Library as Metaphor

Entering a New Chapter

Students in the Guilford College Library, 1909. (Friends Historical Collection, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C.)

The shushing librarian in The Philadelphia Story (MGM, 1940).

Popular stereotypes hold both Quaker meetinghouses and libraries to be quiet, often historical places of refuge with dust motes and stern yet friendly human residents. The first documented image of a “shushing librarian” in American film is a Quaker librarian portrayed in The Philadelphia Story from 1940. Both Quakers and librarians are seen as discerning and helpful to others but a bit separate from the everyday noise of the modern world. Where do these stereotypes come from, and are they still true today?

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Stereotypes by their very nature often contain some kernel of truth. Some meetings and libraries are dusty ancient places for quiet and are often cherished for these very attributes. But is fulfilling a sense of nostalgia what we are being called to do in the present? If not, how might we balance the tensions at play and open our institutions to new opportunities? A possible case study is the current evolution of one library that is part of a Quaker heritage institution. Guilford College’s Hege Library in Greensboro, North Carolina, is transforming from a twentieth-century library touting the number of items held to a twenty-first century library branded as an academic commons nurturing connections and collaboration.

Guilford College was founded as New Garden Boarding School and began 180 years ago in August 1837. The first book in the institution’s library was a copy of Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (first published in 1678). Bibles, George Fox’s Journal, other Quaker texts and writings pertaining to Scripture were among the first books in those early years, along with texts on grammar and arithmetic. Perhaps with the exception of grammar and arithmetic titles, these early publications are familiar ones to most nineteenth-century Quaker libraries, and older meetings will likely find many of the same editions tucked away on their own bookshelves. As the school grew and the curriculum expanded to offer a more thorough classical preparatory education, the library grew and expanded to meet those needs. Quaker memoirs, journals, disciplines, and core writings of early Friends were joined by non-Quaker histories, biographies, philosophy, and religion as well as science publications (poetry and literature came along to join them about a generation later). Over time, the expansion continued to support the growing standards for an academic library as the boarding school transitioned into a four-year college. A beautiful Carnegie Library was constructed in 1909 to house the library’s book collections and to serve as a space for student study and research overseen by Quaker librarian Julia White.

Fast-forward a century later: student information needs and expectations, as well as how we all access and use information, have changed dramatically. Libraries need to be much more than quiet sanctuaries housing an ever-growing number of books. Many have been much more than that for decades, but the focus of visitors often still tends to be a question about the number of books owned by the library rather than deeper questions about the learning experiences nurtured within the space.

Guilford’s Hege Library was poised for a new era and sought to discern where it needed to be through an intensive strategic-planning process. The executive summary of the complete plan states:

We believe in the library’s central importance as a dynamic physical learning environment. We celebrate the library’s re-envisioning, which extends its role beyond one of knowledge repository to interactive learning laboratory.

In the three years since plan approval, a transformation has occurred—not just of physical space but also of operations and identity—as Guilford’s library incorporates academic technologies more fully into its responsibilities and seeks to cultivate collaborative opportunities by intentionally inviting academic partners to co-locate within the physical space. The root of the mission remains the same as educators committed to our students’ learning. However, it has evolved to make use of new tools and expanded to encourage closer cross-campus collaboration.

Guilford’s library planning process received encouragement along the way. We approached our process using the strengths-based strategy grounded in the Appreciative Inquiry model developed in the 1980s by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva at Case Western Reserve University. Rather than seeking out weaknesses and threats, we sought to identify opportunities and aspirations. We recognized that changes would be difficult for some. This was made easier by offering regular opportunities for communication and by remaining open to listening where words might be coming from so that we could work through points of tension. Choices had to be made as we decided to lay down some traditional activities and reduce overall collection size, as needs for newer services were identified. Each of these junctures provided an opportunity to reflect back on our core mission. Was something being maintained out of habit or because it remained useful for the community? If we chose to maintain something not originally on our priority list but held as a preference by a few, would that hinder implementation of a more recently identified essential need?

Libraries and books are something many hold dear. It can be painful to reduce the size of a physical collection. However, I have found my experience to be one of joyful pruning that creates opportunities for new growth. This is the right season for Guilford’s library to do some major pruning. The accession logs listing all the books placed in the library when the current building first opened in 1908 and the successive additions in later decades are preserved in the college archives so we can learn what resources our students used in the past without keeping each volume. The spaces created by shifting books are now an innovative collaborative classroom and additional student study spaces. The books that remain on open shelves are easier to browse, and those most useful jump out now that they are no longer hidden among the many less-used items. Our closed shelves have been greatly expanded to provide additional space for archival materials that are truly rare or unique to Guilford’s Quaker heritage. Our library’s collection is in the process of being revitalized, and our library, both as a building and as an organization, has been transformed.

The visioning process of our library could perhaps be held up as a model for meetings and other Quaker institutions. Are there new tools to consider and collaborations to nurture beyond Friends’ traditional borders? Do we let others (or a few individuals) define Quakerism based on past assumptions, or do we grapple as a meeting community with deeper questions about what Quakerism means to us in this particular time and place? Who do we include as our partners? What are we called to do as a community? Are we only preserving a past, or are we growing and living into a space that more fully develops our potential gifts as Friends?

Bonus online feature from the author: “Escaping the Dusty Bookcase”

Author Gwen Gosney Erickson provides a list of queries for meetings to discern how and why they might maintain a meeting library. One intriguing suggestion is to separate the meeting library from a meeting history room. Read this and more online features on the theme of “Quaker Libraries” at

Gwen Gosney Erickson

Gwen Gosney Erickson is the Friends Historical Collection librarian and college archivist at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., where she is a member of Hege Library’s leadership team. She is a member of Greensboro’s Friendship Meeting and currently serves as clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). She lives in Greensboro.

2 thoughts on “Library as Metaphor

  1. As both a librarian and a Quaker, this article speaks for me. The outward expression of this intersection is rare, and greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!

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