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The New York Public Library has a pair. So does the Boston Public Library: Shaggy-maned, noble-browed, big-clawed stone beasts guarding the monumental portals of those monumental repositories of the written word. The W.E.B. Du Bois Library has no lions, but in Margo Crist who, with her curly blond hair and wide smile has somewhat of a friendly leonine air it has a powerful defender.
As the university's director of libraries, Crist is, in truth, more interested in opening doors than in guarding them. She wants people from both on and off campus to feel welcome. And she wants to ensure that, once inside, people can find what they need, whether they're searching the stacks or surfing the Web at one of the Du Bois's new Netscape stations.
If Crist seems to take her responsibilities in stride, her nearly thirty years experience may be a reason. Born and educated in the Midwest, she came east to work at the Boston Public Library in 1979. In 1990, she returned to her alma mater, the University of Michigan, to help direct its library's public services. Today, having administered a regional system, run a branch, worked on programming for elderly users, and planned for automation, Crist has studied from many different angles the question of how libraries can serve users.
For a few hundred years, libraries have offered us paper-based materials: books, magazines, collections of scholarly papers. Contemporary librarians, however, must reckon with electronic data bases, the Internet, "dial-up access," and the electronic networking of libraries. Crist says all these resources are invaluable. "Computers allow us to work differently with information, to manipulate information," she says. "They're wonderful when faster equals better for searching through enormous amounts of information, for analysis or calculations. And when timeliness is important in the sciences, for instance." But books, Crist points out, are more than sources of information; they are also "artifacts," physical entities with unique powers. To examine a manuscript with a famous poet's notations is to be given a glimpse into a gifted mind. Not to be discounted, either, is the more quotidian pleasure of curling up with a good book: so much cozier than a laptop

 

 

 

"Librarians care about these distinctions," says Crist, and as she sees it, part of their job is to help users understand the distinctions, too, and make the most of all the resources available to them. At UMass, Crist point outs, the library gets a wide variety of visitors: some in the "knowledge building" stage, others in the business of "knowledge creation." Sometimes, her staff teaches the users; other times, she says, "the users are teaching us."
Keeping up with "the array of experts and scholars engaged in ground-breaking endeavors on this campus" is challenging; equally important, though, is stepping a freshman through how to use the Du Bois to research a term paper. (A new, automated tour of the library system, which runs on a computer just beyond the Du Bois turnstiles and features an agreeable green bug called "Mort," is helping with such tasks.) At all levels, librarians can play an invaluable role in encouraging what Crist calls, "information literacy: knowing how to use information, how to search for, and capture information." She believes these are "lifelong skills," the underpinning of "critical thinking, problem-solving, the ability to make independent judgments."
More and more, librarians must also rely on their own skills to identify, evaluate, and organize information. The Internet, for example, offers access to a near-infinite universe of information, but both the vastness and the unfiltered quality of what it offers means that people need help sorting fact from fiction, the useful from the mediocre.
"It's a variation on what libraries have always contributed," Crist acknowledges. "But we can't pretend that we're selecting everything good from, for instance, the Internet." What librarians can hope to do is "tap the network of colleagues who are subject specialists, to tell us about good sources, authenticated sources."
The campus libraries will be facing a serious shortage of space in the next five to ten years, a growing problem for libraries nationwide. Given that the Du Bois tower contains not only stacks but offices, archives, and study areas as well a music library formerly housed in the Fine Arts Center it's not surprising that space there is at a premium. The collection of the Biological Sciences Library in Morrill is expanding so rapidly that it must transfer materials to Du Bois every five years. The Physical Sciences and Engineering Library is struggling with the effects of shelves more than ninety-five percent full.
"The crisis of today is what it always is, stretching resources," notes Crist philosophically. As she investigates ways to keep books off the floor and "in their rightful places," she's also looking at other ways the library needs to grow. Shortly after she arrived last January, she and her staff of 140 embarked on an effort to imagine the library as it might be in 2001, and beyond. The mandate was to "think big." While Crist acknowledges the difficulties of setting priorities and, of course, finding funding for their vision, the collective brainstorming has already resulted in a series of white papers released over the last few months. Some of the proposed changes and innovations many feasible, some "more fanciful" include upgrading infrastructure, reviving the role of Old Chapel as a library, adding study/play areas to accommodate the increasing number of students with children, building a bridge from Lederle to the West Experiment Station and, yes, getting rid of the chain-link fence around the Du Bois Library "deck."
It may not be the most important or pressing need, but the symbolism of the chain-link is not lost on Crist and company. Funds have been earmarked for refurbishing the pitted concrete plaza; Crist would like to see its renovation as part of a larger effort to "make the entrance more inviting." Possible substitutes for the fence range from ornamental shrubs in oversized containers to a "ribbon around the box" an arcade or low addition that would expand the library's ground floor while protecting visitors' heads from the falling brick chips that are a distant but omnipresent possibility. There may be no stone lions in the libraries' future, but if Crist has anything to say about it, there will be what such statues have come to symbolize: a stouthearted, steadfast commitment to knowledge and learning.



TODAY ITS LIBRARY SEEMS an integral partof any university, but when UMass was established as Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863, it was BYOB: bring your own books. In 1884, the college acquired its first library, which did double duty as the chapel. By the time Goodell was built in the thirties, Old Chapel was full to overflowing with books. In 1973, the twenty-six story library tower, designed by the eminent architect Edward Durrell Stone, went up. Goodell remained part of the library into the mid-eighties, proving especially useful when access to the tower was limited due to spalling bricks on its massive facade. (The facade of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also a Stone design, is clad with stone rather than brick, and has fared better.)
Last year, the landmark library building was named after W.E.B. Du Bois, the scholar, author, civil rights advocate, and Western Massachusetts native whose papers are part of its archival collection. Other notables whose papers are among the library's collections include poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, the late Congressman Silvio Conte, and William Smith Clark, president of Mass Aggie in its early years.
There are several libraries within the library system, including
W.E.B. Du Bois, the Biological Sciences Library in Morrill Science Center, the Music Library (housed on the nineteenth floor of Du Bois) and the Physical Sciences and Engineering Library in Lederle Graduate Research Center. It would be impossible to describe in a short space the breadth and depth of the resources available from the library to give just a hint, it contains over 2.6 million volumes but they are sufficient to win it a ranking of seventy-sixth in the nation among research libraries.