Today’s University Library: Where are all the books?

Lisa Yeaton Specialist, Content Marketing Published 22 Sep 2016

During my college freshman orientation I asked my tour guide, “Where are all the books?” He replied, “I always get asked this question. It’s not a typical library in the sense that there are stacks of books, but rather it’s a place for computers, studying, group work, and resources for projects.” He did say there were some books located on one of the floors, but I have never needed to go to that floor. The school considers the library area as a learning commons, rather than a traditional book library, but we still call the building a library.

A learning commons is not exactly a library or a media center. According to EDUCAUSE a learning commons is “a full-service learning, research, and project space. The modern commons is a meeting place, typically offering at least one area where students can rearrange furniture to accommodate impromptu planning sessions or secure a quiet place to work near a window.” This is perfect for my needs, because I have a lot of group assignments. My groups take advantage of the ample space, private rooms, flexible hours, and resources offered by the commons.

Even though I haven’t needed library books at school, one thing Umass Lowell does that is great, is they participate in the Boston Library Consortium. Students and members of the university can locate a book through the school’s library database and request access to it through the Consortium. Umass Lowell might not have a particular book, but another member or partner with the Boston Library Consortium may have it and will loan it to Umass Lowell, so you can borrow the book as part of an interlibrary loan program. This means the school doesn’t need to offer all of the books that a typical public library would. The extra space no longer dedicated to book shelfs can be utilized for technology and group meetings.

Photo of Umass Lowell’s Lydon Library Group Study area

The interlibrary loan program is one that I see spreading to more instances, such as K-12 libraries. This type of program can help schools reduce costs and save space while still offering the latest and highest quality resources to their students by allowing them to borrow any book in their library’s consortium.

The Munday Library at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas was recently remodeled. A goal was to spur collaboration and learning. To achieve this, they used architecture, interior design, planning, urban design, landscape architecture, graphic design, and civil engineering, as well as software development. It is imagined as a single, central space to enhance and catalyze interaction around technology and group learning. This library is another example of an interpretation of a higher education learning commons. The ongoing trend in higher education is to promote group learning and study space.

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Interior of Munday Library

 Not all universities are moving towards a learning commons. Some are sticking with the original library idea, while others have progressed towards a media center. The James B. Hunt Jr. Library on the North Carolina State University campus, is a new state of the art library. While it’s not a typical library, it offers thousands of books for students and ample space and technology often found in a learning commons. The thing that stands out about this library is that the books are retrieved by robots called bookbots. The bookbots can retrieve a book for a student in under 5 minutes. Students at NC State have access to over 1.5 million books and a multi-level learning commons filled with computers, printers, private study rooms, group work rooms, discussion rooms, visualization labs, makerspaces, and more.

Left, Hunt Library bookbot storage system. Right, Study area inside Hunt Library

 According to Cengage Learning, four of the top reasons students visit their university library are: to study individually, access online databases, use reference books, and meet with study groups. This explains why the acceptance of media centers and learning commons is increasingly visible on campus. I think the definition of the library is changing and that it is a good change. I don’t want to think of a library as a place where I have to be quiet because a librarian will come yell at me if I talk, but rather as a place for finding answers both in print and through technology, for meeting other students to work on projects, and as a place to continue learning and enhancing my education.

Primary and secondary school libraries and community libraries are also undergoing similar transformations. See my related blogs on those: Libraries or Media Centers? The K-12 Trend that’s Sweeping the Nation and Bookstores Have Left Town, Are Libraries Next?

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