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Search: Residential College Libraries

My library
Was dukedom large enough.

—Shakespeare, The Tempest

A corner in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.

A college without a library is no college at all. The library may be large or small, rich or poor, cataloged or uncataloged, but it must be there. On this page I offer a range of recommendations on how to establish a library for a residential college within a larger institution. These recommendations extend the general advice offered on the Collegiate Way’s page about residential college buildings and grounds (2.1.5).

Library Levels

A residential college library need not be elaborate or expensive, though of course it can be as elaborate or expensive as you wish. If you begin by thinking “branch of the main university library” you will almost certainly be aiming too high. Instead of thinking “campus branch library,” think “large faculty office collection.” It might indeed be true that someday your residential college library will become a campus branch library, but you can worry about that twenty or thirty years down the road when you ask the college’s alumni to endow it.

At the simplest level, one large room is all that is needed for a residential college library. Instead of having a generic and undifferentiated “lounge” on each floor, make one of the lounges into the college library. Supply it with a couple of bookcases, a file cabinet, a study table, and a few comfortable chairs. Put a plant or two by the windows, a sign on the door, roll out an inexpensive carpet, and you’re done. If you are using an existing lounge, some of these things will already be present; others can be scrounged and salvaged from assorted campus offices. The atmosphere of the room is almost as important as anything else: make sure the library is a quiet and pleasant place to study, read, and write. As with all your common rooms, draw up a simple floor plan and post it in the room so that responsible people will be able to assist in keeping the place neat and attractive.

In developing the library’s collection over time you should emphasize general reference works and classic texts of various kinds that will be useful to undergraduates. Encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries of various languages, general handbooks and histories, “great books” sets, popular anthologies used in college courses, introductory science textbooks—all these things will make an excellent collection. If you are entrepreneurial you will be able to obtain many of these things as donations and through second-hand dealers at very little cost. Almost every faculty member will have an assortment of surplus textbooks sent gratis by publishers, and these can be one starting point. Donations from students, parents, and friends can be another. Retiring faculty members who are leaving their university offices may be willing to contribute a few items from their personal collections. Never forget that the involvement of the college community in building the collection is as important as the collection itself. It is better to have a small collection that the college members labored to assemble than a large one that was just bought and placed on the shelves. If you have accumulated two or three hundred good books after two or three years, consider yourself a spectacular success. [image]

As soon as you have your first books, be sure to go to a local stationery store and order a rubber stamp with your library’s name, and stamp each volume to indicate its ownership. You should also make or have made some distinctive bookplates for your college library. Be sure to use archival paper if you print your own, and use non-acidic glue so the bookplate won’t harm the object it is meant to protect. A good stationer will carry these things, or you can order them from any library supply company such as University Products.

With regard to library access, many arrangements are possible. You can leave the room open at all times, but books may tend to disappear this way. The room can be left locked but accessible with any college room key; this will protect the library from wandering outsiders who happen to be passing by, and might be a good arrangement if the library isn’t in a closely watched part of the college. The system I followed for several years with much success was to recruit a group of volunteer library monitors from among the students. A general schedule would be set up—the library will be open 1:00–5:00 p.m. and 7:00–11:00 p.m., Sunday through Thursday—and each monitor would be asked to sign up for a two-hour block. The monitors were issued keys, and were responsible for sitting in the library during their assigned block to keep an eye on things and to make sure the room was closed and locked at the end of the day. This kept the collection secure, but almost more importantly it provided a valuable opportunity for college service. New students, especially, are anxious to find a role for themselves within a college, and “volunteer librarian” is an excellent one for them. It is a position of genuine responsibility, it makes a valuable contribution to the college community, and it also provides the student with a set block of study time since the job involves little more than monitoring the room. I had no trouble keeping my college library open 30 hours each week this way, and I often had a waiting list of students who wanted to volunteer even after the schedule was filled. (Their names would be added to the schedule as backups in case any of the regular volunteers dropped out.) As with all such systems of recruitment in a residential college, the personal involvement of the master or the dean is very important in setting the tone: you can turn the daily management of the schedule over to a student volunteer as the term proceeds, but be present yourself on sign-up day to speak to each of the volunteers and to thank them for the important service they will be performing. On the library wall at the end of each year place an engraved brass plaque, easily obtainable for a few dollars from any sports trophy shop, listing the names of all the donors and the student volunteers for that year.

