We Never Close

The honor system works for one college library

May 19, 2011

Imagine that your library building is open 24/7 with no overnight staff or security gates. What if trusting patrons to abide by the honor system actually worked? That’s the reality at Marlboro (Vt.) College's Rice-Aron Library, where an open-door policy has been in effect for decades.

To understand this library, you must consider the campus it serves. At Marlboro College, a private liberal arts institution founded in 1946 on two farms in rural southern Vermont, students develop a personalized Plan of Concentration. With 300 students and 40 faculty members, the educational culture is very intimate.

Emily Alling, who describes herself as a practitioner-administrator, is the library’s director. She is involved with day-to-day tasks, such as teaching, processing requests, and cleaning up messes, but also oversees the larger strategic vision. One of the most pivotal places she spends her time is the monthly Town Meetings where campus decisions are discussed and voted upon by students, faculty, and staff.

Each semester Alling approaches this governing body with a list of books that have gone missing and there is a vote to taken to purchase replacements, which always passes. “The money comes from either student activities fees or from the washer/dryer fund,” Alling shared. “It’s a way for the community to bear some of the costs of our open system, as well as enjoying the fruits of it.”

Alling runs the library along with another librarian and two staff positions, and a handful of student assistants. She uses a cooperative style of leadership where information is frequently shared and discussed, and the team explores all possibilities.

This approach has lead to some creative decisions. An example is the design of a new instruction space. It occupies what used to be a large circulation desk, described by Alling as resembling an upscale hotel bar. By adding stools, laptops, and a projection system, Marlboro transformed this underused service point into a critical interaction spot where faculty teaches classes and works with students on their assignments. Dubbed the “Research Bar,” the space has become a favorite of several faculty who use it for informal sessions.

Another transition has been a move toward open source software in what Alling describes as: less systems, more content. “Systems are very expensive and end users don’t get excited about the catalog. What they really want is a particular book or an article.” The library has made a concerted effort to shift money away from proprietary tools and instead invest in content.  “The principles and economics of open source trumped the small amount of functionality that we had to sacrifice.”

In the summer of 2010, the Rice-Aron Library adopted Koha as its integrated library system and use CUFTS and GODOT for serials management and for link resolving. The library also runs Linux on library computers and promotes Zotero for citation management.

Open access scholarly materials also play a significant role. “Many vendors begin pricing products around 3,000 FTE and since we only have 300 students it can be challenging for our budget,” Alling noted. The library relies heavily on free discovery tools and instead invests in speedy access to content through interlibrary loan and on-demand purchasing.

Alling oversees all article requests herself and starts by checking academic repositories. She often sends thank-you notes to authors who deposit their works online. “It’s important for authors to know that their papers are reaching an audience who otherwise might not have had access to them.”

What’s inspiring about the Rice-Aron Library is its openness: the open building, the belief in patrons honoring the privilege of the collection, the instruction sessions held out in the open for all to see and learn, and the leap to open source tools and finding out that they work just as well as commercial systems. While many libraries talk about transparency, this is one that is actually living it.

Brian Mathews is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.