What’s in the library cards?

Wilson Library, on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus.

Photo by Bill Hoffman

With Southeast Library closed, the University of Minnesota libraries stand ready to serve

Standing outside the now closed Southeast Library in Dinkytown, the mind’s eye searches for another library.

From Dinkytown, the nearest branch libraries, Northeast and Pierre Bottineau, as well as the downtown central library, are not within walking distance. That raises the question of which buses to take, or whether to drive, and to wonder about parking downtown. Maybe it would be easier to drive to a library close by in St. Paul or to the Hennepin County library in St. Anthony.

Yet, not everyone has a car, or wants to take several buses to and from a library, or even has a computer with Internet access to order books to be delivered to the closest public library.

As it turns out, there are several libraries within walking distance of Dinkytown, and a short distance by the number 2 bus. The libraries offer quiet space, reference librarians, computer terminals open to the public, and the challenge and serendipity of a campus setting.

Those are the University of Minnesota libraries on the Twin Cities campus. Several specialized collections, resources, and services are open to the public a few blocks from Dinkytown on the East Bank campus. The libraries and collections most likely to draw the casual library user, however, are the humanities collection at Wilson Library, and the music library, both on the West Bank campus.

“When the doors are open, everyone is welcome to come in,” said Matt Bowers, coordinator for Borrowing Privileges and Fines, in an interview in his office on the first floor of Wilson Library. Casual library users can visit all campus libraries to read, search for materials online, consult with reference librarians, and use photocopy machines.

Alternative libraries

About one-third of the Southeast Library users have been university faculty and students, said Eric Heideman, community librarian at the Southeast Library. They include “many overseas students who desperately need a public library within walking distance,” he added.

Inversely, the public has at times sought out the University libraries. “People do look for alternatives when public libraries close,” Bowers said. When the downtown Minneapolis library was in smaller quarters while the new building was under construction, business users went to Wilson Library, he said.

Bowers said nonuniversity library users don’t need to show an ID. They have access to open computer terminals and reference services. The government documents and business collections, for instance, are open to the public and well-used, he said.

Residents who want to borrow materials from university libraries may join Friends of the Library, or use the public library’s interlibrary loan service. Materials requested are sent to the resident’s nearest public library. “That’s been a very popular service,” Bowers said.

The Health Sciences Libraries in Diehl Hall are useful for investigating health concerns, Bowers noted. Patients, doctors, and others receive assistance from “excellent reference librarians,” he said. Library collections of general interest also include architecture, journalism, and veterinary science.

Wilson Library has a good collection of contemporary fiction and poetry, as well as contemporary nonfiction, Bowers said; although not all best sellers may be there. Visitors may also read newspapers, magazines, and government publications.

Visitors can listen to music CDs in the Music Library in Ferguson Hall, across the plaza from Wilson Library. Across the river at Walter Library, movie buffs can view DVDs—Walter houses a collection for film studies classes, as well as educational DVDs.

At Wilson Library, middle and high school students visit each year to do research for National History Day projects. Teachers urge them to use the primary source materials there, such as periodicals from the period being studied.

Hundreds of students visit the libraries. “It is a way for younger students to learn about the campus libraries,” said Heideman.

“We’ve got a pretty strong community connection,” particularly at Wilson Library, Bowers suggested, while acknowledging that the university libraries are geared more toward the “expert user.”

Academic focus

Of course, the primary purpose of the university libraries is academic, and focuses on faculty, staff, and student users, explained Christopher James, communications director for University Libraries.

“We are open to the public,” and people can use portions of the collections while they’re on campus, James said. The typical public user, however, wouldn’t have borrowing privileges. “We certainly cannot replace a public library, or provide the same complement of services,” James said. “It is not in our power or our mission.”

Asked about attractions for casual or family visitors, Bowers also acknowledged that the University Libraries aren’t a complete replacement for public libraries. “We don’t have reading time for children,” he said, but then added, “But, there’s nothing wrong bringing kids to our library. It’s good to get them early.”

Bowers started working in the library system in 1984 and is a familiar figure to students and visitors. He can be reached at 612/626-8635 and mattb@umn.edu. To contact the Borrowing Privileges & Fines office, call 612/624-3383.

last revised: April 9, 2007