Further elaborations to your residential college library are possible if you are fortunate enough to have some money and support available. Perhaps you will be able to directly purchase a small number of new volumes each year to add to the collection, or start a few periodical subscriptions. (Ask first whether any faculty members would be willing to donate their copies of Scientific American, or National Geographic, or The New Republic, or Bowling Digest to the college library each month when they are done with them.) If you have a little money you might be able to pay a graduate student assistant to work for a few hours each week on collection development and supervision of undergraduate volunteers. Oversight of a residential college library can be an excellent role for a retired faculty member or an alumnus who wants to continue to be active in the life of the institution as well. If the support is available at this point you might also consider making a simple catalog of the collection to guard against loss, and develop a simple circulation procedure for non-reference items. Good old index cards will work just fine. Start cultivating a few major benefactors, and be sure to have a specific assortment of major donations in mind that would benefit the library. Why not go for the complete Loeb Classical Library, for example, or the complete Bach?

The library of St. John’s College, Oxford University.

At even higher levels of cost and complexity, individual residential college libraries can indeed become full branches of the university library, with their collections included in the institutional catalog. If one of the university’s professional librarians is a fellow of each residential college (a good idea in any event; see section 1.2.3), that person can be the librarian of record for the college library and can supervise graduate or undergraduate assistants. Even with this level of support everything should still be very small; you don’t need to think in terms or more than one or two rooms.

The most elaborate college libraries are those of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, many of which date from the Middle Ages and which house incunabula, rare manuscripts, and all manner of other treasures that actually belong to the colleges themselves rather than to the university. When your library reaches this level please let me know and I will volunteer to work there myself.

Special Collections

No matter how small your library may be at birth or how elaborate it may aspire to become, there are several ways to personalize it for your own specific college. Begin by assembling a special collection of publications by college members. The fellows of the college should be called upon to donate copies of their papers, essays, books, films, and recordings, as should any students who write for campus newspapers or literary magazines. Publications about college members should also be assiduously collected. Keep everything simple: a regular vertical file cabinet with folders for each year will work perfectly as long as each item is stamped with the library’s identifying stamp and the year of the item’s publication. One shelf nearby can hold books and other large works produced by members of the college.

For another simple special collection, ask each fellow of the college to donate one book that has been especially important in his or her life, and ask them all to make an inscription in the book that describes its importance. (Membership in a college should entail occasional small contributions of this kind. Any faculty member who isn’t willing do something as small as purchase one book for the college probably shouldn’t be a college fellow.) As the life of the library develops, month by month and year by year, students will serendipitously come across these inscribed books as they browse through the stacks.

Supplement this fellows collection with inscribed copies of books by other authors. [image] Every university has an assortment of writers and speakers coming to its campus each year, and many do book-signings while they are there. Get copies of any noteworthy books these authors have published, and ask them to inscribe each volume to the members of your college. Before you know it you will have a fine collection of presentation copies for enjoyment and display.

The personal interests of one or two college members can easily lead to the development of special thematic collections of various kinds, and like all the other examples here, these need not be expensive propositions. If the master of the college has a special interest in France, say, she might contribute a small collection of French-language books over a period of time along with a collection of ephemera from visits to France. A college dean interested in geography might start a special map collection for his college library. I’ve seen used bookstores in the United States with shelves full of the excellent maps published by the National Geographic Society, all on sale for fifty cents each. A simple twenty dollar donation would create an excellent small collection for students to explore, and throughout the year a library bulletin board can feature a particular “map of the month” for enlightenment and inspiration.

But ... won’t everything be online in the near future, and then we won’t need libraries? Surely the students will be able to sit in their rooms in front of their computers and get all the information they need, won’t they? Perhaps. And perhaps videotapes will replace lectures. And perhaps e-mail will replace seminars. And perhaps IMs will replace conversations. And perhaps inkjets will replace watercolors. And perhaps CDs will replace concerts. And perhaps high-resolution monitors will even become good enough to distinguish Times Roman from Centaur and will be able to reproduce the afternoon light reflecting off the gold lettering of a spine. Perhaps.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021