Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Library as Learning Commons

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Library as Learning Commons

Article excerpt

The iconic vision of the library as the heart of a university campus dates to the earliest days of the United States. At the time when Thomas Jefferson was planning the grounds of the University of Virginia, most Western universities organized their campuses around a church or chapel. Jefferson, a devout believer in the transformative power of ideas, centered his Academical Village on a library. While the design of his rotunda was rooted in classicism, the elevation of its program was groundbreaking and established a long tradition of the library as a primary campus destination.

In the 200 years since, the university library has grown and changed with the evolving views of its role in higher education. For decades, libraries grew in size as collections expanded exponentially. In doing so, they slowly shifted their function from iconic architectural destinations to utilitarian containers for books and the individual students who quietly read them. As time went on, classicism gave way to modernism and, from the 1950s to 1970s, to Brutalism. At many colleges and universities, the enduring image of libraries became one of characterless boxes filled with outdated books. With the onset of new information technology that revolutionized access to and storage of knowledge, futurists and trend spotters raced to declare, "The library is dead!"

Far from being dead, the library remains essential to campus life and learning. It now plays a fundamental role in helping students assess the quality of information (digital and physical) and develop critical thinking skills. Faculty members increasingly partner with librarians to support their teaching and research. Libraries have quickly filled the space of digital scholarship and are often training grounds for scholars to use new tools to research, archive, and publish new knowledge.

Today, most people can do research from home, a residence hall, or a coffee shop. This change is bringing about a dramatic shift in what libraries do and how they do it. To remain relevant in the current academic climate, libraries must be centers of the knowledge economy, of collaborative learning, and of creative production. The library is now a facilitator, bringing together individuals, interdisciplinary groups, creative technologies, collections, and more into a vibrant, learning-focused place. A revitalized library will be a "preferred destination," an active participant in supporting knowledge creation-a "want to" space for the diverse disciplines it serves.

Innovation labs, makerspaces, entrepreneurship hubs, and centers for digital scholarship are just a few of the unique programs libraries are hosting to draw together multiple disciplines in a single place to begin tackling the grand challenges of our times. New amenities have crept into the library to not only support multiple modes of learning but also blur the distinction between formal academic learning and the social learning that occurs beyond the directed class curriculum. Nap rooms, gaming modules, pop-up event spaces, and branded food service have permeated the academic library to support serendipitous sharing and extended time on task.


The last decade has seen the emergence of the learning commons as a flexible learning environment that blends library resources and technology with collaborative working spaces to promote active and interdisciplinary learning. While the learning commons concept is now widely embraced, actually implementing it can be a challenge for library directors who have to work within the constraints of their own aging facilities. In 2015, Kevin Kidd, the newly hired director of the Alumni Library at the Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT), found himself facing exactly that challenge. WIT's Alumni Library lay hidden within the second and third floors of Beatty Hall, a six-story bunker-like concrete structure built in 1959 that also housed a dining hall, offices, a student center, and classrooms. …

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