Heading to the campus library used to mean needing serious study silence or a spot for solitary scholarly pursuits. Although the library’s shell may look the same, inside it’s a decidedly different and livelier place.
“The hush-hush is over. Instead you get noise, you get dialogue, you get engagement, you get creativity, you get sharing,” says Jim Draper, vice president and general manager at Gale, the division of Cengage Learning that provides digital and print products to libraries.
“I visit libraries all the time, and the spaces are being reconfigured to allow for collaboration. And all the interactivity that happens now, that never really happened before.”
He compares the modern academic library to a cathedral, with people circulating around and meeting each other. Large, open areas are known in many libraries as knowledge commons. “Even the name reflects so clearly what they want to do,” Draper says.
Collaboration spaces “tend to look less like board rooms and more like small restaurants, with chairs and tables that can be moved around easily,” he adds.
Reference areas have evolved, too. Rather than rows of single computers, these are often spaces where a discussion is taking place about materials pulled up on a large screen. Having materials available digitally means there’s much more space for collaboration. The Gale digital archives, for example, would occupy 320,000 linear feet if housed in their physical form.
A few progressive libraries don’t even contain any books.
Thanks to digital assets, officials are adding not just more areas for work but also for chat. In a lot of cases, they can work with the existing library footprint and add a café. Often, the café is located near the front of the building, and one is more likely to see lots of big tables that are suitable for spreading out work on.
There’s also likely to be a mix of hard and soft chairs, rather than a space crammed with as much seating as possible, he says.
Still, some traditional academic library pieces remain. “Every one has some kind of archive facility, a rare book room or special collections room,” Draper says. And in a handful of libraries, the massive old card catalog is even “preserved inside the library, as some sort of relic.”
Signage that helps users get where they need to go is still prevalent, but it may well be in interactive, digital form. Today’s libraries are, overall, designed to be friendly places that draw in the campus community. The idea, says Draper, is “to make sure their collections get used, and used well.”
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