Seekin’ An Answer ‘Bout The Commons

While preparing for this week’s class I was reviewing some old and new material for a discussion of the library as place. I think I used to understand the “commons” concept, but now I’m not so sure I do. On one hand you’ve got the information commons. It’s got computers, cool technology, fun furniture for collaboration, probably a cafe nearby, possibly a librarian or a technology consultant hanging around. Seems pretty straightforward. On the other hand you’ve got the learning commons. It’s got computers, cool technology, fun furniture for…wait a minute. I think they are the same place, but perhaps the learning factor is what makes a difference. Students are learning over at the learning commons while they are finding information. At the information commons students are just gathering information, but not necessarily learning while they do it.

To compound matters I recently came across a journal article describing the new learning commons at a large research university. They decided to call it the learning commons because students learn there, but there was no articulation of what they learn or who they learn it from. But we know they learn there because there are loads of computers, devices, collaborative furniture and…you know. Then I got the newsletter from another large research university with a big page one story about their new information commons. The two commons areas described seem to be virtually the same facility. Now I’m really confused.

I think you see my dilemma. I sort of feel like that person in the old Who song, The Seeker. One verse goes…

I asked Bobby Dylan
I asked The Beatles
I asked Timothy Leary
But he couldn’t help me either

So I’m seeking an answer. What’s the difference between a learning commons and an information commons? Here’s what I used to think the difference was. The information commons was primarily a computer center/lab in the library that brought a full-time information technology worker into the library to support all the computers – while librarians answered questions and helped users navigate databases. The learning commons on the other hand had grander visions. The big difference is in “co-located services”. The learning happens at the learning commons because multiple academic support services are located there; tutoring, the writing center, educational technology and others are invited to share space in the learning commons or they have scheduled hours there.

I do see there is going to be a program at ALA on this topic. It’s called “Is the Learning Commons Enough?—Asking the Better Questions” and it’s on Monday the 25th at 1:30 (wouldn’t you know I have a schedule conflict!). LAMA and RUSA are bringing together four experts who, I guess, will try to figure out the difference between the different commons – or they may have more in common then we know.

But it seems like these two have become interchangeable. So if you can set me straight with your interpretation of the difference between these two commons that would be most helpful. But if there is no clear cut difference perhaps we can all decide which term we like and stick with that one. Or maybe we should just drop it all together. “You want a computer, cool technology, fun furniture where you and your friends can drink lattes and work together – just go over there where you see all those computers – and make sure you learn while you’re there”. Yeah, that could work for me.

4 thoughts on “Seekin’ An Answer ‘Bout The Commons

  1. Personally, I wish we’d just call it a library. The tools have changed but – in my mind – the purpose has not.

  2. Steven Bell seems a trifle annoyed by something here, but I’m not quite sure I see exactly what it is. When printed books appeared, the word “library” probably seemed more useful than “Warehouse for Books,” especially when “libraries” developed ancillary services and resources, and became more than book collections. Of course, we could have used instead: “Warehouse for Books that Have Been Catalogued and Classified and Equipped with Reference Desks,” or something of the sort. (Wow, what signage that would require!) “Information Commons” seems a more useful term than “Computer Lab With An Expanding Array of Ancillary Services and Resources, etc.” Because computer labs can exist without those ancillaries, and surveys show students don’t use them the way they use IC’s and LC’s. So why not have a name that distinguishes between that generic computer lab in the basement of the engineering bldg. and what libraries are increasingly providing? As to the difference between “Learning C.” and “Information C.,” Steven seems to have begun answering his own question here, but his concern seems to be that we should feel obliged to take his advice and settle on one or the other, or drop the terms altogether. But why should we, if the names reflect a valid underlying distinction? In the IC/LC user surveys I’ve seen, there’s no evidence of confusion or rejection on the part of students based on these terms, just extraordinary levels of interest and enthusiasm. The nomenclature is already streamlined a bit from early efforts like “Media Union,” etc. But the reality is that there are libraries right now still setting up library-centric IC’s that go beyond generic labs, but primarily help library users cope with the flood of digital resources, and those IC’s seem completely valid, to me at least. But they also seem quite different from collaborative learning centers reflecting multiple co-located services, and what is the problem with using terminology to differentiate them? I do agree that if someone out there is setting up a truly generic computer lab where there’s absolutely “no added value to facilitate learning,” then it would probably be better to simply call that a generic lab.

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