A characteristic that universities strive to instil in their students is the will to learn throughout their lives. In the US, universities often act on this mission by designing programmes that focus on their most senior alumni. In later life, former students may be invited to live near or on campus and attend classes, or join cultural excursions around the world. But why should alumni have to wait? Lifelong learning should begin at graduation and extend throughout a lifetime, rather than being confined to one's retirement years.
But when students leave university, a tough dose of reality awaits when they discover that so many of the scholarly resources they once took for granted had been provided, almost magically, by the university library. In gaining their diploma, graduating students often lose their passport to a rich world of high-quality research information. Without access to the millions of digital journal articles and electronic books offered by the university library, the web as a research tool can seem quite diminished.
Historically, public libraries would take the baton from university libraries and provide research services to their community. But today, fiscal realities compel many of them to focus more on the most pressing community needs, such as literacy programmes, and less on medium- to high-level research enquiries from the community. Independent research enquiry, when not affiliated to an academic institution, has become extremely difficult to carry out. But if the baton of lifelong learning cannot be passed on, university libraries are doing their alumni a great disservice if they allow it to drop at graduation.
Recently, Jstor, a digital archive of more than 1,000 major academic journals, has piloted an alumni-access programme that allows 19 institutions, including Yale University and the universities of London and Exeter in the UK, to bring the collection to alumni worldwide at a reasonable cost. For our alumni, access to the collection is free. The response has been tremendous. When programmes such as this are combined with collaborations between university libraries and alumni offices, it becomes possible to build a virtual alumni library that can support an entire lifetime of learning.
At the same time, many universities are also vastly expanding public access to their own collections via the web. At Yale, individuals around the world have free online access to images of millions of objects housed in our museums, archives and libraries. But, as we must continue to remind all who will listen, not everything has been put on the web and the physical collections of a university library are still essential, irreplaceable research tools.
So while a university library cannot bring its physical collections to alumni spread across the world, it can open its doors, perhaps just a bit wider, to the community that surrounds it. As universities strive to become more a part of, rather than apart from, the community, they should see their libraries as essential to the local intellectual commons. The main floor of Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, rich with reference materials and periodicals, is open to the public during the day and we host talks, exhibits and other activities that serve the local community. Our medical library has built lasting partnerships with teachers and students at a local public high school.
A university library must first serve the needs of its students and researchers, and sometimes this mission can exhaust its limited resources. But where possible, local community-based commitments can be woven together to provide a scaffolding for lifelong learning that complements the role of public libraries and helps to meet the research demands of independent scholars of all ages living in those communities. Richard Levin, Yale's president, has said that the future of a university is inextricably tied to the strength of its hometown. A community of lifelong learners is a strong one.
Academic libraries cannot do everything. They rely on their universities' explicit support and resources - but the investment is smart. Universities rely on alumni to be their ambassadors, and the provision of services that keep them connected both generates goodwill and equips them to be more effective on behalf of their alma mater. The ivory towers are imaginary: the academy cannot separate itself from the fate of its local community, its alumni, or wider society. "The library is the heart of the university" is the inscription that greets visitors to our main library. Increasingly, we hope, it will also beat strongly for lifelong learners in our hometown, among our alumni, and in the global community.