For library's future, Goucher reaches back


Today's college students aren't spending as much time in campus libraries as their predecessors did. They're scanning computer screens instead of books.

But rather than give up on the library, Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College in Towson, believes he has a better idea.

He wants to build a different sort of library, a place that will draw students out of their residence halls and away from their computers - a nexus of intellectual and social engagement in the middle of campus that will be so full of life and learning that students can't stay away.

The Athenaeum is Ungar's term for a $43 million, 100,000-square-foot structure planned for the Goucher campus that is expected to serve as the campus library - and much more.

As designed by Hillier Architecture of Philadelphia, it will have a 150-seat "forum" for lectures and performances, a cafe, art galleries and exercise areas.

Ungar also envisions a "media wall" where students abroad can show their friends back in Maryland what they're experiencing, through words and images; an outdoor piazza for street bands, political speeches and events for the surrounding community; and a sculpture garden.

"This is not your mom's library," Ungar says. "This will be a central gathering point on campus for intellectual, cultural, social and technological programs, where people will come together at all times. I see it as the intellectual crossroads of the campus."

Founded in Baltimore in 1885 as an all-female liberal arts college, Goucher moved to Towson in the 1950s and went co-ed in 1986. It has 1,350 undergraduates, 80 percent of whom live on campus, plus the "full-time equivalent" of 400 graduate students, and 100 faculty members.

When Ungar became Goucher's president in 2001, the college had plans to expand its 1950s-era library with a $32 million addition.

Ungar was concerned that enlarging the existing building without addressing changes in the way students use libraries wouldn't be a wise use of funds, and he put a hold on the project.

Simply expanding the Julia Rogers Library "wasn't going to solve a lot of issues," he explained. "If you're going to build a new college library, you're going to have to respond to the way students use libraries these days."

Ungar said that, thus far, evidence of a decrease in the use of the library at Goucher or other college campuses is only anecdotal. But, like other educators, he has observed that students are spending more and more time on their computers in their dorm rooms - a trend that alarms him.

It's a "widespread phenomenon," he says. "A lot of students have been shying away from traditional libraries because of the access they now have to other sources of information."

Ungar fears that students who don't visit the library much aren't benefiting from the "browse factor" - the serendipitous discovery process that takes place when students search for one book and end up finding six others that interest them.

He's also concerned that many students are becoming too isolated. If they're sitting alone in front of a computer screen, most likely in their residence halls, they aren't interacting with students and faculty the way they might if they were in the library, Ungar says.

"They sit at the computer in their rooms and chat with friends, do research, play games and who knows what else," he said. "It can be very solitary. If they have a bathroom in their suite, they don't even have to get out to go to the bathroom."

Instead of throwing in the towel, Ungar wants to invigorate the campus library by adding elements that will draw students to it. He also wants to add facilities that the campus needs. So, he thought, why not put them all in one building at the heart of campus, where students can't possibly pass them by?

"As I talked to students, I got the idea that if you build a library that is more than a library, that has more functions to it, you will get more students in the library. There have to be other attractions to get them there. And it has to be a place they can go 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

"I was explaining all this to a friend. and he said, "Oh, you mean an athenaeum?"

In ancient Greece, athenaeum was a term for an all-encompassing place of learning.

It referred to buildings dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and in particular to a temple on the Acropolis where poets, philosophers and orators gathered to read and discuss their work.

Over the centuries the term also has applied to numerous academies and learned societies. Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Moore established one of the most famous, The Athenaeum of London, in 1824. Members were known for their scientific or artistic achievements, or patronage of the arts. In the U.S., many cities have an athenaeum, including Boston; Philadelphia; Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Providence, R.I.; and Alexandria, Va.

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