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Library Renovation: On Becoming an Academic Commons

A Q&A with Nancy Allen, Dean and Director, Anderson Academic Commons, University of Denver

Through a major interior renovation completed just over a year ago, the University of Denver transformed its existing main library, Penrose, into the new Anderson Academic Commons. The project didn't merely update the building with the latest technology — here, Nancy Allen explains how rethinking the use of space has dramatically changed the nature of services and the user experience, allowing DU to focus on building community.

Mary Grush: Could you give me a little background on your main library renovation project?

Nancy Allen: At its opening in 1972, Penrose Library was a flexible library building, and it did serve us well for many years. But it was built 'pre-technology revolution' — there was even a card catalog, and the library didn't have its first local area network until almost 20 years later — so it was definitely a building centered on paper collections and paper-based finding aids.

Technology was simply not in the Penrose Library building assumptions. But any library today is by nature an organization that's technology-dependent and technology-centered, and it uses technology in the workflow and the workplace for fundamentally all staff. And now, the users who benefit from library and information services are fairly savvy about technology, software, discovery, and systems — generational expectations about information and access to information evolve very quickly.

Libraries now find themselves in a position where they must be technology-centered organizations. So DU was determined to take advantage of that in our planning process for the new Anderson Academic Commons, which opened in March 2013.

Grush: It sounds like the move to an academic commons was due for your campus…

Allen: I really feel that we were lucky the renovation 'go ahead' decision was made when it was. We had been planning for 10 years: The campus had this project on the radar, it was identified as part of a capital campaign, and it had a very high priority. But the actual go ahead happened at just the right time for us to incorporate the best of future thinking in the context of information technology to deliver information services, the ability to reposition our tangible collections, and the opportunity to refocus library space on community, communication, services, and collaboration.

Grush: How important was the role of technology in the library renovation plans, and in recasting the library as an academic commons?

Allen: Technology enabled us to make changes, but the changes themselves aren't actually centered on technology. We use the technology offerings from the world around us — digital content, digital communication, increasingly wonderful discovery software, finding systems, document delivery technologies — we use all that to do what we do in better and faster ways, allowing us to rethink how we use our physical library space.

That's not unique to DU. These are things that just about every academic librarian I speak with is engaged in. But as I mentioned, our project happened at the right time for us, and I'm really pleased at how the renovation turned out because of that.

Grush: How did you plan for your existing paper-based or physical collections, during this time when much of your attention turned to technology-enabled systems and services — the technology offerings you just mentioned?

Allen: The importance of paper collections is very high. But we were able to rethink the amount of space that we wanted to use for tangible collections in our main building on campus. The old Penrose Library had two out of three of its floors entirely dominated by conventional library book stacks. The new building space does not have that emphasis on stacks. Roughly 40k linear feet of monographic collections have stayed with us in the renovated building and are housed on movable shelving on the lower level. Those collections were very carefully considered, and we are able to store the rest of our collections in an off-campus facility. We deliver from that facility on a fast turnaround basis several times per day, which means our Anderson Academic Commons users still have ready access to those materials.

Grush: In general, what are the new space allocation proportions, between tangible collections and other uses?

Allen: Now, only about half of the lower level is allocated to collections, so the rest of that level, plus the main and upper levels are now available for programs and people.

That is a huge transition for this building, and it's a central theme for higher education libraries today: the rethinking of the ways technology can be used to support access to tangible collections, and how technology and digital content can be used to deliver information services that support research and teaching.

Grush: What are some of the uses of space for programs and people — particularly technology-enabled uses?

Allen: The technology that we use in the library building is planned for change over time. At this time, we have dramatically increased the number of group study rooms, from seven to 32. Every one of those group study rooms has A/V technologies including flat panels with cabling allowing almost any device to connect. We have multipurpose teaching spaces that, among others, our librarians often use to do course-embedded workshops. To manage these spaces, we use scheduling software, which we integrate into our digital signage. All this considered, we are really delivering space as a service.

We host exhibits, including an exhibit space with an interactive flat panel and motion-activated, directed acoustics so those studying nearby are not disturbed. And we have meeting and video conferencing spaces equipped with high-quality image capacity and built-in camera and microphone technologies. These are all accessible to students and faculty. All of this adds an important element to our overall thinking about the library building as a community centerpiece.

Grush: Could you describe the event and community spaces a bit more?

Allen: There is a highly visible glass-walled meeting room called The Loft. It is suspended in the building's atrium and has two 4-panel video walls with multiple inputs. It is incredibly popular for both the librarians and people all over campus who want to use the room for very visible meetings, conferences, or other groups of 35 or so. We also have a very large event room that hosts an amazing array of community events, and it has the capacity to stream video of events held there to any other Web or media outlets. It has flexible seating for up to 200 people. When not used for events, it is open as a study space. These are all factors in the success the library has seen as a DU community centerpiece, not just hosting the DU community but truly helping to build community.

Grush: Do any campus programs have a home in Anderson?

Allen: We have an array of academic support services in the building. Most of these partners were actually with us in the old Penrose Library. So, we are benefiting from the long-standing collaborative partnerships of student and academic support centers including the esteemed Writing Program, the University Technology Services help desk, and a tutorial center (with the growing participation of math, physics, chemistry, and engineering groups). We also have a full-service café inside the building — helpful to so many students who spend long hours at Anderson. Plus, the Office of Teaching and Learning is located in the Anderson Academic Commons and is a major partner serving faculty with pedagogy support, assessment, and help on teaching with technology. It bears mentioning that all these programs are not merely housed in our building but are true partners with the Anderson Academic Commons.

Grush: Now that it has completed its first full academic year, is it your impression that the Anderson Academic Commons is meeting the overarching goals it has for service to the DU community?

Allen: The use numbers are clearly demonstrating that the Anderson Academic Commons has been a success. It's been gratifying to see the degree to which students are drawn to the space and spend very notable amounts of time there. We're supporting students holistically — with everything from comfortable seating to collaborative workspaces to ample power (plug-in places) to a whole suite of academic support services as well as standard library services… to 24/5 hours and even to creature comforts like nurturing snacks from the café. All this has added up to a very positive view by students and faculty.

The Chancellor talked with us about his philosophy that the academic library of the future really needs to be an intellectual-academic hub. This building, with its rethinking of space allocation has absolutely been a success in its first year — Anderson is indeed already an intellectual and academic central campus hub. We are building community and offering the library as a place where students love to be, where faculty meet students, and where there is intellectual and academic activity — a lot of learning is taking place in this building!

[Editor's note: The University of Denver will receive a 2014 Innovator award for the Anderson Academic Commons at Campus Technology's annual summer conference in Boston, July 28-31.]

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