The Learning Commons
The Library Morphs
- By John K. Waters
"For more than a century, planning for library space was driven by the need to put shelves under books, and to provide space for services. One of those things is probably history, as we move more and more information resources into ubiquitous virtual space...the other is going to become history as we get around to moving many library resources into that virtual space." -Yale University Librarian Emeritus Scott Bennett
To encourage student collaboration, Ohio State University's revamped Thompson Library will feature flexible furnishings, a robust wireless infrastructure, and lots of places to plug in a laptop.
As campus renovation projects go, The Ohio State University's plan to turn its main library into "a library for the 21st century" is stunningly ambitious. The decade-long, $109 million transformation of the William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library-now less than two years from completion-will provide students and faculty with a striking combination of tradition and technology. The overhaul calls for a complete replacement of all mechanical and electrical systems, full renovation of all interior spaces, and additional construction to the library. It also provides for the addition of flexible, technologyfriendly spaces for student collaboration: what have come to be known as learning commons.
"The idea of a learning commons-we call it an 'information' commons- is pretty mainstream now," notes Joseph Branin, Ohio State's director of libraries. "But if you had suggested such a thing four or five years ago, people would have said, 'You want to do what with my space?' Today, you're in trouble if you don't have one."
Refining the Model
In a move that may surprise those outside the library sciences, Ohio State is reducing the number of books it keeps on-site from 2 million to 1.25 million, to make room for new learning commons spaces. The director of libraries believes that his university was one of the first to consider shrinking the amount of stack space. He considers the reduction a practical recognition of the growing amount of quality resources available online, and the impracticality of shelving an endless influx of books.
The original learning commons model involved combining library services, computer help desks, and group study spaces within the library. The University of Southern California, for example, generated big buzz in 2000 by turning its undergraduate library into a 24-hour student computer center. A few years later, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst converted the lower level of its W.E.B. Du Bois Library to accommodate library, technology, and other campus services "in an environment that fosters informal, collaborative work and social interaction."
Yet as the Ohio State library renovation nears completion, its learning commons is emerging as a refinement of that model. Says Branin: "Our idea of what these 'commons' should be and do evolved along with the project. We wanted to make the space more vital and useful, so we watched the way our students were gathering information and working together. We also observed other libraries and the efficacy of their designs. All of that influenced our own."
That evolved design de-emphasizes services, and puts more weight on flexibility and student control. "As you go through the building, you can see how we translated the idea," Branin explains. "You can see highly flexible spaces that are easy to change: Very little is nailed down, and there's a lot of stuff on rollers. And, of course, there's a very robust wireless infrastructure and lots of places to plug in a laptop."
The revamped library also does an excellent job of blending the old and the new. The Grand Reading Room on the east side of the facility is very traditional, fitted out with oak chairs and the classic long reading tables dotted with lamps and lined up in rows. On the west side, however, an equally large new reading room is surrounded by glass and set up with contemporary furnishings assembled for flexible placement (see the 3D rendering). "We believe the building is big enough to provide a variety of experiences to the people who use it," Branin maintains.
Surveys show that some of the most productive learning spaces on campus are among the most disregarded: empty classrooms or "accidents of architecture" filled with cast-off furniture and yet crowded with students. Computer labs don't rate high on these surveys.
In a move that may surprise those outside the library sciences, Ohio State is reducing the number of books it keeps on-site from approximately 2 million to about 1.25 million, in order to make room for these new spaces. Branin believes that his university was one of the first major institutions of higher education to consider shrinking the amount of stack space. He considers the reduction to be a practical recognition of the growing amount of quality resources available online, and the impracticality of shelving an endless influx of books.
"If we had undertaken this renovation 20 years ago, the first thing we would have asked is: How much more space do we need for the stacks?" Branin says. "But we were crowding out the readers with the reading materials, and so we decided to try to create a better balance. We think 1.25 million is the right number: It allows us to hold the kinds of books that we really need, in the center of campus; the rest will be stored off-site and delivered on an as-needed basis. We were ahead of the curve on this one, and not everyone in the higher education community agreed with us at the time. But I think now it's pretty clear that it was the right decision. When we talked with the students about what the future library should look like, we received a lot of requests for flexible group-study areas."
