In today’s vast multimedia landscape, students no longer rely on the printed page as their primary resource for learning. Instead, they make frequent and steady use of digital media in support of their studies and research. Traditional library spaces have become less utilized as users shift to digital sources.
What’s more, collaborative learning and interdisciplinary teaching methods are becoming more commonplace, and require services and spaces not found in traditional libraries. A growing body of knowledge has sparked a call to a paradigm shift among educators. Student involvement, active engagement, increased time on task, peer and faculty interaction, and timely feedback are vital to academic success.
This growing need for expanded faculty development and interdisciplinary and team-teaching has resulted in innovative approaches to learning that create entirely new communities of learners. Education institutions must provide places that create common grounds for active engagement, places that foster social interaction, and places that form and celebrate communities. Leading educators embrace these concepts as fundamental, routine and non-negotiable.
Libraries that are moving away from the standard model of book access and storage must recognize the need to remain relevant to the students and faculty members they serve. To do so, they must make sure that their spaces support and optimize academic and intellectual success.
Why the library?
The library is particularly well-suited for driving academic and intellectual success. It can be the principal place for enhanced collaboration and socialization among faculty and students, and remain a place of experimentation regarding learning and space.
But before analyzing why the library is so well-suited for transformation, let’s take a look at how we got here.
Academic libraries have a long history of adapting to support campus needs. In the early 19th century, college libraries began changing to support transformations in curriculum. Buildings were designed and built to house larger and more diverse collections of books and periodicals. The typical library building for many campuses was situated prominently within the core of the campus.
These open structures are quite amenable to architectural change. Small carrels, quiet reading rooms, and desks and chairs were tucked amid stacks and shelves, contributing to a desired atmosphere of quiet, individual thought and study. This design philosophy prevailed from the latter part of the 19th century through the early 1990s.
Academic libraries also were among the first campus environments to effectively computerize large portions of work. This led to a period of intense collaboration. Librarians realized that more could be accomplished by sharing work and processes with their colleagues from across the state, and eventually across the country and around the world.
As the 20th century concluded, libraries were entering a new era.
As collections grew to include both print and digital resources, buildings changed. Library services also expanded. The public’s reliance on computers and electronic information increased library needs and raised user expectations. Connectivity and accessibility to the "information highway" soon became two key technologies critical to library services. Space, place and connectivity have made libraries especially amenable to support advances in learning.
In response to these shifts in learning throughout higher education, some campuses are making note-worthy efforts to transform their environments. They are creating physical spaces for their communities of learners. A growing number of institutions have paved the way in developing new models for library transformation. Many of these include experimental environments necessary for testing and developing the types of spaces that best support learning.
To replicate these effective transitions from a traditional library to a library of the future, libraries can do many things to position themselves as the foremost place where faculty and students interact, and also remain a site of experimentation regarding learning and space. For example, consider these recommendations:
•Conduct research. A great deal of experimentation in library transformation is underway at institutions such as Emory University, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech. The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Society for College and University Planning have developed a wealth of information about library revitalization.
•Gain consensus. The research, design and planning phases should include contributions from faculty, students, administration and personnel from library development, facilities and student development.
•Be visionary. Working with key stakeholders and benchmarking data, library planners should establish a vision statement to share with funding sources, library staff, faculty, students and others.
•Select a space and begin experimentation. Start small and try new approaches within specific library spaces. Take one area, try something new, learn from it, and move to the next.
•Establish a baseline and assess progress. Understanding how well existing space supports important aspects of student success is critical to evaluating future investments in change. Establish relevant metrics and measure with user-satisfaction surveys, number of visitors and users, etc.
With proper planning and vision, institutions can transform the traditional library into a dynamic space for learning, collaboration and creativity.
Sidebar: The Place to Be
The new Monroe Library Learning Commons at Loyola University New Orleans provides a versatile space where students, faculty and staff can come together to study, learn, teach and socialize.
"We want students to be able to collaborate in groups, create their own spaces, and be inspired by a technology-rich environment," says Mary Lee Sweat, dean of libraries.
Unlike the common library layout with rows of bookshelves, one-person study carrels, and standard tables and chairs, the Learning Commons features an open design.
Several distinct areas within the Learning Commons include the Porch and Living Room, lounge areas with comfortable seating, tables and markerboards; Common Grounds Cafe, which serves coffee and other beverages; the Snowflake Computer Area; and group-study rooms.
Sidebar: A dedicated space
In more than 100 years, St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis., never had a dedicated library building. Library space had been situated within existing buildings; the latest version was housed in a remodeled residence hall. To stay competitive, the college determined that students should have access to a state-of the-art library.
Original plans for the library included very traditional furniture and programming. Then, library director Felice Maciejewski attended a Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) workshop and learned the importance of flexible furniture.
"New goals included plenty of flexible furniture and collaboration spaces for students," says Maciejewski. "The building was already complete, so we tweaked the spaces and furniture to create collaborative opportunities."
The new Miriam B. and James J. Mulva Library is an intellectually, spiritually and personally challenging educational environment. The design exemplifies new paradigms in libraries as learning spaces. It is interactive and collaborative, and promotes group gathering and knowledge sharing. Each space within the library encourages creative thinking.