Friday, June 20, 2014

A new library for a new generation

At the University of Minnesota Morris, we have been working on plans to extend our library to become a new "learning commons," a destination for both individual and group learning. We have actually been developing these plans for a number of years.

Although the specifics of the implementation have changed, the general plan is to convert the main level of our campus library into a learning center. Part of the learning commons would be dedicated to a "one help" center, where students would interact with reference librarians, borrow technology for short-term use, and ask for technology help—and as always, check out books. The main learning commons area would be filled with tables suitable for small groups to gather to work on projects. Each space would have suitable power and wireless for laptops and mobile devices. Other areas would provide separate, private space for practicing speeches or similar work.

This evolution in the library is not unique in higher education. In March, the New York Times reported how libraries are Breaking Out of the Library Mold, in Boston and Beyond. A few notes from the article stand out as mirroring the model we are building at Morris:
The Boston Public Library, which was founded in 1848 and is the oldest public urban library in the country, is moving rapidly in that direction. With a major renovation underway, this Copley Square institution is breaking out of its granite shell to show an airier, more welcoming side to the passing multitudes. Interior plans include new retail space, a souped-up section for teenagers, and a high-stool bar where patrons can bring their laptops and look out over Boylston Street.

“You’ll be able to sit here and work and see the world go by,” said Amy Ryan, president of the library, on a recent tour. “We’re turning ourselves outward.”

Along with their new offerings, libraries are presenting a dramatically more open face to the outside world, using lots of glass, providing comfortable seating, as much for collaborative work as solitary pursuits, and allowing food and drink.

“This is what’s happening at a lot of libraries, the creation of an open, physical environment,” said Joe Murphy, a librarian and library futures consultant based in Reno, Nev. “The idea of being inviting isn’t just to boost attendance but to maximize people’s creativity.”
Our library learning commons are more extensive and integrated than implementations described in the article. In our model, we envision placing the technology helpdesk in the learning commons, à la Apple's Genius Bar. The technology helpdesk might be staffed by full-time staff during the day, and by trained student workers at night, extending the hours that our campus community can ask for help. We also plan to integrate the helpdesk with the library support desk, so students and faculty have a single destination for help, no matter the topic. This presents a kind of "one stop" shop to ask questions.

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