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More Than Coffee and Wireless

July 10, 2007

For several years now, the talk about libraries as student-oriented buildings has focused on amenities to enhance the visitor's experience. Students want their coffee and comfy couches on which to chat with their friends during study breaks. Students want to study in groups. And students want to use their laptops, so wireless is key.

None of this, to be sure, has gone away. But much of the buzz about library facilities at this year's annual meeting of the Society for College and University Planning, in Chicago, had a different focus: adding to library buildings facilities that are explicitly academic, but that haven't historically been seen as part of the library. Writing centers, classrooms, faculty offices and the like -- these are increasingly being placed in libraries, especially those focused on undergraduates.

Some of the same motivations are involved as were evident when Starbucks started to appear in libraries: getting the students in. But the projects being discussed go beyond that to thinking about campus facilities as a means to promote an "integrated" campus (to pick up one of the theme words from the SCUP meeting). Just as student affairs professionals and academic affairs officials agree (in theory, if not always in practice) that they need to work together, so facilities planners are saying that they need to stop looking at major campus buildings -- like a library -- as serving one function, and to promote a broader vision.

Stephen Johnson, an architect with Pfeiffer Partners, used the plans for a library overhaul at Washington and Lee University as a case study in a session Monday. The firm has worked on a series of projects that aim to show that "there is not just latté drinking, but learning, going on in the library," Johnson said.

The trend is worldwide. At the University of Otago, in New Zealand, the career center and registrar's offices have been moved into the library. At the University of British Columbia, some first year classes in the sciences and arts are being offered in the library. Plans for Seattle University's library would take facilities that are "squirreled away" and bring them "out in the open." For example, a tutoring center would move into the library.

At Washington and Lee, officials said that a number of traditional design frustrations were part of the desire for a change. The main library is a 1970s building that has never been an architectural gem on a campus proud of its history and the New Classical style of its best known buildings.

Joseph E. Grasso, vice president for administration at Washington and Lee, said that a university is hurt when people don't feel proud of the library. "We wanted to re-emphasize the library, to reclaim its stature," he said.

The plan currently under consideration would add 18,000 square feet to the 88,000 square foot facility. Grasso said that 88,000 square feet in the expanded facility will be devoted to "library" functions -- although there will be more of an emphasis on shared study space, technology, and the like than is the case now. But the additional 18,000 square feet will be devoted to an auditorium, faculty offices, a writing center and computing offices.

Those facilities will not be placed "under" the library director -- reporting lines will remain the same, he said. But the space will be shared.

Grasso noted that this library renovation differs from those of the past in that it is not motivated by the need to expand capacity. While capacity for books will grow moderately, the availability of online materials lessens the need for space in the traditional sense. The main ideas in play are educational -- the view that the library should not be seen as isolated from campus life, but central to it.

There is another plus side too, he noted. It is traditionally difficult for fund raisers to bring in big gifts for libraries. Grasso said it is his belief that combining functions will make it easier to raise funds for the project.

Merrily Taylor, the library director, wasn't at the Chicago meeting, but she confirmed via e-mail that her staff is heavily involved in the plans. Taylor said that the idea of adding other academic functions to libraries is "quite a trend now in library buildings and renovations," and that this is consistent with the idea of the library as a "new learning space." While she said that "the basic library functions have to work effectively in any facility," she said there is "a lot of synergy" between those functions and other academic programming of the sort that may soon be sharing her space.

At one point in the session, Grasso asked those present for a show of hands on whether they were in the planning stages for renovating their libraries. About 40 hands shot up. And many of those present were taking detailed notes during the session.

 

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