Hot town, summer in the univer-city! And you’re in the library. Helping researchers, preparing for the August onslaught of students, it’s way cooler than the outdoors (literally). But wait… what exactly happens at an academic library in the summer? I promise you, the building doesn’t just sit there waiting for the students to come back. However, the summer is a distinct, and somewhat slower, season of the academic library calendar. Over the past several years, I’ve worked at three academic libraries. None of them handled summers in exactly the same way, but I’ve noticed it goes a little like this.
Yes, many academic libraries do limit their hours in the summer to reflect the smaller number of people passing through the doors. Despite summer classes, there will simply be fewer students. Oftentimes there is less staff as well. Some staff members might be on nine or ten month contracts and simply aren’t around. Perhaps in part because of the lull in patronage, summer is also a popular time for conferences and vacations.
You wouldn’t believe (or maybe you know all too well) how messy students can be. Since many academic libraries have long hours to accommodate late night study sessions, the deep cleaning projects are often saved for the summer. Janitors upend whole rooms for carpet shampooing and floor waxing. And these projects aren’t limited to the cleaning staff. As a student worker, I spent time polishing chairs, removing gum from under tables, and even dusting books during the summers. Later, as a community college librarian, I would remove books and wipe down shelves in the summers while the project wouldn’t disrupt as many students.
Summer is also a popular season for construction projects. If it’s going to make a mess, make a lot of noise, or require moving collections, it’s probably going to happen in the summer. As an undergrad I assisted the entire library staff in shifting the special collections department to and from storage during extensive renovations. Just this summer, the archives where I work closed up for a week to receive a new coat of paint, and the entire library switched to a new online catalog.
Time to Plan, Time to Prepare
When the students return, and with them untrained student workers, it can be chaotic. So, librarians use the summer to plan the programs, exhibits, and class visits scheduled in those first busy weeks. This time is also perfect for making sure the library is ready by taking inventory of the collection or purging the records of graduated students.
The institution itself may also use the library to prepare for the future by sending tours of prospective students and even early orientation groups through the library. This can get a little tricky if the library is in the throes of a construction project.
The day to day
So, how does summer in the university look in practice? Currently, I work as a graduate assistant at the Iowa Women’s Archives. My average day includes elements of all of the above but also plenty of things that I do during the school year. The library and its café have summer hours, but mine remain the same. When I come in around 9 o’clock, the library is sparsely populated, but definitely in use. Every library is different, and I’ve noticed that the university library gets more summer foot traffic than either community college or liberal arts college libraries where I have worked.
The archives doesn’t look exactly like it does during the school year. Besides new colors on the walls and a newly waxed floor, the archives will soon have new furniture. While we wait for delivery, the walls are bare, the books usually on shelves are on library carts, and about half of our tables and chairs have already been removed. During the school year this might have been disruptive, but in the summer class sizes are small enough to fit in the temporarily limited seating, and the archives have been running without a hitch.
My large projects for the summer include preparing to move a large quantity of audiovisual materials to off-site storage, and updating collections in ArchivesSpace, the library’s new system of displaying our holdings online. In the summer, I often have uninterrupted hours to spend on these. Additionally, I am preparing a small exhibit on women’s Shakespeare Clubs for the fall, a project which requires collaboration with the library’s conservation department.
But while things change, they also stay the same. Summer classes come to the archives. Last week, a creative writing class pored over diaries. The week before, an English class looked through Shakespeare club scrapbooks. Just as during the school year, researchers visit and request archival materials. New donations come in nearly every week, and with them all the usual accessioning paperwork. Once per week, I collaborate with my co-workers to update the archives’ tumblr and, less often, the blog. If I’m lucky, there’s time to process new collections, but most of that may have to wait for the school year.
Academic libraries exist chiefly for the students who attend their institutions, so their summers stand in sharp contrast to the busy public library in June and July. Although the summers are quiet, they are a necessary part of the academic year.