If Georgetown were suspended on its own, as a microcosm without the rest of the world looming outside the front gates, we would probably go to the library for fun. We would pick up books at random about whatever piqued our imaginations, just like little kids play with toys and read fairy tales.
Now let’s assume Georgetown is spatially on its own, but food, water and electricity all cost money. Darwinian theories would suggest that we’d become competitive and specialized — but still, we’d probably go the library for fun. Having secured our position on the predator chart, for example, as a barista at More Uncommon Grounds who lives in a Copley dorm, we’d accept our daily workload while retaining a curiosity for new knowledge. Since we wouldn’t need to choose majors and classes that directly related to our jobs, we wouldn’t associate the library with loads of homework. Rather, the classes that we took could engage in a discourse with our natural inquiry into history, philosophy or art.
Curiosity for books and knowledge wouldn’t be curbed by the pressure of time or the fear of failure in the real world. No falling job market would be seeping in through the front gates. So, from where does this current misunderstanding of the library stem?
When libraries were first popularized by the printing press 400 years ago, the golden age of libraries saw a rise of book collections in Italian city-states. During that time, the primary purpose of libraries was to cultivate discovered knowledge and continued thinking. Scholars came to find an alternative module by which to understand an accepted theory or to learn new ones. It is in the spirit of libraries that this message comes across: We must halt our receding curiosity for knowledge.
Today’s libraries are the result of a centuries’ old shift. We now use them to confirm accepted information and uphold it with established theories. Regurgitating information for our classes or merely using the quiet environment to work on assignments is one thing. But, universities are taking an ambitious leap in the life of a library.
Different floors have been designated for different purposes. Lau 2 is the most concrete example of a conference hall or social spot, which swerves from the library’s natural focus of inward thought. Lau 4 and 5 are furnished with separated tables and isolated cubicles. They physically appear to retain that contemplative element of libraries, but if you zoom in on what students are really doing, they’re probably checking Facebook.
But that shouldn’t taint the whole bearing on what Georgetown’s, or indeed any university’s, students do at libraries. Many are actually writing papers or reading for their classes. The problem of receding curiosity for the fascinating new information in the library — reading the books that aren’t assigned — is reflective of a larger change in the liberal arts education.
Georgetownis not a vocational school. There is a core curriculum that exposes students to multiple models through which they may solve problems and understand the world.
But it is becoming easy to slide by some core requirements with advanced courses taken in high school. Many students shape Georgetown into a vocational university, and that’s why the library only appeals to them as a place to concentrate and find books on subjects they need. It is high time that we recognize our true role as students at a liberal arts university is to expose ourselves to multiple outlets of thought. In order to do so, we should use the library to learn something unassigned.
Otherwise, we might not recognize the thick walls of Lau must shelter our curiosity and nurture our intellectual growth.
After all, no student should graduate from a university without roaming the stacks of its library, catching sight of a fascinating book and sitting down in the aisle to read it.
Masha Goncharova is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.