Mellon Foundation Grants $1.2 Million to Hampshire College Library Redesign

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has issued a $1.2 million grant to remake the Harold F. Johnson Library at Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, as a Knowledge Commons—an integrated, centralized hub of content, tools, and academic support services. While the library’s transformation over the next four years looks to a brand new service model, it also continues the tradition of innovation on which the library was established some 50 years ago.

Harold F. Johnson Library at Hampshire College
Photo credit: Harold F. Johnson Library

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has issued a $1.2 million grant to remake the Harold F. Johnson Library at Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, as a Knowledge Commons—an integrated, centralized hub of content, tools, and academic support services. While the library’s transformation over the next four years looks to a brand new service model, it also continues the tradition of innovation on which the library was established some 50 years ago. The grant is offered through the Mellon Foundation’s Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities program, which assists select colleges, universities, and research institutes in training scholars and producing scholarship in the humanities. It will help fund a physical and strategic transformation of the library, bringing a number of partners from across the campus into the building in different ways according to their needs. Under the new model the library will offer services alongside the Instructional Technology department and the Creativity Center, and will incorporate parts of Media Services, the Writing Center, the Transformative Speaking Program, the Quantitative Resource Center, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Center for Academic Support and Advising. In addition, the grant will fund seven three-year fellowships for recent Hampshire graduates to train current students as peer mentors during summer sessions. A coordinator will also be hired to help steer the college through a capital campaign for the renovation, which it hopes to complete over three years.


When Jennifer Gunter King became the Johnson Library director in 2012, some of her earliest conversations focused on how the library could play a central role in recruiting and retaining students. Hampshire’s innovative academic support services and advising programs were geographically spread out, and King made it clear, she told LJ, “that the library is really where those resources should be brought together, because they connect so beautifully with the kinds of support and skill development that the librarians and our media specialists display.” That idea led to an invitation from the college administration to develop a proposal for a learning commons. King envisioned non-library resources working alongside research librarians, archivists, media specialists, and instructional technology educators, and the administration was receptive to the concept. As part of the schoolwide strategic planning process initiated by Hampshire’s then-new president, Jonathan Lash, in 2011, King and the library were asked to develop a proposal that would both work toward the college’s academic mission and could serve as a pilot for similar models at the other schools, which, with Hampshire, make up the Five Colleges—Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst—and beyond. "It was a fun process, but also intimidating to lead a campus-wide engaged process,” said King. “There wasn't a handbook for how to do that." Support was available from a number of other quarters, however. Hampshire administration helped King identify a cross-section of faculty, staff, and students for the 15-person steering committee. The Learning Space Toolkit, developed by North Carolina State University (NCSU) while building the groundbreaking Hunt Library, was an invaluable resource. Committee members attended the Designing Libraries for the 21st Century conference, cosponsored by the University of Calgary and the Coalition for Networked Information. The committee also used ideas from the white paper “Redefining the Academic Library: Managing the Migration to Digital Information Services,” published by University Leadership Council in 2011. Hampshire_whiteboard

Photo credit: Harold F. Johnson Library

The planning process, funded by a 2014 $65,000 Mellon grant, took two years. The first task, said King, was to ask the Hampshire community to imagine a library that would be the heart of the campus; what would that mean? "We started with open questions,” she told LJ. “We also spent quite a bit of time learning more about existing users, rather than going on our assumptions about the space.” The committee put out butcher paper in the library and invited students to comment on what they liked and didn't like, and what they wished they could have access to. A similar online survey was offered. Committee members observed students using the library at different times of day.


"It was a very engaged process,” King recalled. As it turned out, she said, “we were actually charting old territory for Hampshire College." Part of the original planning process for Hampshire, which opened in 1970 as an “experiment in alternative education,” according to its website, included designing its library as a prototype for the academic library of the future. In a 1969 report for the U.S. Office of Education titled “The Extended and Experimenting College Library,” founding Hampshire Librarian Robert Taylor wrote, “a library can no longer be a sophisticated warehouse storing and dispensing knowledge to students who happen to come through the door.” Instead, he continued, it “must be the center for the creation, use, and distribution of knowledge in a variety of media, communications-oriented rather than book-oriented.” "Hampshire is quite unique in that it designed itself to be a prototype of an academic institution,” explained King, “and its library was designed that way, so we sort of have permission to be as experimental as our community could benefit from." In addition to stacks and reading rooms, the original library held an art gallery, a media center, a post office, and a bookstore. "In 1968 this was very radical, to think about these different permutations of information” King said. “I think what's radical now, in 2016, is that the emphasis is less on the evolving format of information… and instead on the variety of literacies that we all need to be actively engaged in our learning projects and working collaboratively.”


