The Magazine of The University of Montana
A Library for the Ages
As the Mansfield Library Evolves with the Times, It Remains the Heart of Campus
By Jacob Baynham Photos by Todd Goodrich
The sign below the circulation desk at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library nicely sums up its mission in a single Salish word, Snmipnuntn, which means a place to learn, a place to figure things out, a place where reality is discovered.
When Carol Leese started working at the brand-new Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library in 1974, she was given a wooden desk and a typewriter. She found the call numbers for incoming texts by searching the Dewey Decimal scheme and a large, red “Cutter book.” She typed those numbers, and other information, onto heavy cards, which she filed by author, subject, and title in the card catalog—a chest-high bank of oak drawers arranged in two fifty-foot rows. There were no computers, databases, or bar codes. Every task was performed by person, by hand.
“It was definitely a manual process,” she recalls.
Almost forty years later, that process has changed. Now the catalog is electronic, part of an integrated library-management system called Voyager, and Leese’s cataloging tools are programs on her computer. Thanks to an automatic purchase agreement with the library’s main supplier, up to 150 books arrive every week, already stamped, security stripped, bar-coded, and call-numbered. Once they’re checked into the database, they’re sent to the shelves. “They come in the back door and go out the front,” Leese says.
Associate Professor and Reference Librarian Megan Stark teaches students in an Epic Poetry class about how to take advantage of the research opportunities available at the Mansfield Library.
It’s a far cry from 1895, when Mary Craig, the daughter of the University’s first president, presided over 187 books in UM’s first library. The Mansfield Library now has more than 1.2 million volumes. But it’s more than the sum of its shelves. To meet the needs of modern users, the library is expanding its electronic holdings—including tens of thousands of journals, installing high-tech study rooms, and digitizing its historical archives. Librarians also are imagining a Learning Commons [see sidebar], a new kind of space where students can relax and study in the connectivity of a library environment.
The resources may be evolving, but the mission remains the same, captured in a Salish word that was used in the Missoula Valley long before the University was built. Today, the word hangs on a sign at the library’s circulation desk: Snmipnuntn [sin-MEE-pi-noon-tin]. It means “a place to learn, a place to figure things out, a place where reality is discovered.” It’s a fitting summary of the library’s key roles on campus—to preserve the past, prepare for the future, and help the University’s current scholars make sense of the world around them.
Today’s high school graduates were born long after Leese’s typewriter went—as she says—“the way of the dinosaur.” These students are digital natives who grew up with computers and always have used the Internet to answer their questions and form their opinions. Their generation has witnessed the greatest explosion of information in human history. So as they begin their college careers, we can forgive them for asking: Who needs a library when you’ve got Google?
But when these students arrive on campus, reference librarians such as Julie Biando Edwards await with the answer: “It’s is not a bad place to start,” she says of Wikipedia or Google research. “But it’s not where you should finish.”
The library instructs students throughout their time on campus. Each year, librarians teach 9,000 students—or patrons, as they’re respectfully called here. Edwards personally has taught more than 1,200 patrons since she started at the library in 2007. She says incoming students are increasingly savvy at finding information, but they need to learn how to evaluate and apply it.
“Information is not an end in itself,” she says. “It’s a tool by which we learn something, understand something, and form our own opinions.”
Applying information is increasingly important for students who are increasingly awash in the stuff. “The thing we try to push is critical thinking,” Edwards says. “Research is a process, not a product.”
Pages from the scrapbook of Fred Elliot Buck, who graduated from UM in 1906, are filled with programs, tickets, photographs—all types of memorabilia from his life in western Montana.
It gets to a phrase common in libraries today: information literacy. Once upon a time, says fellow Reference Librarian Megan Stark, information was scarce and tightly held. Today’s students face the opposite problem. There’s so much information that it’s hard to know what’s valuable. Students need to learn how to read information, Stark says, by asking who wrote it, for whom, and with what possible motive. Then, once they select information they deem credible, Stark encourages students to engage with it, rather than just plug quotes into an already written paper.
“It’s not about the information,” she says, quoting University of Texas librarian Dennis Dillon. “It’s about what you do with it.”
When teaching about the library’s resources, Stark often asks students, “When’s the last time you tried to Google something and got no results?” For most of them, that’s never happened. Google recognizes phrases and misspellings and offers seemingly helpful “Did you mean…” alternatives. The library’s databases don’t do that. Not because they can’t, Stark explains, but because “we have an expectation that scholars want control of their research.”
So while a Google search may retrieve more than 100 million results in a quarter of a second, a longer, more complicated search of a sophisticated library database will yield specific, high-quality information. “The major difference,” Stark says, “is we want you to know why you got the results that you got.”
But just as the librarians teach students to navigate a rising sea of information, they also try to meet these patrons where they are. There’s no better example of this than a spiral-bound notebook that lives behind the reference desk. It’s called the “No Book,” and librarians use it to write down every time a student asks a question and the answer is “No.”
Each month, the librarians get together and try to turn those “Nos” into “Yeses.” Thanks to the “No Book,” the library now circulates headphones, laptops, and bike locks. It replaced the standard stubby pencils with full-sized ones with erasers or pens. It created a family-friendly study room for students with kids.
“The cost is minimal,” Stark says, “but the impact is big.”
That spirit of service is what Edwards loves about her job. Early in her career, she had an epiphany while working at a small public library in rural Wyoming. “I realized, oh, this is not about the books,” she says. “It’s about connecting people with what they need.”
Now she relishes every time a student comes to her with a question.
“It really is a privilege,” she says, “to be able to tell them, ‘I don’t know the answer, but I’ll be able to help you find it.’”
