Transforming the academic library

Considerations when making old new again

For decades, academic libraries have been distinguishing elements of campuses across the nation. Providing abundant resources along with quiet environments conducive to individual study, these buildings withstood the test of time, serving the needs of students and faculty alike. Today, modern technology, along with rapidly changing student study habits and expectations, are significantly reducing the demand for brick and mortar resource centers. As a result, these facilities are often underutilized, expensive to maintain, and occupy valuable space that most institutions cannot afford to waste.

For academic leaders strapped with these large buildings, this scenario presents a conundrum: Do nothing and let the buildings remain as they are, reconfigure the space to adapt to 21st century requirements, or, tear down and rebuild. Operating under tight budgets, many institutions consider renovation, but this can be a hard sell in the academic community, in which tradition is revered and priorities pull from many directions. Still others question the value of academic libraries in a world that is increasingly turning its back on the printed word in favor of digital information.

The times are changing. Traditional academic libraries have seen their heyday. But this does not mean they should be put eliminated. In reality, their potential has yet to be discovered. Academic leaders willing to focus on what these facilities can be in the future are turning the outdated into bold opportunities.

The evolving role of academic libraries

Built primarily in the 20th century, the majority of academic libraries were designed to serve as repositories for book collections, with their focus on circulating material. Their legendary hushed atmosphere met the needs of students and faculty at the time, providing a refuge for a solitary study experience.

With Internet access and electronic reading devices, visiting the library is no longer a necessity for today’s students. Preferring spaces that allow for more social interaction and collaboration, they find the quiet atmosphere unwelcoming. Additionally, they are frustrated with the limited technology available in these older buildings. With obsolete wiring, outmoded technology infrastructure and insufficient outlets, many traditional academic libraries are ill-equipped to handle evolving technological advancements necessary to meet students’ needs.

Academic leaders have different concerns. Many of these older buildings are centerpieces of their campus landscapes. Yet, they are financially draining to maintain. Studies suggest that factoring in the combined cost of book collections, which include operational and administrative costs, the average cost per year to house one book is $6. Multiplied by thousands of books, this represents an enormous expenditure for institutions already reducing budgets to survive. “Today, libraries of all types are under intense fire and constant pressure to defend their very existence,” says Bruce Massis, director of Libraries, Columbus State Community College. “Beyond the numerous return-on-investment studies, decisions based on supportive data resulting from such studies are often overlooked by funding bodies in favor of slashing what some describe as non-essential services.”

Benefits to renovating academic libraries

As academic leaders struggle to address the multitude of issues surrounding these aging buildings, too often they hastily conclude that renovating the library has little long-range merit. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Cutting edge libraries, like updated classrooms, dormitories and athletic facilities, provide a positive first impression that an institution is moving forward and not trapped in the past. For today’s students, who grew up surfing the Internet and operating smart devices, this important drawing card can potentially influence their decision on where to spend the next four years. For academic leaders, the financial gain from an increased student population is two-fold: more money for operations today and more alumni support in the future.

Considering new uses for libraries can add value to proposed renovations. According to Massis, “Many college libraries are making available a number of essential student services such as a writing center, counseling and advising services, tutoring, disability services, enhanced technology lab spaces, multi-functional device (e.g., tablets, smart phone, etc.) and laptop lending services, practice presentation areas, group and individual work spaces, greater access to digital production facilities in video, audio, music, photography, distance learning course support and functional use of satellite and cable technologies.” Libraries are among the first places prospective students and their parents visit on a college campus. The library has the potential to create a positive and memorable first impression to promote institutional mission, academic culture and cater to the needs of today’s learner.

Ten challenges to renovating academic libraries

Clearly, renovating existing library space is beneficial. But as with all projects, there are hurdles to jump before reaching the finish line. Although these challenges vary depending upon the individual university or college, several are common regardless of the institution.

