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Posted on Sep 15, 2014

Space to collaborate in the learning commons

This article was written by CSU Libraries on September 15th, 2014.

Libraries have always been a part of learning. For decades, scores of college students and faculty have turned to the library for research expertise, books, articles and microfilm to support their scholarship.

Now, students still need resources, but instead of studying quietly in a corner of the library, many work in groups to create collaborative projects.

As learning has changed, so have the demands on the modern library.

Across the CSU, students, faculty, staff and architects are redesigning spaces to create learning commons, or collaborative spaces designed to support group work.

A modern update for modern demand

San Diego State University’s Malcolm A. Love Library, for instance, has a recently revamped 24-hour room, as well as new study spaces throughout their two library buildings.

“Our library has an original building that was opened in 1971, and it’s this brutal architectural style. It was really created for a time when most scholarship was paper-based, when students worked alone and would work with print collections,” said Gale Etschmaier, SDSU’s dean of library and information access.

Though spaces had been redesigned before Etschmaier’s arrival as dean in 2011, the changes were piecemeal and disorganized, she said. The floor plan was confusing, and student seating was in high demand.

“When I would go through the building, I would see students sitting on the floor, they’d be grouped in front of offices, and that’s not really supportive of learning,” Etschmaier said.

It was obvious that the library need more student seating, collaborative space, and a design that would bring the library’s special collections into public view.

So she collaborated with library architecture experts Pfeiffer Partners, and created a new design that gave students more space and access to technology, as well as featured exhibits and collections.

The 24-hour room now features more space for students to work on their own time, including group study rooms with media:scape tables from Steelcase, which allow students to plug their computers into a shared screen. They’ve added various types of seating for students to work alone or in groups, as well, Etschmaier says.

And the response?

Students embraced the changes immediately.

Etschmaier points to one space that originally “looked like a 50s factory floor.” It was unattractive and unappealing to students. But the library painted the walls white, added splashes of red for school spirit, replaced the flooring and brought in tables, chairs and diner-style benches in bright colors.

“And as soon as that furniture started to arrive, students were coming in and sitting in it,” Etschmaier said. “And during finals week it was one of the most heavily used areas of the library, and it was really a last choice in the past because it was so unattractive.”

A place to collaborate

At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo’s Robert E. Kennedy Library, simple changes have also created new, appealing spaces for study.

In 2008, the library moved all of their books off the second floor of the five story building, through careful elimination of materials and reorganization. The result was stunning, said Cal Poly university librarian Anna Gold.

Because of the library’s many large windows, the floor was bright with natural light, and extremely spacious. It quickly became a popular area for students and what once had been storage became a meeting space, Gold said.

“A lot of other learning commons had been created elsewhere that just housed people sitting at computers. Cal Poly’s learning commons was different because it really was a people-centered space, a place where students could collaborate, with technology on the side,” Gold said.

The library worked with the Cal Poly Corporation to open a café on the floor, and added new carpeting and furniture. The library has since worked with another architectural firm, Shepley Bulfinch, to plan a redesign of the whole library, creating new seating and collaborative spaces on almost every floor, Gold said.

Feedback and fixes

But responses are not always 100 percent positive, as both Etschmaier and Gold know from experience. Despite the best plans, when students get into a redesigned space, they inevitably discover details that don’t work quite as imagined.

In SDSU’s “factory floor” remodel, chairs without wheels quickly became a noisy problem, Etschmaier said.

“We did not put wheels on the chairs because we were afraid of students have long rides through that area on the chairs,” Etschmaier said. “And within the first day, we realized that was a mistake because when students would move on that linoleum floor, as they described it, it sounded like ‘lots of baby seals squealing.’”

At Cal Poly, the furniture staff liked felt too institutional to students, Gold said. They asked for more variety in seating, and they also wanted more vibrant colors.

“We started with what we thought were beautiful, warm earth tones and we heard right away that they wanted red and yellow and bright colors,” Gold said.

In both cases, the libraries heard the feedback and produced solutions. Wheels were ordered and put on the chairs within a week, and a colorful variety of furniture has made its way into Kennedy Library.

Both fixes may seem small, but are part of libraries’ process of constantly responding to feedback and working to improve user experiences.

“Curators of learning experiences”

Even as learning styles and floor plans change, the university library’s role remains the same, Gold and Etschmaier said.

“We have a mission to provide a place where students can study, can reflect, can learn together or individually, and all of that is the same, but I think pedagogy has changed,” Etschmaier said.

As models shift from a guided experience with print materials to a collaborative experience with print and electronic collections, it is up to the library to keep up, Etschmaier said.

The library is the perfect place to encourage that creative, collaborative learning, Gold said.

“The role of the library has always been to support learning, and one of the beautiful things about the library is that it allows (students) to take control of their learning in a way they can’t in a classroom,” Gold said.

And librarians? Where do they fit in all this?

“Think of us as curators of learning experiences,” Gold said.


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