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.

Library as Place-With-Books

A member of the ILI-L discussion list pointed out an interesting article in the May issue of Harper’s that I finally got around to reading. It profiles the Prelinger Library, an idiosyncratic personal collection made public that provides its own classification system and allows for unexpected discoveries. (Here’s the non-digital link: “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Harper’s [May 2007]: 47-57.)

In passing, the author criticizes librarians’ devotion to all things technical, especially slamming the “roomy and bookless” SFPL in which “reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degreed ‘information scientists,’ stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printers to work.” Hey, they haven’t ditched the reference desk – that sounds positively old fashioned.

Anyway, the conclusion of the piece raises an issue I’d like to see discussed more by academic librarians.

The executive director of the digital-library initiative at Rice University is quoted as saying that “the library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared.” This is odd. Most people might suppose, to the contrary, that a library is exactly a space where books are held. There are many, many places on a college campus where ideas are shared: lecture halls, seminar rooms, computer clusters, dorm lounges. The library happens to be the only where ideas are shared precisely because books are held.

So here’s my question: as we pay attention to the “library as place” and try to demolish the “warehouse for books” stereotype of libraries, do we have any evidence that what’s in the library is contributing to the conversations we hope to foster? That is, as the library becomes a better place for students to do a variety of things, are they making better use of the collection itself? How well do collection development, information literacy, and “library as place” work together? What assessments have been made that can establish some causality – a better place means better learning using what libraries have to offer?

Apart, of course, from computers, comfy chairs, and good coffee.

How Deserted Was The Library

It was so deserted “You could shoot off a cannon and not worry about hitting anyone.” That’s how Jay Schafer, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts, described the conditions of the ground floor of the library, prior to a recent building renovation, in an article published in the Boston Globe. This is one “library as place” project that has gotten some attention lately. In addition to the newspaper article, NPR carried an interview with Schafer about the library’s renewal after the renovation project.

Du Bois library, at 28 stories, is one of the tallest academic library buildings. But prior to the renovation, “it was so creepy”, said one student because “there was no one there”. In the NPR interview, Schafer said that the library’s cafe, named The Procrastination Station, serves more coffee than any other location on campus. The facility is now open 24 hours a day, but just 5 days a week (students are probably already asking for 24/7). The lesson of the Du Bois Library renovation is, once again, that the solution for the deserted academic library building is a renovation or construction project that creates an inviting social, cultural and intellectual space that provides the amenities desired by today’s campus community. Build it and they will come.

Assessing Learning Spaces

I had the good fortune to tune it to the EDUCAUSE ELI Web Seminar “Assessment of Learning Spaces” this afternoon. The archive is online for ELI members. Particularly interesting to me is that the University of Dayton has not only done assessment of learning spaces but has used the results to make changes in how their spaces are configured. Not all of the findings are particularly surprising (particularly those that relate to libraries) but it is good to have our own conventional wisdom affirmed by research. Even better though to hear an institution taking the information it has gathered, making determinations about the gap between the findings and its goals, and then taking action. Actually closing the assessment loop by putting data into decisionmaking is not an easy thing to do – even in one’s own classroom, much less at an institutional level. In the back of my mind this afternoon is all the data I’ve been involved in gathering over the past years and the question of whether it has really been put into action as it should be.

Great Compilation On Library As Place

I’m a long time fan of the comprehensive and well-researched annotated bibliographies/research overviews that come out of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These occasional research reports are cumulatively referred to as the UI Current LIS Clips series. Well they’ve just issued a new “clip” on “library as place.” This is an excellent report that covers a great selection of significant articles and research papers about the library as place issue (excepting perhaps Bill Miller’s fine essay for Library Issues from the January 2002 issue) from the last few years. What I really like about these reports is that they go beyond giving a mere abstract and instead really summarize the key findings of each document that is included. This is actually a two-part report of which part one is about public libraries and part two is about academic libraries. If LIS Clips is new to you take some time to check out their past reports. I’m sure everyone will find something there of value – and while you’re there sign up for their e-mail alert service to be notified when new reports are published.