Libraries as the Essential Laboratory

April 15, 2022

by Richard Hume Werking, Library Director and Professor of History Emeritus, United States Naval Academy

Richard Werking

An all-volunteer organization, the Friends are community members who are deeply invested in sharing what they love about the UW-Madison Libraries. Friends solicited the following article as a testimonial (or reflection on) to the steadfast and evolving role of libraries during one library director’s career

In the mid-1980s, when he was President of the American Association for Higher Education, Russell Edgerton offered the following insight: “We measure our success as educators, and our successes as educational institutions, on the basis of the quality of the encounters we arrange.”

Edgerton’s brief statement helped me articulate for myself what a college education should be: direct encounters with professors and with other students, and with a wide variety of people, ideas, and experiences, in contexts non-academic as well as academic; in libraries, laboratories, and on athletic fields and debate teams; with scholars through their writings; and with historical actors through their recorded words, images, and other legacies.

One type of encounter was described well by a leading historian of U.S. foreign relations. William Appleman Williams (widely known in the History profession as the “dean” of the controversial “Wisconsin School of American Diplomatic History”) in 1985 explained how he involved his students in “doing History.” Williams wrote: “I always send undergraduates as well as graduate students off into the bowels of the library to read other people’s mail. . . . Students return from such trips into the unknown ecstatic, engaged, and confused. . . . The play of the mind with the evidence. The coming to terms with causes and consequences. The joy of making one’s own sense of the documents. . . . That is doing History.”

I could easily relate to both images, since at the time I was the library director at Trinity University in San Antonio, having been a librarian and History professor for a decade.  During the late 60s and early 70s I received an M.A. and Ph.D. in American History at UW, thanks not only to outstanding faculty and stimulating colleagues among fellow graduate students but also to the excellence of the University’s libraries. In my case, these were chiefly Memorial and the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Even as a graduate student during those years I had ample opportunity to observe the critical importance of academic libraries in the lifeblood of the parent institution.

No doubt those observations had much to do with my decision to become an academic librarian as well as a practicing historian. After earning an M.A. in Librarianship from the University of Chicago on a post-doc, I had a 36-year career with joint appointments as a library administrator and History professor at several institutions, finishing with a 20-year stint at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Of course, academic libraries have changed a great deal since the mid-1970s. That was a time when the profession was just beginning its transition from being, almost entirely, a paper-based institution to adopting computer technology that would lead to automated operations (machine-managed paper, with innovations such as online cataloging and circulation systems). Before long, the recorded knowledge we were acquiring and making available to our users was published electronically and arrived at our libraries in digital form, a so-called “electronic library” that has served as the third leg on that hybrid stool we have today.

Yet among these many changes, some critical things have remained constant. Academic libraries continue to serve their community, for which they supply collections of authoritative and reliable recorded knowledge in a combination of physical and digital formats. And it’s the librarians and other staff who provide that indispensable bridge between the collections and the community of users who study and conduct research. It has been the staff of academic libraries who have led the way in establishing and maintaining that bridge, building the collections to meet their community’s information requirements while helping connect students and faculty to what they need from those collections.

I well remember a conversation I had in the late 1970s with a department chair who provided me with another meaningful metaphor when he remarked how essential the library was for his department since “many of our colleagues are over there on the shelves.” Today his observation still holds true, whether the library’s “shelves” are physical or virtual. He too viewed the library as a place where conversations among colleagues were going on all the time, with library users tuning in to these discussions and arguments while examining the supporting evidence and reaching their own conclusions.

For his department and many other areas of academic inquiry, the library continues to serve as an essential laboratory, what one writer has termed “the scholar’s workshop” for faculty and students alike.