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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Shussh… and please enjoy yourself

The libraries that student rank the highest in our survey are the ones that provide a pleasing, welcoming environment

By Alanna Mitchell
The Globe and Mail

It’s not just the books and the journals and all the on-line information that so highly impress students who use the libraries at the University of Western Ontario. It’s also the cafés, the displays of artwork, the plants and the jewel-like colours painted on the walls.

“It makes a difference,” said Joyce Garnett, librarian at Western in London, Ont. She said the library has conducted focus groups to better pin down what students want. Again and again they make it clear that they want the library to feel like a good place to be.

“We tried to make it more welcoming,” Ms. Garnett said, adding that library officials have recently torn down walls to let more natural light enter the library buildings and moved parts of the collection to make sure the growing population of students has plenty of places to sit.

Ms. Garnett added, however, that while the library has invested time and energy in making the surroundings appealing, its staff has not stinted on content. Even through the years of declining university budgets, Western increased its spending every year on books, journals and other resources, she said.

At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. - which is the top-ranked library system in the country according to this survey - students cherish the high-ceilinged grand reading room, the spaces for group study. It adds up to a sense that they are entering an intellectual commons when they go into the library, said Paul Wiens, the librarian.

Over the past several years, Queen’s has spent more than $55-million upgrading and renovating the library buildings in a bid to make the buildings more comfortable, said Mr. Wiens. The previous principal of Queen’s, David Smith, insisted that the libraries were so important to the university’s broader learning environment that he looked at the best of what libraries all over North America had to offer while he set about improving those at Queen’s.

Mr. Wiens said another key to the university’s high rating among students is that members of the staff are helpful and kind.

“They share with the students a commitment to Queen’s,” he said. “They want to provide a high level of service to the students and without that we wouldn’t be anywhere.”

At Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., staff members are also renowned for going the extra mile. Students ranked it third in the nation in this survey. One woman who retired recently from the library’s support staff was famed among students for quietly advancing them the odd $20 at times of critical need, said Richard Ellis, Memorial’s university librarian, who found out about her unusual reputation at the woman’s retirement party.

It was, he noted, not in her job description. Mr. Ellis said that another key to the library’s success is to make sure that students have personal help from librarians whenever they need it. On top of that, librarians are deft at helping the student, who often only has a hazy notion of what the assignment is, shape the research into something manageable.

“By and large, we like students,” said Mr. Ellis. “We understand their problems. We understand the process they’re in and their goals and our approach is to help the student solve problems.”

The secret ingredient? Memorial’s library staff members also like to have fun. In fact, one of the qualities Mr. Ellis looks for in staff is a robust sense of humour.

It seems to be working. Jennifer Trites, 19, who is in her second year of a music major at Memorial, said she rated its libraries highly in the survey because the librarians are so patient when explaining anything she needs to know.

She was also impressed when a librarian came to her first-year music-history class to give a seminar on how to use the library.

At Queen’s, the librarians are equally impressive, said Andrew Bell, 21, who is in his third year of a degree in political science and history.

“It gets to the point where you know them by name,” said Mr. Bell, who also participated in this survey. “They’re very, very, very nice people and they know the library inside and out.”

Still, it’s the welcome he gets from the combination of rooms and people that impresses him the most. He loves to spend time in the fireplace reading room, which is round and features couches and a gas fireplace.

“It’s very warm and inviting,” he said. ROBTv Workopolis