Branin says that the results of a study by Yale University (CT) Librarian Emeritus and library design consultant Scott Bennett, published in the report Libraries Designed for Learning, had a great influence on the Ohio State library renovation plan. In fact, the university hired the author as a consultant on the project. "For more than a century, planning for library space was driven by the need to put shelves under books, and to provide space for services," Bennett says. "One of those things is probably history, as we move more and more information resources into ubiquitous virtual space. And I believe the other is going to become history as we get around to moving many library resources into that virtual space. So what do we do with this big, important, expensive building right in the middle of campus? In effect, my answer is to turn it over to the students for the purposes of learning."
Bennett observes that although classrooms are where teaching happens, private spaces that students control are where learning happens. Bennett is among researchers who are mapping the "learning geography" of a campus, searching for these spaces. He says that his own surveys show that some of the most productive learning spaces on campus are among the most disregarded: empty classrooms or "accidents of architecture" filled with cast-off furniture and yet crowded with students. Computer labs, he says, don't rate high on these surveys.
"When people describe what they are going to do with a learning commons," Bennett observes, "they often talk about integrating the services delivered by librarians and information technologists. Sometimes, they even bring in student tutoring services. The result can be a useful space that integrates these services, but it's still a space in which the service providers call the shots. We're very slow to break away from that model and admit that what these spaces should be about is the students taking responsibility for their own educations."
Bennett was also an adviser on the design of the Robert and Sally Vogel Library at Iowa's Wartburg College (a small, private liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The Vogel Library was opened in 1999 as what Ferol Menzel, Wartburg's VP for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, calls a "learners' library"-a place where students could feel comfortable; have plenty of space to work, both in groups and individually; and have access to the computers, technology, and online resources they need. To carve out this version of a learning commons, the college moved most of the books in its collection to the first floor, to compact, movable shelves. The second floor (the main floor) and the third floor are now nearly book-free zones. The second floor houses the reference desk, a service desk, two classrooms dedicated to information literacy instruction, and a computer lab. The third floor is dedicated to individual and group study rooms. "Students who are working on projects can go up there, bring their laptops, plug them in, and work together," Menzel says. Here again, the notion of a library with "book-free zones" might go against the grain of many, Bennett says, but it's just part of the evolution of the library building. "As a librarian, I think we ought to celebrate the digital information revolution," he says. "We ought to celebrate the way in which librarians have worked very aggressively to move information resources out of the library building and into the individual work spaces of students and faculty."
Yale's groundbreaking Librarian Emeritus Scott Bennett explains that though people talk about integrating the services delivered by librarians, information technologists, and even student tutoring services, "The result can be a useful space that integrates these services, but it's still a space in which the service providers call the shots. We're very slow to break away from that model and admit that what these spaces should be about is the students taking responsibility for their own educations."
New Learning Spaces
Bryan Sinclair, associate university librarian for public services at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, agrees with Bennett on this point, though he's not big on consultants. "When the Google Book Search project is finished, who knows what will happen to these beautiful buildings," he says. "But students will always need a place to congregate and collaborate for learning. Maybe we'll have a Star Trek-like holodeck that allows them to work in a 19th century library with long oak tables, or float in a high-tech 3D model. Whatever it looks like, a librarian will be there." Working with others at the university, Sinclair developed a plan to renovate UNCAsheville's D. Hiden Ramsey Library about a year ago. "We won't be bringing in a consultant," he says, "but we've gathered teaching faculty, students, and others on campus who have a really good understanding of what we're trying to do, and we're figuring it out for ourselves."
At the heart of the plan is Sinclair's concept of "Commons 2.0," which he laid out in an article published last year. "I thought I might have been stretching the Web 2.0 connection a bit," he admits, "but it seemed to me that what we're seeing in these real-world collaborative interactions among students reflects what we're seeing online in Web 2.0 social networking situations." Sinclair hastens to add that the renovation was not prompted by low "gate counts" at the library. He characterizes the Ramsey Library as an attractive and popular facility, with an excellent media collection. People are still coming, he says, but what they're doing there is changing.
The renovation project is now underway and, by this summer, Sinclair hopes to have the stacks moved out of the main-floor space the commons will occupy. "This is a big thing for a library," he says. "We're talking major real estate on the main floor and dedicating it to this purpose. You'll see it first thing as you come in the main door. It says: This is what's important to us now."
