What’s Past is Prologue: SMU’s Libraries in the 21st century

Text of speech by Gillian M. McCombs, dean and director of SMU Central University Libraries, on April 15, 2016.
Gillian M. McCombs, dean and director of Central University Libraries
Gillian M. McCombs
Dean and Director of Central University Libraries

It is indeed a happy day as I stand before you ready to cut the ribbon on the unveiling of the first phase of this Fondren Library Center renovation. It is no accident that we are gathered here, in front of SMU’s first library building, created through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Fondren. It is also no accident that one of the hallmarks of this renovation is the return of the reading room to its original purpose – providing an inspirational and elegant space for reflection and silent study for all students and faculty, the iconic symbol of learning in academe.

As Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tempest — what’s past is prologue, and we are indebted to the vision and consistent support of the Fondren family and Foundation, the Hillcrest Foundation, the Hoblitzelle Foundation, the co-chairs of our capital campaign committee – Ann Brookshire and Tav Lupton - and many other friends to bring us here today.

In 1940, when Fondren Library was built, there were 100,000 books on the shelves with expansion room up to 300,000. In 1998, the separate buildings were joined together into one complex of 268,000 sq.ft. Today, as we are poised to celebrate the first phase of the internal redesign of this space, SMU’s collections number over 4M volumes, with more than one million of those volumes being digital. You can access much of the library’s holdings from your mobile device anywhere in the world there is a wireless signal.

So then, you might ask, if you can take much of it with you and can be reading e-books in the dorm in your pjs, scanning the latest issue of Nature in Patagonia wearing a parka and snow glasses, or examining geospatial maps while exploring the Acropolis, why do we still need a physical building, more print books and the restoration of inspirational spaces? Whether you call it the information age or the digital age, we are today members of a knowledge-based economy in which the gathering and communicating of large amounts of information is almost instantaneous. Knowledge is our business. What we librarians do, and what our users do in the library, however, is very different from 50 years ago, even from 15 years ago, and teaching digital literacy skills is an important  part of what we do.

Weaving together architectural elements that are informed by retail, psychology, neuroscience and other disciplines, our space is evolving into a 21st century learning environment. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg talks about the concept of ‘the third space’ – that ‘great good place’ that unites community, has public character, is inclusive, accessible and accommodating. Fondren Library fills that need for a third space here on campus. We are the only 24x5 space available (at least when we are not under construction): our students can hang out or write a paper, consult with a librarian on a research topic, work on group study projects, pull 150 books off the shelves, create a business plan, rehearse a presentation, join a human rights mapathon, find a solitary nook for in-depth study, borrow a Chrome Book, pick up some free earplugs and, after today, will be able to walk up these stairs to the new reading room, breathe deeply and say, yes! I feel just a little smarter, just a little more psyched to do to what I have to do – and they will be confident that whatever they need will be here, or that we will be able to find it for them, because that is what we do. And of course, just in time for the fall semester, we will be opening another of Oldenburg’s ‘great good places’ — the Starbucks café!

There are so many of you here who have supported us through this journey — SMU faculty, students and library staff are so grateful that this is where you have chosen to show your commitment to the University and its academic mission. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for believing in the power of the library to make a difference in our students’ lives.

In October 1944, Winston Churchill made a speech to the House of Commons advocating the need to rebuild the Commons chamber after the 1941 bombing. His argument was to rebuild in a similar shape because “We first shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” And so it will be with our beloved library.

Thank you!