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Posted on Dec 4, 2014

Expanding and transforming the J. Paul Leonard Library

This article was written by CSU Libraries on December 4th, 2014.

At San Francisco State University, an expansion and renovation of the library building came with a chance to improve learning spaces.

Completed in 2012, the campus’ new J. Paul Leonard Library expanded its group and individual study spaces, as well as added study rooms with extended hours and new furniture.

The whole idea was to create areas that were flexible for students to use them as they needed, said Darlene Tong, the library’s former head of Information, Research and Instructional Services. Tong was the library’s lead on the project because of her familiarity with the library building and its history.

“We really wanted to have open study spaces,” Tong said. “Our buzz word, our mantra was ‘flexibility.’ ”

But the university didn’t immediately embrace that concept of library space, Tong said.

“I think the campus really didn’t understand the idea of flexibility,” Tong said. “They kept reflecting on other campus buildings that claim a need for flexibility, but in their experience, occupants move in and stay that way for 20 years. We kept telling them, ‘Libraries aren’t like that!’ ”

Instead of focusing primarily on book storage and stewardship, the new plan for the library expansion and renovation focused on creating multi-use spaces and maximizing the space available.

Those spaces include the research commons, a 24-hour study area with group study rooms, desktop computers, laptop loans and a quiet study room; the study commons, another computer-equipped space with extended hours as well as quiet and group study spaces; and the second floor corridor, a popular, casual meeting place for students with whiteboards and moveable furniture.

The need to expand

These spaces, now bustling, were sorely needed before the expansion, said University Librarian Deborah Masters.

“We had six group study rooms and virtually no other place that was suitable or congenial for group study and collaborative group projects,” Masters said.

The old library also had a small 24-hour computer lab with 35 stations, as well as about 120 seats in a study room. That wasn’t nearly enough, Masters said.

Students needed room to collaborate, as well as have access to technology, or study quietly if they preferred, Masters said. So the library worked with architects, planners and groups of faculty, staff and students to devise a new plan for the library layout.

The resulting floor plan expanded study space from a handful of rooms to two learning commons, called the research commons and the study commons, as well as extensive areas for individual and interactive study. In all, the expansion increased the library’s square footage by 28 percent, or 79,042 square feet, for a total of 361,542 gross square feet.

Both the research commons and study commons have group study rooms as well as quiet study spaces, and both boast flexible hours. And the new group study rooms also include media:scape furniture so students can bring their own device and work together on them. Media:scape tables allow students to connect laptops and project images onto a large, shared screen. They also added IdeaPaint to walls in each of the group study rooms, which allows students to use the walls as whiteboards.

Making room

Of course, study space doesn’t just appear out of thin air. The library committee that worked on the building project had to figure out how to maximize the available floor space without sacrificing collections, all while keeping with CSU guidelines, Tong said.

“There’s a mandate from the CSU that a certain amount of your collections needs to be in some sort of compact retrieval system,” Tong said.

The committee wanted to keep collections on-site and readily available, so they brought in an automated storage and retrieval system, allowing the library to store books in a compact but easily accessible space.

“We wanted to keep the library where it was and we didn’t have much space to build out, so we chose the automated retrieval system. And one of the key reasons we chose it, besides being able to keep our collections on-site, was to free up what space we did have available for public use,” Tong said.

That automated storage and retrieval system now stores 75 percent of the library’s collections, with 25 percent of books still stored in traditional stacks. This means there’s more room available in the library for those flexible study spaces, Tong said.

Flexing their floor plan

Part of that flexibility is apparent in an unexpected place: a wide corridor on the second floor. The corridor leads to instruction rooms, so it has a lot of foot traffic, Masters said. Planners had the foresight to fill it with moveable furniture so that students could stop and study there and customize their experience.

“Students use that corridor very actively for interactive collaborative work, and they can just form whatever size group they want by moving the furniture around and moving the whiteboards around, so it is great,” Masters said.

The moveable whiteboards were so popular that students started taking them via elevator to other floors, so the library invested in whiteboards for every floor. And the library’s corridor, as well as research and study commons, was enormously popular.

“In the research commons and the study commons, and along the second floor corridor, I would say in the fall and spring semesters, at least, almost all of the time, every seat is taken. … If you build it, they certainly did come,” Masters said with a laugh.

Expanding the idea of the commons

In the end, the library discovered that the idea of a learning commons as a flexible study space can be applied throughout the library, Masters said.

“You don’t necessarily have to have one single space that is defined this way. You can have some dimensions of a learning commons in various spaces in the building, depending on how your layout works,” Masters said.

For Tong, the library building has become a campus-wide example that shows how effective flexible spaces can be in providing for students’ needs. And the university has embraced the new model, Tong said:

“Now the campus is saying, ‘Oh, the library is an example of how all campus buildings should be designed now, with the idea of flexibility and spaces that can be used in many different ways.’ ”