v30 #3 Library Space in the Digital Age

by | Jul 9, 2018 | 0 comments

by Bobby Hollandsworth  (Learning Commons and Adobe Digital Studio Coordinator, Clemson University Libraries) 

What is the purpose of the academic library in terms of physical space in 2018?  That should be an easy question to answer, but there’s been a paradox brewing in academic libraries for years.  It seems the more online journals, books, and services we provide in an effort to make it easier to access our collections and minimize or eliminate the need to visit the library, the more students, faculty, and staff flock to our physical building.  This is a good problem to have, yet a curious one. I have multiple theories on why this is happening ranging from the influence of bookstores and coffee to the physical isolation and disconnection of the digital world. I promise not to delve into these theories at this time, but if you’d like to discuss them I’m game.  

After pondering the initial question further, the paradox grows more complex.  Online collections and services have expanded, while at the same time print circulation statistics and reference questions have dropped significantly.  That makes logical sense — if many of these resources and services are now online you would expect print books and visitor questions to decrease. These factors coming together at once sets up a perfect storm scenario for the demise of the physical library, right?  Well, a strange thing happened on the way to obsolescence: the number of people visiting many academic libraries increased, and those numbers keep rising. You could certainly point to larger college/university enrollments as a reason, along with other factors for so many visits.  I will also point out these are broad trends across academic libraries that may not be true on your campus. All this to say things have changed in academic libraries, and luckily there have been some extremely brave librarians who have not only embraced the changes, but have seen their libraries thrive because of the changes.  

It’s easy to forget or possibly not think about the seismic shift in library spaces over the past fifteen to twenty years.  Over this time libraries have been renovating, repurposing, and redesigning the old book repository look and feel of the physical buildings.  Do you remember when this happened at your library? You or someone you work with perhaps helped put in a coffee shop, built an information/learning commons, established a storage facility, moved the physical reference collection to the stacks, moved books from the stacks to the storage facility, built a writing center, got rid of your reference desk, allowed food and drink, built a smart classroom, brought GIS in, created a multimedia studio, put in a makerspace.  I could go on and on, or just say academic libraries have changed drastically. These changes have led to new initiatives and engagement with campus and private partners that have opened the gates to transforming libraries from book repositories into exciting places where students want to gather, collaborate, learn, and get energized. Academic libraries are currently involved in projects that will facilitate the changing landscape of the physical space of libraries by keeping in mind the trends we’ve seen over the years.  These projects address the need for more space for people while keeping and adding resources that are essential to making the library a sought-after destination.

As a librarian it’s never easy to weed your collection.  It’s contrary to the old library as book repository model that was the norm for centuries.  For many academic libraries the “just in case” version of collection management no longer makes sense as visitor counts have soared and space has become scarce.  Ameet Doshi and Bruce Henson explain how the Georgia Institute of Technology Library moved 97% of their collection to a joint off-site storage facility with Emory University, and their plans for the newly repurposed space.

Sometimes the opportunity to create a new space in a particular place presents itself unexpectedly, and even though it’s not the best location, it’s wise to seize the moment.  This gives you the chance to prove how vital the new space and the services it provides can be to the library and possibly the university. For Andy Horbal and Preston Tobery it took three different locations at the University of Maryland’s main library to find the ideal spot for the John and Stella Graves MakerSpace.  Proving their worth right out of the gate eventually led to the largest and most beneficial location for the new makerspace.

Big show-stopping renovations are always going to turn heads and be featured in the American Libraries Design Showcase issue, but budgets, time, and large spaces may not be available for such projects.  Oftentimes a smaller purpose-driven space renovation project can be just as impactful and important as a larger one.  Teresa Walker, Anna Sandelli, and Rita Smith report on the big impact that small space renovation projects have had on the library and students at the University of Tennessee.

Renovating and repurposing space involves numerous moving parts and multiple stakeholders.  In an HGTV influenced world where the before and after pictures take on more importance than the actual work that leads to the big reveal, it’s easy to forget the planning and hard labor that facilitate the new beautiful, shiny space.  Derek Wilmott details the process of clearing the stacks of monographs and bound journals at Clemson University to make room for the Adobe Digital Studio, a multimedia creative space.

The goal of library space renovation over the years has been to raise the profile of the library by providing new learning spaces and technology.  Many times, this includes working with campus partners to ensure students get the best services, expertise, and meaningful learning spaces. Lauren Pressley and Serin Anderson present three case studies that identify the complexities of two buildings and two separate campus departments in relation to the physical collection and a learning commons at the University of Washington Tacoma.  

Although similar in nature, one of the things I appreciate the most about libraries is their uniqueness.  This uniqueness can take many forms; collections, space, furniture, layout, purpose, staff, etc. Lorrie McAllister and John Henry Adams share their perspective on the rare opportunity they have at Arizona State University to clear out the largest library on campus and create unique spaces to accentuate their print collections.  They also hope to involve students and the community in the development of print collection displays, curation, and exhibitions.

It’s important to remember there are thousands of stories like the ones chronicled here in this special issue on library space in the digital age that show the resourcefulness and adaptability of librarians and libraries to make an impact on the learning of the people they serve.  The stories you are about to read are innovative, thought provoking, and inspiring. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

I would like to thank all of the wonderful authors for sharing their stories, and the hard work they do every day to improve their libraries.  I would also like to thank Katina Strauch for giving me the opportunity to guest edit this issue.  Years ago I got my first chance to present at a national conference and lucky for me it was the Charleston Conference.  I would like to thank Katina for giving me that break back in 2009 and always standing up for the quiet ones who have something to say.  



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