Using the information gathered, the group developed an initial proposal that included an academic commons where programs could come together; the creation of new open, collaborative workspaces; strengthening and expanding existing Maker spaces; bringing in a café; improving multimedia gallery spaces; and enhancing Hampshire’s current peer mentoring system. It was well received by the administration, but King felt it was still not complete. “The piece that we still didn't understand was how the different academic supports would come together in this library—how were we going to work together?” To help explore this question, the group engaged Brightspot Strategy, the consultancy firm that NCSU had worked with on the Hunt Library. Brightspot conducted a couple of on-site workshops with campus stakeholders, which gave them—and the steering committee—a clearer picture of the proposed model and how it could accommodate various programs. The Writing Center, for instance, was a thriving program in its own space and wanted to maintain some degree of autonomy while still providing students with improved access to the library. A small, nontraditional department, the Writing Center employs two and a half full-time instructors and two “alum fellows”—former Hampshire students who tutor writing students. Moving the fellows into the library where students can meet with them on the second floor, explained program codirector Deborah Gorlin, has been “fabulously successful” and has greatly increased student demand for tutoring. On the other hand, she noted, the two directors have no intention of moving from their existing building. Between classes, advising, and those who come for help, some 500 students pass through the Writing Center every year—“ESL students, students with ADD, very sophisticated students who might have procrastination or perfectionism [issues], and we also see really accomplished kids who want to talk to us about their work, and want critical feedback, but are doing just fine.” She added, “It's really important…that we have our own offices. We're meeting with the students one on one, we're advising them, and we can't just have the whole writing program based in the library. We need the space.” The idea of scaling each department’s presence in the library works well for an institution like Hampshire, said Gorlin. "I think as a vision, it makes a whole lot of sense.” "They're also using this time as a transformation of their staffing as they recognize the ways in which libraries are serving traditional needs but also moving into new areas,” noted Cristle Collins Judd, senior program officer in the Mellon Foundation’s Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities program. “They're creating not only an integrated space, but an integrated staffing model." With this flexible service model in mind, the committee looked at peer institutions. In addition to talking with colleagues across the Five Colleges, a small team made up of King, the dean of curriculum and assessment, the director of IT, and the dean of student advising traveled to Occidental College in Los Angeles and Colorado College in Colorado Springs, two schools with progressive academic commons. “We met with staff at other institutions and they told us they wish they had ways to involve the campus in decisions the way we have, with less bureaucracy and less pressure from the top,” dean of curriculum and assessment Laura Wenk said in a press release. In March 2015 Brightspot and Hampshire College issued a comprehensive Library Learning Commons Service Strategy Report; the resulting “Learning Commons 3.0” proposal was submitted to the Mellon Foundation, which responded with the award of the $1.2 million grant in December. The proposal stood out, Judd told LJ, for the its approach to "information and media literacy, pulling together pedagogy and the advising centers' technology resources. They really have brought all of those areas into the conversation in very impressive ways that we think will provide a service model for their campus and for others around them." Stated Wenk, “The new structure will support the whole work arc of student projects. Conceptualizing, collaborating, publishing, and sharing work—all of that should happen in this new space. This will make student work more visible as they work more and share more in the library, and make connections with other students, faculty, and staff there.”


While the expanded service rollout is expected in the fall of 2017, the library is making some basic changes to start. Rather than having media services, the library, and the informational technology department circulating materials independently, the library will be consolidating circulation among departments. The project will eventually involve a second component, currently known as the Knowledge and Wellness facility, which is still in the planning stages and will be funded separately. This phase will connect the library with the campus health and wellness facility, the Robert Crown Center. The two sit side by side, reflecting the college’s original vision of “intellect, athletics, and health bound together at the heart of the campus.” The proposed colocation will create a complex connecting academic services with health and wellness services. An architectural study led by the firm Bruner/Cott, of Cambridge, MA, which designed the campus’s R.W. Kern Center, is in progress. A project timeline that will sync with the new learning commons rollout is expected in the first quarter of 2016, and Hampshire is currently raising capital funds from donors toward the groundbreaking. "Together with an improved wellness environment, [the library] is going to be amazing for students,” said King. “I feel like the center of campus will begin to reflect the caliber of this community."

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