Buillding a library for the future

For students, faculty and staff, Penrose Library is the academic hub of Whitman College.

In Penrose Library
Advances in digital scholarship, electronic publication and content digitization are changing patterns of access to and use of research materials at Whitman College. Students, faculty, staff and researchers around the world are able to collaborate in new ways to create knowledge and content which is curated and preserved by Penrose Library.

Walk past Penrose Library on any given night and you’ll see the glow. The lights shine 24/7 at Penrose, drawing you inside what is, for students, Whitman’s academic hub, as well as the gathering spot for solitary research or group study. 

“I’m a huge fan of the library,” said Lydia Bailey ’14, an environmental science and biology major from Birmingham, Ala. “No matter what time I come there’s always someone else here. You’re never alone at the library. Seeing friends helps improve morale and builds camaraderie.”

Regardless of the time of day, or night, students, faculty and staff gather at Penrose to utilize the extensive collection of books, journals and online resources. Penrose is the place where all scholarly disciplines intersect. 

“My research focuses on early 20th century and contemporary readings of imperial history, so I depend upon the library having both a deeply historical and, at the same time, cutting-edge collection,” said Associate Professor of Politics and Garrett Fellow Jeanne M. Morefield, who is chair of the Library Advisory Committee.

“All faculty use Penrose in different ways depending upon our disciplines and sub-disciplines, but we all absolutely rely upon the quality of the collections and staff in order to be the teacher/scholars that we were hired to be,” added Morefield.

The library’s services are in ever-greater demand. Because students and faculty depend on Penrose for research, Whitman is seeking gifts to meet the increasingly costly and extensive online journal and book collections integral to broadening and developing the college’s curriculum.

“Today’s information needs are critically different than those of previous generations,” Library Director Dalia Corkrum said. “Today’s faculty members emerge from Ph.D. programs expecting access to highly specialized and expensive digital resources. As more of our students engage in undergraduate research, they too require resources far beyond the means of most liberal arts colleges.”

Penrose Library has been ranked several times as a Top-20 library in The Princeton Review. To maintain its reputation as a top library, Penrose must provide more and better materials that are as comprehensive as those found at any major university. 

“The library is a vital part of any scholar’s work, be it a faculty member or student,” said Rachel Chacko, assistant professor of music. “I am constantly drawing upon the library’s resources for my courses, as well as my own research.”

Strong library collections and services contribute to Whitman’s ability to recruit and retain top faculty and students. While research can be conducted from anywhere in the world, collections and archives must broaden, because there is no substitute for tactile research.

Delbert Hutchison, chair of  Whitman’s biology department, said maintaining a vibrant library is an essential building block of a liberal arts education. Each year, after students in his upper-level evolutionary biology class read and discuss Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” he brings his class to Penrose, where students can see a first-edition volume of Darwin’s seminal book.

“One by one each student gets a moment to touch this piece of history, and you can imagine the looks on their faces,” Hutchison said. “I am very appreciative of the patience and passion of the staff in the archives for doing this each year for the class, as it brings a measure of reality and historical connectivity to the exercise.” 

To provide a deeper well of information and keep costs as low as possible, Whitman participates in the Orbis Cascade Alliance, a consortium of 37 academic libraries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho serving faculty and the equivalent of more than 258,000 full-time students. The alliance provides a virtual research collection of more than 29 million items, allowing library staff to focus their own collection development efforts on materials that specifically support Whitman’s curricular and research needs.

“The library is a valuable resource for students and a great space to study,” said Cindy Chen ’12, a combined rhetoric and media studies major from the Seattle area. “When I was writing my thesis on Asian American stereotypes in the media, I utilized the alliance consortium to access sources from all over the country.”

A well-funded library ensures that the next generation of Whitman scholars will have access to the staff, collections and resources they need in order to make a difference in a rapidly changing world. 

“Fields of inquiry and scholarship are evolving across the academy, and our students and faculty reflect those changes,” Corkrum said. “So for Penrose to keep up with Whitman’s changing campus, the library’s collections and services must be as nimble and facile as possible.”