Designing A Library For Learning

We would all agree that learning takes place in an academic library – and other library buildings too. When members of the user community are at our libraries using a computer to find information it can result in learning. When student groups prepare for an assignment in a library study room it can facilitate learning. When they sit in a quiet space and contemplate reading material students will engage in learning. Then again, if learning is defined as a permanent change in behavior, we really never know if any actual learning happens in the library. But what if we could design the library building environment that facilitates “intentional” learning and brings people together in new types of communities for education and relationship building? We’d want to do that, right?

I recently had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Scott Bennett on the topic “Libraries and Learning: A History of Paradigm Change”. You may know Bennett as a library space planning consulting and Librarian Emeritus of Yale University. I was somewhat familiar with the topic because it is based on Bennett’s article in the April 2009 issue of portal:Libraries and the Academy [note: portal is now providing public access to forthcoming articles but has not yet done the same for the back files]. In the presentation Bennett explained the three paradigms, reading, books and learning. Early academic libraries were reading centered and featured grand reading rooms, such as the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library Reading Room. That’s a well known example of a library space intended to offer the community a place for contemplative reading. The next great academic library paradigm was book centered. My own research library, built in 1964, is a good example as the design is cleared intended to maximize book storage and browsing over the needs of people using the library and those who work there; the two are kept apart.

Bennett spent the bulk of his talk on achieving the new learning paradigm. There’s been some evolution here. The Levy Library at USC. The growth of the information commons. The hallmark of this paradigm is greater proactivity about creating spaces where intentional learning happens. Bennett was quite adamant that we needed to design spaces for intentional learning, not simply adding cafes and lounges because it is trendy but because the design will be learning centered – and we’ll think in advance about the purpose of each space and how it can contribute to learning. But what do we mean by intentional learning and how would spaces make it happen – what about librarians? Our job is to think more like educators than service providers. In closing Bennett showed us a chart based on his many studies of library building programs on which there are just two columns. The left represents resources dedicated to “library mission” and the other represents learning mission. It’s clear that the library mission – resources dedicated to providing services – is much greater than the learning mission.

So how do you design a building that supports intentional, or what I might call, authentic learning? We may have to wait until Bennett shares news from his next exploration project in which he’ll identify 12 behaviors that contribute to intentional learning – and how the library’s design can stimulate and support those behaviors. The more we know about what helps students learn and what’s important to them, the better able we are to design the space to support it. To my way of thinking Bennett struck me as a constructivist who would have students spend more time in study rooms learning on their own or from each other. But after some discussion we found common ground on connectivism where the learning is achieved through relationships and community. Students also learn when they create, and libraries designed for intentional learning should offer spaces where students synthesize existing information to create new ideas and course projects.

After hearing Bennett I am cautiously optimistic that it is indeed possible to design a library building that promotes intentional learning. That said, for a new library building it is also possible and even desirable to evoke the past with an eye-catching reading room – or some modern variation on it – and blend that with some book-centered spaces. A library for the 21st century can blend the two paradigms of the past with Bennett’s new one for the modern library.

3 thoughts on “Designing A Library For Learning”

  1. Steven,

    Thanks for sharing your experience of Bennet’s talk for those of us who missed out. I remember reading that essay for a class last year and saying to my self, “Yes, we could do this.”

    Since you mentioned the Information Commons of USC’s Leavey Library where I spend a few hours each week at the reference desk (wink), I thought I’d share what I find to be one of the most remarkable aspects of the space: there is always a huge demand for the collaborative work rooms. Leavey is open 24/7 (almost) and by the middle of each day, the reservation list for these rooms are usually booked until the next morning.

    Students literally beg for these spaces (they sometime beg for us to “misplace” other students’ reservations). And if you watch the occupants of these rooms, you can see learning in action: students collaborating on whiteboards, making/practicing presentations, having video conferences, or simply huddled around a textbook or laptop. It really is a remarkable feeling to know that your a part of a organization that provides this type of service. It’s what students want to find in their libraries and we are happy to give it to them!

    And I’m glad you mentioned the connectivism approach. We should remind students that even though they are in these rooms, seemingly cut off from librarians and from information contexts, they can always jump into the chat/email and contact a librarian if they need extra help or just want a second opinion. Very often, I think they will. (I still get a kick out of chatting with someone who is, unbeknown to them, sitting only a few feet away from me at a computer terminal).

  2. Steven, you bring up fascinating questions. Interestingly, ACRL has a forthcoming book on this very topic. The first study of new academic library buildings done in the 21st century, “The Academic Library Building in the Digital Age: A Study of New Library Construction, Planning, Design & Use of New Library Space” by Christopher Stewart (IIT) will be released in mid-June. This study researches the very questions you pose.

  3. Steven,
    I appreciate you sharing your experience with Bennett’s talk. Do you know if it available online anywhere?

    I found one of his references to be intriguing also. It was Richard O’Connor’s “Seeing duPont [Library] within Sewanee and Student Life.”. He argues that “Seeing students moving into collegiate, academic and campus cultures makes getting a college education into assimilation, not just taking courses.” Based on his anthropological study of students at Sewanee (Studying a Sewanee Education), he characterizes a students intellectual life tends as an explorer, a competitor or a professional or a mix of all three. With regard to library space he suggests that “the explorer would want casual spaces for bull sessions and delight in the distracting odd book found on the way to the one looked up in the catalog. The competitor would want study space, pure and simple, and hope the atmosphere strengthened self-discipline and inspired greater effort. And the professional, an academic in the making, would want to live in the library, housed in a carrel, inspired by walls of books.” In our recent Undergraduate Library Study we learned that students aren’t a homogeneous group whose needs can all be met with one design. I think this highlights the need for a variety of spaces in a library to meet the differing needs of students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.