College library goes beyond the reading room

Libraries now provide high-end tech, collaboration space and assistance with digital resources

While most libraries have cleared out hundreds, if not thousands, of books from their shelves, that doesn’t mean they have surrendered square footage.

In fact, many colleges and universities are investing millions of dollars to repurpose or even expand these facilities to make room for collaborative learning, technology centers, dining areas, research support and other academic services. The goal: Transform the contemporary library from “book warehouse” to the cultural and academic hub of campus.

For instance, the new $117 million, 224,000-square-foot Guerrieri Academic Commons at Salisbury University in Maryland has become the institution’s largest academic structure, deliberately located in the center of all the school’s main academic buildings. The university’s dean of libraries, Beatriz Hardy, says the four-story building represents a “celebration of learning.”

The first floor is dedicated to research, technology and IT support; the second floor, collaboration; the third, traditional book stacks and reading rooms; and the fourth features an exhibit lab and assembly hall. The building also houses a two-story “cyber cafe,” with 24-hour study and dining space.

Meanwhile, the University of Notre Dame is spending millions to renovate 414,000 square feet of its 14-story Hesburgh Library, with the goal of making the space an inviting destination for intellectual work. Phase I, which will cost an estimated $7 million, aims to bring more light and openness to the first two floors, while one-third of the library’s books have been moved to an off-site location.

Giving up the library’s prime real estate on campus was never a serious consideration, university librarian Diane Parr Walker says. “The library probably serves a greater number and diversity of constituents than just about any other group on campus. I think it’s fair to say the academic library is still the academic core of the institution.”

Designing for flexibility

Increasing reliance on digital resources is an obvious factor causing libraries to evolve. But changes in pedagogy are just as much—if not more—of a factor. The emphasis on active, student-centered learning has compelled libraries to create more adaptable spaces for students to work, both independently and in groups of all sizes.

Grand Valley State University in Michigan made room for these spaces by moving 600,000 of its print works into an automated storage and retrieval system. With these volumes stored beneath the library, 90 percent of the book footprint could be eliminated.

At first, the building was divided into what library dean Lee VanOrsdel calls a “contemplative side” and a “collaborative side,” but it was quickly determined that this didn’t work.

“Students’ and researchers’ behaviors change throughout the day, week and semester,” VanOrsdel says. “There is no way to build a building or populate it with furniture to meet all those needs.”

To plan for what she calls “extreme flexibility,” Grand Valley State acquired 29 different types of seating through Steelcase Education that can be moved easily around the library so students can work alone or in groups. “Students have taken ownership of the building,” Van Orsdel says. “They’re here all hours of the day moving whiteboards and chairs on the elevator, and we don’t stop them.”

This flexibility also applies to computer labs, where students expect a variety of options beyond row after row of desktop terminals. The University of Southern Maine offers high-top tables where students can use laptops, and smaller stations with two or three computers where groups can work together. “We’re not adding or eliminating computers, but using them differently,” says librarian David Nutty.

An increasing number of institutions want expanded computer space for competency-based, self-directed learning supported by tutors, says Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association and dean of library services at Austin Community College in Texas.

Libraries are now creating large alternative classroom environments where students might work independently or in tablet chairs at one end, with faculty teaching a class at the other.

As for today’s technology expectations: “It needs to run throughout the building,” Todaro says. “There’s a push toward wireless, of course, but libraries also need to go back in and make floors and walls electrified so people can sit anywhere and charge their technology.”

Cross-disciplinary guidance

An increased pedagogical emphasis on collaboration means more than just working on a group project for one class. Libraries now focus on supporting “cross-disciplinary discovery,” Todaro says. In Todaro’s library at Austin Community College, students in the “BatLab” makerspace create everything from robots and animation to music made through the electric conductivity of vegetables using the small but powerful Raspberry Pi computer.

At Notre Dame, this type of work often takes place in the library’s Center for Digital Scholarship, which features a sound studio, 3D printing service, high-tech classrooms and a digital research lab.

In a group project space, students recently completed an urban planning project with the city of South Bend. Supported by library faculty—including two graphic information specialists—these students created geocoded maps based on photos of different neighborhoods taken with their mobile phones.

Providing the right technology and expertise is key to fostering such projects, says Notre Dame’s Walker. As library faculty and staff have retired, their positions have been redesigned to include Ph.D.s or postdocs in various sciences and specialties—particularly those who can help students and faculty use the high-end technology that draws them to the library in the first place, she says.

But even simple technology can make a difference, Todaro points out. At Austin, tables equipped with desktop paper drawing pads that students can write on and move wherever they want are among the most popular features.

What matters most is creating an inviting space for collaboration, says Nutty of the U of Southern Maine. The amount of bells and whistles you add depends on what resources you have available.

Roving research assistance

Libraries also have an opportunity to help students develop soft skills essential for the workforce that may not be taught in the classroom, says VanOrsdel at Grand Valley State. Its library also hosts an oral presentation lab to reinforce an increased emphasis on public speaking in the classroom and workplace, for example.

It’s now common for college libraries to partner with other academic services to house writing centers, math tutoring and technology help desks, as well.

At Drexel University in Philadelphia, preparing the next generation of students means “recognizing that data is everywhere,” says dean of libraries Danuta Nitecki. Her library, which she likes to think of as “information exploratorium,” offers a Data Visualization Zone, where students from different disciplines can experiment with numbers to track changes in plant life or map out census information.

Despite the need to accommodate new pedagogical demands, fundamental research assistance—which now includes digital literacy—is still a key function of the library, says Tom Rink, president of the international Special Libraries Association’s board of directors.

“You have students battling information overload like never before,” Rink says. “Lacking even basic information skills, many are settling for information that is quick and easy to find while having little or no concern over the relevance or evaluative quality.”

It is no longer enough to have a stationary reference desk and expect students to approach it with questions. The focus is now on offering “roving reference” assistance throughout the library to provide guidance and expertise as needed, right where users are working.

Physical library’s future

Is a future without a physical campus library possible? Meeting students where they’re working, in some cases, means meeting them online. The library has an important virtual role to play, especially at universities or schools that offer many hybrid or exclusively online courses, Rink says.

Under those circumstances, the library still offers e-books, electronic journals, open access materials and reference services, without having to occupy a physical space on campus.

Nitecki of Drexel says the services that libraries provide will always be necessary—but might take different forms. Drexel, which offers a great deal of online and hybrid courses, has a small but frequently used library.

“The expertise might be able to go out to wherever the student is working,” Nitecki says. Students crave a space where they can work alone, together—or alone but in the presence of others. “It might not have to be a physical space called the library,” she says.

Although 21st century libraries certainly look much different than the libraries in the past, many still emphasize the importance of its traditional product—the book. Notre Dame’s library renovation plans include a grand reading room, and special print collections are more visible in exhibit areas.

Salisbury University will devote 50 percent more space to books. Hardy points to the fact that more books are being printed today than ever before. Also, licensing electronic materials can be quite costly for a library and, according to a 2013 American University study, 92 percent of U.S. college students prefer print, she notes.

And while libraries have now become bustling hubs of active learning, there is still a need for quiet: Todaro says she and her staff at Austin distribute earplugs and encourage students to bring headsets, especially during peak study times in the semester.

And as Walker of Notre Dame explains, her library’s smaller, temporary reading room is “amazingly popular” and “self-policing”—even she gets shushed if she enters making too much noise.

Ioanna Opidee is a Milford, Connecticut-based writer and educator.

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