Stark shares that love for the unexpected questions she helps answer. She remembers a woman coming into the library once who wanted to learn about her father’s involvement in early Civil Rights protests. The woman heard he had testified in a congressional hearing before he died. Stark guided her through a comprehensive government document search until they found a transcript of her father’s testimony. It was a tiny footnote to the Civil Rights movement, but a monumental milestone in a daughter’s understanding of her father.
“She walked out of this building a whole different person,” Stark says.
Transformative moments like this happen at the intersection of a library’s staff and its resources. A library is essentially a repository of stories, and depending on who finds them and when, they can hold a great deal of magic. In the Mansfield Library, perhaps the most personal concentration of stories is on the fourth floor, stacked on metal shelves in a temperature- and humidity-controlled concrete room. There, among thousands of historical documents, photographs, and videos, lives the well-recorded existence of Fred Elliot Buck.
A 1906 engineering graduate and scrupulous scrapbooker, Buck documented his life in a six-inch-thick tome that he stuffed with recital programs, game tickets, wedding invitations, and photographs—all the flotsam of an early twentieth-century western Montana life. Buck donated the volume to the University at his fiftieth reunion in 1956, and it now belongs to the Archives & Special Collections of the Mansfield Library.
Archives specialist Carlie Magill pulled the scrapbook from the shelf one recent morning. Magill speaks about Buck in the present tense, as she might describe an old acquaintance. “So he goes to UM, and he stays in Missoula,” she says, by way of introduction. “And he saves everything.”
Flipping through the pages, she points out his memberships in the Sigma Chi fraternity and the Masonic Order and notes from his career as a Missoula city engineer. Buck’s life practically springs from the pages. He saved the programs of the dances he attended, along with the names of the ladies who accompanied him. The book is a treasure trove for anyone interested in learning about turn-of-the-century life at UM or in Missoula.
Historical documents like this are so valuable to researchers that the Mansfield Library is broadening its reach by digitizing them. Digital archivist Sam Meister explains that the Archives & Special Collections are too unique to be circulated. But a unit in the library is taking volumes from the shelves, scanning them as searchable digital files, and uploading them to the Internet. They’re just getting started digitizing the collection of UM yearbooks, from 1904 up to the 1980s, and they recently completed a project digitizing a portion of the collection of Senator Mike Mansfield, the library’s celebrated namesake.
It’s a daunting task, but making the materials accessible to historians and researchers around the world will maximize their utility. “Really, we’re here for access,” Meister says.
Still, digitization comes with its challenges. Digital copies have to be maintained and reformatted as software and technology becomes obsolete. Meister has a complicated, color-coded map on a wall-sized whiteboard in his office illustrating the intricate process of creating and preserving a virtual collection.
Looking out at the collection, Meister admits the library is years away from scanning it all.
“Who knows how many rows could be on one hard drive?” he wonders. “But the hard drive is inherently less stable, too.” The library won’t pitch the original versions any time soon, he says. “All you need to access them are eyes.”
It’s clear there’s much work to be done. Alongside Buck’s scrapbook are century-old Missoula County Jail rosters, which list common crimes of the era—vagrancy, horse theft, malicious mischief. There are ledgers, too, from the old Missoula Mercantile, which detail each transaction for decades. Alongside those are early photographs, including an old print of a Griz-Cat game from 1914. The Prescott House is visible, as is the Rattlesnake Wilderness behind it. Eventually all of it will be scanned, described, and made searchable. Who knows what stories will emerge when people around the world can see them with a few simple clicks.
It all circles back to the word under the circulation desk, Snmipnuntn. Whether students delve into the history of the Missoula Valley, or browse the latest scientific research in an electronic database, the Mansfield Library was, and continues to be, a place to learn, figure things out, and discover reality.
As much as the library changes, that much will remain the same.
A New Space to Learn
It’s not hard to tell what the Mansfield Library was built for. Its five floors are large and concrete, its windows are narrow slits, and most of the seating is on the narrow periphery of a central mass of shelves.
“When you look at this building,” says Reference Librarian Megan Stark, “it was built to comfortably accommodate books, not living human beings.”
But books are a library’s business, right? Well, partly, but books don’t mean much if nobody is there to read them. Libraries all over are reimagining their designs to create more comfortable learning spaces that meet the evolving needs of modern users. That’s why UM has drawn up plans to turn the library’s ground floor into a new area called a Learning Commons.
A rendering of the proposed Mansfield Library Learning Commons Artwork by Ben Tintinger, Mosaic Architecture
“The function of a Learning Commons,” Stark says, “is to invite learners back into the space.”
It’s a $3 million, 29,000 square-foot overhaul that’s at least a year away from fruition, but it’s a priority for UM President Royce Engstrom.
“We want to change the way students approach their individual studying,” Engstrom says, “but also the way they interact with one another. The Learning Commons is an exciting design that will foster effective interaction both in person and via technology.”
Plans for the Learning Commons include floor-to-ceiling windows, group study areas with theater seating and display screens, movable furniture, math and writing centers, and a café. All of it is set amid the library’s usual resources, including the librarians. The goal, Stark says, is to create an environment of “organized spontaneity” that fosters creative group work, brainstorming, and interactive learning.
“Students really don’t learn like they did twenty years ago,” says Curtis Cox, who leads the UM Foundation’s fundraising effort. “There are so many more group projects and interactions while they’re doing their work. The Learning Commons provides a catalyst for that kind of learning.”
If other universities are any indication, the project will be successful. Arizona State University recently completed a learning commons and saw library traffic increase by 30 percent. Other universities have noticed an even steeper spike.
Stark just hopes UM’s Learning Commons will be a comfortable, functional gathering place, one that’s designed with people in mind—not books.
To get involved with the project call Cox at 406-243-2585, e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.lib.umt.edu.