Raising Arizona State | Library Design 2017

After the impact of the recession, Arizona State University (ASU) bounced back with an ambitious agenda of innovation, positioning itself as the “New American University.” ASU prides itself instead on being “measured not by whom it excludes but by whom it includes and how they succeed,” and now ASU's flagship library is reinventing itself to serve the whole student.

The University's flagship library will reinvent itself to serve the whole student

After the impact of the recession, Arizona State University (ASU) bounced back with an ambitious agenda of innovation, positioning itself as the “New American University.” ASU prides itself instead on being “measured not by whom it excludes but by whom it includes and how they succeed.” Jim O’Donnell, who joined ASU in 2015 as university librarian, explains, “This is a place where you get in trouble when you don’t make enough mistakes; you don’t have enough big impossible ideas.”

O’Donnell’s big idea was to use the need to revamp the 50-year-old Hayden Library—one of eight across five campuses, but the largest and located at the heart of the main site—as a chance to reinvent not just the building but what library service means at a school that sees itself as a change agent in higher ed. The school itself is thinking big about the renovation, budgeting a whopping $100 million, as ASU’s president told Inside Higher Ed.

Photo ©Arizona Board of Regents

From the outside, the 1966 five-story tower will stay the same, and the 1989 two-story addition is mostly under­ground. One thing that will change, however, is the entrance. “Every year,” says Jennifer Duvernay, assistant university librarian, communications and development, and a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker, “you have students wandering around trying to find the front door.” The new plan adds two ground-level entrances connecting the building to a new student services building and the student union. Inside, the alterations will be far more dramatic. Though the designs aren’t completed—at press time, ASU had only that day embarked on the formal process with architects Snøhetta and local company Ayres, plus the Brightspot consulting firm—the underlying program is done.

Student centric

“First and most important,” says O’Donnell, “this is going to be the ‘student-est’ building of all, with maximum space, comfort, and respect for what it’s like to be an ambitious or a frightened undergraduate facing university for the first time.” As such, he says, the aesthetic he’s aiming for is “homelike, welcoming,” rather than grand. O’Donnell puts a big emphasis on making the whole person comfortable: “lounges, lactation rooms, prayer rooms, cafés—a boiling water tap for the student who can’t afford a sandwich to make a packet of ramen noodles,” he says. Also, “I am getting a reputation as the guy who obsesses about bathrooms. I think it is a significant measure of the attention architects and planners pay to the whole human being if they get the bathrooms right.”

Secondly, the library will put far more emphasis on special collections, which will be moved to the main floor on prominent view. The message, says O’Donnell, is “we have cool stuff, interesting and distinctive, and your success can be enhanced by learning how to use it.” As an example, he tied the library’s special collections holdings on Greater Arizona to academic programs on everything from Chicano to Native American to transborder studies.

Thirdly, the print collection housed in the building will be radically scaled back, from 1.2 million to about 350,000 volumes. The rest will go into a high-density fulfillment center and another library on campus. ASU is partnering with other institutions on a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to reimagine “what books you put in your central public-facing building, why you put them there, and how you make them come alive,” O’Donnell says.

“We see books as deliberate inciters, as stimulus to the intellectual work of the community as a whole,” says O’Donnell. “We want to startle you. We are expecting to run exhibitions within our open stacks, cycle books in by theme and subject, display intelligently and coordinate with lectures to provoke discussion, and after a semester take those books back to high-density” storage. The library is also exploring “focused, nontraditional shelving” that might highlight a particular series or publisher and uses the print collection “in part [as] a marketing tool for serious resources that people need to know how to use” and to teach about print culture.

The wizard zone

Finally, the library intends to expand its existing tech offerings around geospatial, big data, and Maker spaces. “We’re calling them wizard zones,” O’Donnell says, and they’ll be deliberately designed so the library can downsize functionality as it becomes outdated and replace it with the next big thing. Though showrooming has a bad rap in the retail world, O’Donnell aspires to it, seeing the library’s function as a place to “make you aware of what the possibilities are and to give you the tools” to use elsewhere.

How to “make those wizards visible and accessible remotely is an exciting part of that challenge,” says O’Donnell. But that’s just a special case of the general maxim that, he says, every one of the 10,000–15,000 students who come through Hayden’s doors each day should be treated as an online student, as much as those who don’t set foot on campus. “The vast majority of their consultations of our collections is online, wherever they happen to be,” says O’Donnell. “We cannot any longer let ourselves think that the building is the library.”

ASU is as ambitious in time line as it is in everything else: the library expects to have designs completed in four months and finished building[s??] after two years of construction—in time for classes to start in September 2019.

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