Sinclair notes that the university is considering adding some specialized software to the commons, as well as some audio/video capabilities, selfhelp graphics services, and color imaging, which together would make it a one-stop laboratory for out-of-class assignments, writing, research, group projects, individual study, and recreational usage.
Asheville has begun assembling a list of vendors that might provide the flexible furnishings for its new commons, including Agati, Brodart, Herman Miller, Library Furniture International, Sauder Education, and Thos. Moser.
Sinclair is currently referring to the space as both a "collaborative learning commons" and "a collaboratory for undergraduate research and learning." Whatever name the university finally settles on, Sinclair is emphatic about what this space won't be. "This will not be a static computer lab," he insists. "I've made trips to other libraries and I've seen them creating what amounts to computer labs, with fixed desktop machines and partitions that prevent the students from gathering the way they would naturally. That's not what we're doing here at all. Nothing will be nailed down. The computers will be wireless and the furniture will be movable. We won't be dropping any cable, either. This is a space that will evolve and change. And we may even drop the word 'commons,' because it's getting a bit long in the tooth."
Best advice from the pundits: Don't fall in love with any particular technology. A good thing about a "learning commons" project is that it takes so long to complete, you'll see technology trends come and go. The technological capabilities of these spaces are no longer key defining characteristics.
Catering to Digital Natives
Lynn Scott Cochrane, director of the Denison University library in Granville, Ohio, sees a similar, if smaller-scale, evolution at her campus library. Denison is currently in the planning stages of its own renovation, and the notion of student-controlled learning spaces is emerging as part of the plan. The small liberal arts college located at the northern end of Appalachia serves only 2,000 undergraduates, but Cochrane says the main library is "absolutely hopping," and needs to adapt to the learning styles of its technologyoriented student body.
"Tech-savvy students don't distinguish among different media," she points out. "Books, movies, computer software; to them it's all one thing. Our services and facilities were not designed with that in mind. So we find ourselves having to adapt. We do not have a merged organization; library and IT are separate, but the buildings are adjacent, so we have been integrating the services gradually. Last summer, for instance, we integrated media technology services, which are part of IT, into our area on the main floor of the library." Likewise, the college is taking an incremental approach to its library renovation project as a whole, says Cochrane. Along the way, administrators are consulting with Yale's Bennett about the evolution of student learning styles.
"This concept of a learning commons isn't new, of course," Cochrane explains. "But that's been good for us; we've had plenty of examples to look at, right here in our own state." (She points to the OhioLink library network as offering a wealth of resources for sharing.)
Branin, who has been at Ohio State for approximately eight years, says that he has learned a lot from watching the progress of his own institution's library renovation project. His advice to other libraries considering the addition of learning-commons-type spaces into their facilities?
"Don't fall in love with any particular technology," he warns. "What we mean now when we talk about the technology piece of this project is different from what we meant at the beginning. We didn't invest as heavily as we thought we would in devices, for example, because the students are using laptops. We thought we would have LCD screens all over the place, and we actually had a plan for an 'instant theater' until the idea became passé. Now all of that is gone. One good thing about a project that takes this long to complete is that you get to see trends come and go. Now our plan is focused on making sure that there's a flexible infrastructure in place, so that as the technology changes-as the devices evolve-we can adjust. If you design space for a currently popular device, you'd better hope its popularity lasts a long time."
As far as Bennett is concerned, in the design and planning of collaborative learning spaces, the technology, though essential, is quickly descending to the status of furniture. "I think it's pretty clear that common spaces for learning need to be congenial to digital natives," he says. "They should have outlets everywhere, wireless connectivity, maybe some projection equipment. But I'm not sure that the technological capabilities of these spaces are, in fact, key defining characteristics anymore. Another way of saying that is, the tech is an expected part of this kind of environment. The digital natives don't think about the machinery; they just assume it'll be there."
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2007 Campus Technology Innovator: San Jose State University (CA) Learn how SJSU turned an abandoned library structure into a state-of-the-art, 10,000-square-foot Academic Success Center, with formal and informal learning spaces that foster collaboration among students and faculty.