift in the direction of this particular sort of alternative means of transport. But then again, that’s perhaps just too easy for me to suggest, writing here as I am from a place where that kind of shift is considerably less of a compelling issue.

Before you write off the value of academic libraries for delivering meaning I suggest you read the following posts I’ve written about why meaning is an important part of a library user experience:

Also consider the book “Making Meaning” by Nathan Shedroff.

When you really start to understand what creating meaning is about you can see that a great deal of what academic librarians do for community members – achievement, creation, freedom – these are all important components of meaning. This isn’t just about pretense.

Yeah, you’re probably right, Steven. You seem to have put your finger on it. The real problem is apparently that — in spite of several advanced degrees, a long career as researcher and university faculty member, publisher, editor, and academic library subject specialist — I still haven’t even made a start toward understanding what creating meaning is about. I guess that must mean (oops! — suggest?) that there’s now pretty much no hope for me. I’ll just have to live with it. One consolation at least: it now seems that in all those more than twenty years that I was an academic librarian, what I in fact was, without even realizing it, was a fantastic (though, of course, unacknowledged) meaning-deliverer. Perhaps enough to give me a nice warm feeling in spite of everything :-).

Student engagement with the library isn’t limited to scholarship activities. The library as a “place” central to daily life is a priceless association. This will carry libraries forward to 22nd century.

To be honest, and with due respect, this all sounds to me like not much more than a strong dose of pointless wishful thinking.

Isn’t the kind of “brand” you have in mind, and whose salvation you would apparently like to facilitate, one that hardly any longer exists except in the perception of those with a vested interest in preserving for the sake of preservation yesteryear’s credo’s, paradigms, and discourses? A symptom of librarian reactionarism, of a characteristic ‘déformation professionnelle’?

When I encounter your plaint that “Experience and professional status is only something that colleagues see.”, my reaction is unavoidably: so, what’s new? I’ve never known matters to be really otherwise. And quite understandably. Why in heaven’s name should library users have any interest in or concern for this kind of thing? Isn’t such a status system something that the occupational group itself long ago set about conjuring up on its own behalf, and has subsequently coveted, essentially in the service of its own gratification, self-esteem, and identity-construction? (Where’s the effective legitimation in the outside world? Or is librarianship self-legitimating??)

Such has long been the situation. But for more than a century, until say a decade and a half ago, the professional academic librarian’s worldview (and the concomitant structures and costs) continued for pragmatic reasons to be quietly tolerated without further ado. This was nice while it lasted, I guess I can say as a former member of that group, but the game’s pretty much over now. It’s not that that worldview is being explicitly disputed. (We should be so lucky as to get that much serious attention!) It is simply out of sync with the way the actual world works — and becoming more so every day.

And though it may be the case that many “librarians view themselves as academics”, and you may well “want patrons and provosts to think of librarians as scholars”, the simple fact, as far as I can tell, is that — understandably — neither patrons nor provosts nor anybody else see librarians in that way, that they in general never have, are never going to, and have now in any case less reason than ever before to be inclined to do so. [I’d probably be prepared to defend the assertion that librarians’ professionally profiling themselves as scholars is, at least outside their own circles, more counterproductive than anything else.] And the time for feeling any credible need “to justify hiring, retaining, and compensating highly trained academic staff” in an academic library lies firmly behind us, it seems to me. (At least if you mean MLIS-type or subject-specific training, as opposed to technical or logistic.)

If we want a smooth transition from traditional academic libraries, as your (former) “places of scholarship”, to the kind of documentary information infrastructures that the future’s higher education will require (indeed, demand), wouldn’t we be well advised to adopt a somewhat less anachronistic frame of reference than appears to have inspired this particular Bike Sharing post?

Laval Hunsucker
Breukelen, Nederland

I’m often amazed at the disdain in which more experienced academic librarians hold the profession. You mention “the kind of documentary information infrastructures that the future’s higher education will require” — do you have any constructive comments on what that might look like? Does that future necessarily entail dismissing the ability of librarians to be scholars and/or academics?

Where does the idea of disdain come from here?? I don’t really follow you, Amanda.

But first, the answer to your closing question: certainly “No”, as far as I’m concerned. Yet the question in itself seems to me in fact hardly a relevant one. No one’s talking about ability. Higher education’s presumable future also doesn’t entail dismissing the ability of a librarian to be at the same time, say, an accomplished pole-vaulter, a competent portrait-painter, a talented banjo player, a first-class origamist, an inspired poet, a convincing ventriloquist or a passable stand-up comedian. But it also in no way implies, depends on, or is likely to derive any significant benefit from any of these happenstances.

And I don’t see how it’s disdainful to find it pointless that the profession should strive to enhance its standing through encouraging recognition of its practitioners as not only competent librarians but also fine banjo players or pole-vaulters — or scholars or scientists.

And yes, I do have a notion how that necessary infrastructure will look, at any rate from the researchers’ and students’ point of view (and that’s what matters most to me): it won’t look like much at all. That’s the whole point. It will be as transparent as we (or rather, more likely, the AI-people) can possibly make it. And the processes of using it will be as intuitive as we (they) can make it. Please see my comment above in reaction to Stevenb’s posting, where I broach the virtue of invisibility. I suspect, myself, that the very concept of ‘academic library’ is destined to lose its meaning well within most of our own lifetimes. [And so what — if the academy can thrive without it?, if scholarship and science feel little need for it? I’ve no problem with that.]

Librarians, the librarian mentality and discourse, and everything that goes with them tend, to the extent that they are noticed at all, to be perceived by real academics as trivial factors in their world, and often to be experienced as more of an impediment than an expedient to their work. Obviously, this is not entirely fair [you can compare it to how many of us, for example, look at civil servants (who themselves may in certain cases be at the same time poets or banjo players or indeed even scholars)], and we have endlessly bemoaned this circumstance — but it’s simply the way the world is. And if it hasn’t changed by now, I’d say we can pretty much forget it, and better just get on with our lives with both feet on the ground. Otherwise, all we’ll be accomplishing is to make of librarianship even more of a religion than it already is. And that seems to me to be in absolutely nobody’s best interest.

I mentioned, above, my suspicion “that the very concept of ‘academic library’ is destined to lose its meaning well within most of our own lifetimes”. And now it seems that something similar may apply, more broadly, to the concept of the academy as we know it. See the relevant piece “In for Nasty Weather” in today’s (16 May) IHE at which some of you may find interesting.

In northern Minnesota, Hibbing Community College, its ‘Green Team’ and Library partnered a year ago to develope a bike circulation program as a campus sustainability action.
We gathered disgarded & lost/unclaimed bikes from various sources. Students and faculty tuned the bikes and readied them for circulation.
We use the Library circulation system with its impeded fee policy, to check out the bikes. They may circulate by the semester or by the academic year.
Even though Hibbing has short climate seasons condusive to biking, the program has been very well received by students and staff alike.

Jan, how successful has this been for you? We’re in western Canada, and have recently added a new library to our consortium which is a long walk but would be a short bike ride. I have had a couple of people suggest that we pursue something like this. It sounds lovely, but I dismissed the idea more or less out of hand because our winters are so long.

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