by Pamela Gores
Twenty years ago, Peace Corps English Instructor John Venecek built something miraculous out of nothing in a small town in Russia: a library. Fast forward and he now serves as a subject librarian within the John C. Hitt Library at UCF, providing research assistance, library instruction and collection development in several subject areas such as Writing and Rhetoric, English, and Modern Languages. He has held this position since 2007—a total of 12 years.
“I actually thought I would go from Peace Corps into teaching. I started down that path, didn’t really like it as much as I thought I would; it was very different teaching overseas,” John detailed as he sat down to talk to me in his office, a space tucked away behind the Research and Information Services desk at the John C. Hitt Library. He tells me about how one conversation with a librarian at the college where he was teaching veered his path in a similar direction, ultimately guiding him towards UCF.
John witnesses the day-to-day happenings at the John C. Hitt Library, which I noted to him seem quite hectic with the ongoing construction. He mentions that the library is becoming “more collaborative and social,” unlike most other spots on campus. This becoming is in the form of the 21st Century Library Project, an endeavor that has been prominent on campus for the past five years, evident by the seemingly endless sounds of metal clanging and cranes beeping around and throughout the Student Union and John T. Washington Center. It is proving to be the biggest renovation UCF has undergone in its nearly 60 years of existence.
By 2023, the John C. Hitt library, the place where John Venecek has built “a huge part of my [his] identity” will be known as the 21st Century Library. UCF Libraries Senior Associate Director for Administrative Services Frank Allen says that the 21st Century Library will “create more learning, study and collaborative spaces and help enhance student success.”
Frank has been the coordinator for the project for the past five years. He, along with faculty members from each department and two students (one undergraduate and one graduate), form the Library Advisory Committee that has an active voice with feedback for the project.
“Part of the duties of the committee are to discuss upcoming changes, and keep staff apprised of the progress of work,” Frank said.
Though not on the committee, John believes the project to be part of “the trend.” When asked if he thinks the renovation is a step forward, he ponders before responding.
“I think it’s a challenge for libraries and librarians to think about how they can stay relevant on campuses. And so much of the world of information now is online that you kind of have to be online as well if you’re going to remain relevant,” John explains matter-of-factly.
It’s no secret that the John C. Hitt Library is following the “trend” that John alludes to. One of the project’s biggest technological advancements is the creation of the Automated Retrieval Center (ARC). This system will allow for the retrieval of books via robotic cranes, eliminating the need to scourge shelves. According to UCF’s official website that details all aspects of the 21st Century Library Project, books via the ARC will be available for pickup in minutes.
Considering the project and the development of the ARC have both pushed forward, one may think the ideas went off without a hitch. However, the mere concept of the ARC did cause some uproar according to John, to the point where some of his colleagues brought up the idea of protesting.
“That’s [the project] not without certain people feeling like we’re losing something in the process,” John states when asked about the notion of giving up tradition for modernization. Before, he had explained to me the concept of the “serendipity of research,” wherein you go looking for one book and “chances are you’re not coming back from the stacks with just one book.” Such epiphanies may be lost because of the ARC, a loss that John says fueled the possibility of protest when first conceptualized.
Nonetheless, protesting did not occur and the project moved forward at an astounding rate. Already, two of its brand new features have opened: the 5th Floor Quiet Study Area and the aforementioned ARC. What’s immediately to come is Phase IA, which Frank pointed out is “cloaked behind the curtains at the back of the building” until its big reveal.
Phase IA will contain the bulk of new renovations: 1,000+ new seats, an entrance to the library closer to the Student Union, numerous instruction and group study rooms, a Reading Room on top of the ARC with 270-degree views of campus, a new Circulation Services desk and more.
And although these renovations, as seen from the rendering, look impressive on the inside, the outside has been less than picturesque. Areas between the John C. Hitt Library and Student Union have been barricaded for quite some time, limiting movement between these two frequently visited landmarks on campus and the John T. Washington Center.
“Aside from the occasional loud noises and some dust, the contractor has done a very good job of keeping the construction activity contained and away from occupied spaces,” Frank reassured.
These “loud noises” and “dust” haven’t swayed John’s stance in the slightest on working at the library. His 12 years there expanded tremendously from the predicted two when he first accepted UCF’s offer, driven by the fact that most of his other librarian friends tended to bounce between employers.
“Every day is different here,” he says, sitting within the beige-painted corner of the library, a smaller world within a bigger one, a smile on his face. “There’s so much going on that it’s like…there’s a lot of people in an office job where they kind of do the same thing day in and day out and I wonder how they get by because here it’s sometimes compared to being on a rushing river. There’s so much happening, you’re trying to reach out and grab your little part.”
While there may be “so much happening” at the John C. Hitt Library, it is only because it exhibits what UCF needs the most: expansion. It may not be as rapid as the university’s enrollment, but the refurbished space will still be able to accommodate even more students who find solace in the library. More importantly, it will give faculty members such as John a chance to discover more of their identity found inside of the soon-to-be 21st Century Library.