Daily Archives: June 4, 2007

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.