The Teaching Library: A Tour of the California State University Northridge Library

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By Nancy Steinmann, SJSU MLIS student

ImageWhen I first attended California State University Northridge in 2008, I was an undergraduate transfer student, and as such I did not receive a freshman orientation to the college library. When we met with Coordinator of Outreach Services Coleen Martin and part-time librarian Laura Wimberley (both SJSU alumni) outside the CSUN Oviatt library on Friday December 2, I thought I’d be reviewing familiar ground. But the tour made me wish I’d been clever enough to tour the library sooner. Behind the scenes, the library is amazing!

The four story building, dedicated in 1973, is imposing enough by itself, having featured in many movies and television programs. (It has been variously depicted as a Star fleet academy building in Star Trek [2009], an alien base in TV’s Battlestar Galactica [1978-9], and a school for superheroes in Disney’s movie Sky High [2005].) Completely renovated in 1994 after the Northridge 6.8 earthquake, it contains over 1.4 million volumes and tens of thousands of sound recordings and videos, as well as a special collections section and an archive of guitar research materials and sheet music.

ImageOur tour began with what I thought was the coolest feature of the library: the Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS). As an undergraduate, I’d been amazed at how mysteriously quickly books in storage were available for me to pick up: literally in the time it took me to walk downstairs. The ASRS is the answer. Installed in 1991, it was the first of its kind in a library in the world, but has since been duplicated in other CSU libraries. Normally used for high speed inventory retrieval, the system has six cranes serving six aisles of books, as well as other stored materials. When a book ID is entered, it retrieves a carton containing the book from the stacks, and even shows the quadrant of the carton the book is in. Mike Villalobos, the Circulation Services Supervisor, demonstrated the ASRS for us, and told us that as many as 20,000 books may have to be filed at each semester’s end. No wonder the library was depicted so often as futuristic!

However, the primary function of the CSUN library is teaching. As we toured the three labs containing 100 workstations, Martin remarked that, “This is a teaching library, not a research library….One thing that makes Cal State Northridge and the Oviatt Library unique is our commitment to student success through teaching and active learning.” Wondering what the difference is between a “teaching library” and a “research library”, I found on the Oviatt Library website that its main strategic direction is to be “a teaching library engaged in the development of the information research skills of our students”. The site goes on to say that:

According to the 1995 report on Information Competence in the CSU, information competence ‘is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills.’ Adopted into the General Education student learning outcomes and throughout specific disciplinary curriculum across the campus, classroom faculty and library faculty are working collaboratively to ensure that CSUN students develop these critical skills needed for lifelong learning and survival in today’s information age across the curriculum offerings.

Martin went on to tell us that 22 Oviatt librarians have provided 843 library instructional sessions to more than 21,000 students during the last academic year alone, with librarians working one-on-one with students during these classes. (Another hat that librarians have to wear! I can see that school librarians had better be prepared to teach as well as man a reference desk.)

ImageOur tour continued with the Oviatt “Collaboratory” area, containing a further 175 workstations for student use. During finals, said Martin, this area is completely full. So full, in fact, that power outlet upgrades are going to be part of the planned renovations in the next year or so. (As the library stacks area wasn’t originally designed for laptop usage, their power cables often end up being hazardously strung across the aisles.)

Since my focus in MLIS is digital archiving, I wish we’d had a chance to see behind the scenes of Special Collections and the International Guitar Research archive. I hope I can contact the folks in charge of those areas to arrange a separate tour.

After thanking Martin and Wimberley, we trouped off to Brent’s Famous Deli for yummy dinner. It was great to be able to discuss current topics like on-demand book systems with students who had finished the program and were facing these issues in the workplace. The only disappointment was not seeing any CSUN/UNT students at the event. Maybe next time we can get some synergy going. Many thanks to Allison Coltin and SLIS Connect for sponsoring this tour!

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