Academic Libraries: Making Place for Goog-azon-bucks

Pew InteriorIf the student is at the center of the higher education business model, the library is where she is sitting. The library is changing around her and her colleagues. Library leaders are transforming academic libraries into 21st century agoras – open meeting and working places – rather than gated cul-de-sacs for storing paper.

This transformation was explored at the Re-think It: Libraries for a New Age Conference at Grand Valley State University. Hundreds of public and academic librarians from across the country met to share ideas on the reinvention of libraries about people not paper, about access not control. Speakers included Elliot Felix, Lee Van Orsdel and Lennie Scott-Webber.  

The setting – Pew Library – joins a growing list of new and radically reconfigured academic libraries such as the Hunt Library at North Carolina State and Thompson Library at Ohio State. Each is designed with students at the center of the diagram. More are on the way, such as at Georgia Tech. In all cases these transformations are about more than reorganizational buzzwords and adding a coffee shop.

Measuring Library Quality – Not so long ago, library quality was measured by number of volumes.  Now librarians strive to measure the quality of their libraries by user satisfaction and the educational effectiveness of their services, even as their physical print holdings are shrinking.

New architecture and dramatically renovated buildings make for good photography, but the change underway is more than skin deep. It involves both culture and function. The most effective academic libraries are informed by the idea of student and faculty members as customers. Users are served by more workspace than stacks and librarians as advisors rather than gatekeepers. This change informs the planning and architecture that provides concierge-like desks in convenient locations and building-wide transparency to promote access as well as display scholarship.

Culture and Function – Quite telling was a quick poll during Felix’s keynote that identified the culture of library staff as the most significant impediment to changing function. The cultural shift in librarianship is manifested by the rising profile of the Assistant Director for User Experience. These librarians have responsibilities that go far beyond hassle-free access to information. They include availability and usefulness of personal and group workspace. Their role requires seeing the library as the center of the campus and a 24/7 extension of the classroom.

Functional changes range from gathering spaces used for impromptu arts performances to 3D printers and whiteboard rooms. These inclusions and others change the definition of library for librarians and the campus community as place is made for the culture and function of goog-azon-bucks.

Dealing with change – Academic librarians have been dealing with disruptive information technologies for decades. Many have long since shifted to devote a significant fraction of their human and financial assets to optimizing access to digital assets.  Creations of online “shelf-browsing”, rapid automated retrieval and digital format availability begin to make past concerns about the security and physical location of “the book” meaningless.

All are challenged to serve the online student. They can’t count on campus orientation and classroom presentations to make their services visible. For both on-campus and on-line students, librarians are moving to more proactive measures rather than reacting when help is sought. Techniques include 24/7 chat lines to better serve students spread across multiple time zones and free overnight delivery of paper books. They are not waiting for students to come up to their desk.

Change over time – One new building or significant renovation at a time, academic libraries are relocating hard copies to find more space for people.  The best libraries are emulating 1) the search functions of Google, 2) the rapid delivery of products of Amazon and 3) the physical service ambience of Starbucks.  Institutions that are making strategic investments in this trajectory are well positioned.  Whether burdened by lack of funding or responsibilities for legacy collections, those that are not making these investments are at risk of not being able to adapt quickly enough.

The pace of transition varies significantly from campus to campus.  Libraries of some well-known campuses have been slow to allow 24-hour access and food and drink with open clusters of flexible workspaces.  For others this is not new, any more than are the introduction of video gaming, experimental digital “sandboxes”, digital shelf browsing and immersive simulation environments.

Strategic and physical centrality – For a millennium the chapel and mosque were at the center of the campus plan, at the center of university life. It was a radical act for Jefferson to place the library at the head of the lawn, at the center of the diagram. This action announced the centrality of secular knowledge rather than religious custom to the University of Virginia and established physical and philosophical patterns on which we continue to build.

For about 200 years libraries have seen their location as physically and philosophically central to higher education.  Through waves of technological change, they occupy precious real estate in the core of the campus, too big to relocate or replace.  Academic libraries are more than physically central; they are strategically central to the effectiveness of an institution.  The service of the academic library in support of learning and research is one of the few elements of the traditional university that differentiate it from its physical and digital competitors.

Rethinking Libraries – Academic libraries are central to the story of the physical campus. Until recently they were designed for books, just as academic buildings were built for lectures – both representing an obsolete pedagogy cast in concrete. These libraries were about controlling paper rather than supporting communities of students and scholars.

Digital transformation and the array of options available to students require institutions to rethink all of the most basic assumptions about books and lectures. This work is important and increasingly urgent to improve the value proposition offered to prospective students and to support retention and degree attainment. Institutions making strategic investments in their libraries will be better positioned as competitive pressure and expectations continue to ratchet up.

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4 thoughts on “Academic Libraries: Making Place for Goog-azon-bucks

  1. Pingback: Academic Libraries: Making Place for Goog-azon...

  2. I do think that we need to be careful to not slam the book collections in modern academic libraries, as there are still plenty of social sciences and humanities researchers, not to mention those in music and other fine arts, who still require physical book collections. So while I totally understand and support fine tuning library collections (moving older, less used materials to storage to open up space for learning/discovery commons spaces), I think we also should keep in mind that libraries are ecosystems that can hold many different information models and research usage patterns.

    That said, I found the ReThink It conference incredibly inspiring. I came away energized and ready to push change at my institution.

    Edward J. Eckel
    Interim Head, Research and Instruction Services
    Western Michigan University Libraries

    • Ed, Thanks for reminding us that the book collections should not vanish. I think this is a both/and situation rather than either/or. You cite several physical book collections that are and will continue to be required. At the same time, the ReThinkIt conference and the Pew library and those of its ilk, speak to the need for a more student-centered approach to library culture and design rather than one that is organized around the physical artifact. Best wishes in your efforts.

  3. Thanks Michael. Excellent piece. The continued viability of campuses lies in their ability to contribute to the culture of our society. It seems to me this depends on campuses’ ability to, on the one hand, foster the preservation and transmitting of customs and knowledge while at the same time implementing the changes appropriate to changing technologies and demographic base. The change aspect is, of course, what we are all grappling with.

    While embracing a student-centered thrust as the necessary structure for education, I have more trouble with the semantics of the use of the term “business model” which often leads to conceptualizing the student as “customer”. I know, that sounds pretty petty. Nevertheless, while it is clear that within our economic system each institution must make ends meet, and therefore the strategic planning must rest on a viable economic base, the underlying goal is not to make money, which is the goal of business. Of course, each institution has to attract students, but a significant charge to higher ed is to help students grow, i.e. change, not just consume what they desire. Part of the difficulty of leading institutions of higher education that matter in present America is that they are not strictly business. Their goals are much less easily quantified as are determinations of success or failure (short of going belly up). Is Georgia Tech doing better this quarter than last? Was the business more successful this year than UCLA or Haverford?

    This concern of mine is not in anyway suggesting that the library transformations discussed in the article are not absolutely necessary and, quite frankly, exciting.

    Thanks for your blog. It’s great.

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