  1. Lack of a clear, overarching vision. Too often the true purpose of the library is unclear and undefined, making any forward movement impossible. Leaders need to rally support around a vision. Otherwise an idea remains unrealized.
  2. Failure of leadership and staff to align. Obstacles, such as a change in management, the failure to build successful project teams, even hidden agendas, can result in ineffective communication. Lacking a clear understanding of their changing roles, from archivists to student resources with a blend of capabilities, library staff fails to buy into the vision. A successful renovation begins with everyone onboard from the beginning.
  3. Inability to make the library a funding priority. In this case, budgetary realities are never clarified and no definite plan is determined for funding. Beginning a renovation without knowledge of available funds, the estimated cost of the project and the funding source (donors, public dollars or loans), severely limits or prevents real progress. Another potential limiting factor arises when financial resources are linked with donor expectations that may not be consistent with the values and core mission of the university.
  4. Difficulty transforming a 20th century dinosaur. Renovating an outdated facility is always a challenge. Providing the necessary power, bandwidth, lighting and spatial adaptability to accommodate the library’s evolving role, demands a thoughtful and informed process. Strategies for designing these systems require approaches that are often more innovative than those implemented in newly constructed library facilities. With library renovations, “timeless” quality of design is preferable to trendy styles that quickly become outdated. 
  5. No strong case for the existence of a library. Problems arise when there is no passionate lobbyist at the highest level to sell the importance of the library’s viability to constituent groups, such as upper administration, faculty, students and staff. This is because each group will have its own issues, concerns and reasons to not support the project. For this reason, it is absolutely necessity for a particular individual to articulate the need to move into the future and make the case for change.
  6. Failure to choose the right architect. In this situation, committee members responsible for the renovation fail to understand that older library buildings have specific technological and social challenges that require more than a design generalist. Essential to this process of transformation is the selection of a planner/designer who can demonstrate the benefits of a library for the present and for the future life of the institution. Direct, recent and relevant library expertise and a proven ability to embrace and understand the institution’s unique vision are necessary to provide the process with candid, objective opinions/recommendations.
  7. Inability to balance the strategic with the tactical. Sometimes the vision is clear, but the process of implementation lacks clarity. The daily functions that the library must perform in order to remain relevant have never been brought to the table. In this case, providing a detailed account of the services and capabilities the library must offer is essential to following through with the project. 
  8. Trust and mistrust. Occasionally, library renovations fall victim to design by committee. Decisions such as carpet and paint selection can be difficult for a large group to agree upon. Avoid this situation by handing the reins to one person who has a thorough understanding of the vision for the library combined with the design talent to achieve the goals for each space.
  9. No clear champion or “go-to” person. Library Deans or Directors generally articulate and communicate the vision and mission of the library, but they may not be the best resource for in-process decisions once the renovation has begun. In this case, the institution needs to appoint a person who is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the university.
  10. Disregard for engaging the library’s “customers.” In a rush to move ahead, the decision making committee fails to include student input in their renovation plans. This oversight not only narrows the vision of the library space but also adversely affects the student perspective of the library long before the project is complete. Include students from the start. Designate at least one on the planning committee. Engage students in focus groups and/or provide questionnaires so their voices are heard and their needs are acknowledged. Otherwise, colleges and universities may run the risk of having a beautiful building that no one uses.

The academic library needs to be relevant

“As technology continues to evolve, the academic library has been compelled to re-imagine and redesign the development and delivery of its programs and services,” says Massis. “While the primary mission of the academic library has always been to support the curriculum, the concept has been enhanced considerably given the technology needs and expectations of today’s students.”

In a rapidly changing educational environment, providing students with an education that is cutting edge on all accounts is essential to remaining competitive. But it’s not always easy, especially when technology continues to advance at an increasingly rapid pace. However, universities and colleges willing to take a new look at old buildings are not only making wise investments, but discovering untapped resources that are allowing them to advance the mission of the institution and improve market position.

For the library to remain a relevant part of the academic experience, it must be fully accessible, adaptable, entrepreneurial, digitally sophisticated, and focused on offering the blend of spaces and services demanded by its ever changing users. What if the primary focus of the academic library would be based on the circulation of ideas, discovery and learning experiences, instead of the circulation of books, journals and media?

Tom Sens is an architect and client leader for BHDP Architecture, an international design firm that focuses on creating innovative environments and experiences tailored to the client culture and work process. Visit


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