Room to Grow | Office Hours

A FEW YEARS AGO at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference in Anaheim, CA, I had dinner with librarians from three large universities. The conversation turned to something they had in common: they were all moving print book collections at their respective institutions off-site to make room for student spaces. Back then, this was a big deal, and these administrators met with opposition and angst from their constituents.

Michael StephensA FEW YEARS AGO at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference in Anaheim, CA, I had dinner with librarians from three large universities. The conversation turned to something they had in common: they were all moving print book collections at their respective institutions off-site to make room for student spaces. Back then, this was a big deal, and these administrators met with opposition and angst from their constituents.

I still hear rumblings in the academy that these changes to what might be perceived as traditional libraries are sometimes met with dissent and discord. Library spaces morphing into “collaboratories” filled with creation tools and collections existing off-site or in the cloud can be disruptive forces, likened to chaos. Yet this trend isn’t reversing any time soon; recent research supports a much different landscape in 2015: academic library spaces are learner-centered and evolving just like our skillets, tools, and ­mind-sets.

Studies see space shifts

The 2015 Horizon Report for Higher Education is out, and one of many salient “Key Trends Accelerating Technology Adoption in Higher Education” resonates with me as I reflect on evolving spaces for learning. A notable trend that will drive technology adoption in higher ed for the next one to two years is “Redesigning Learning Spaces.” The report states that “academic libraries across the globe are seeing a flurry of activity as their informal learning spaces are being reimagined to take advantage of the emerging maker movement,” and “the physical layout of university libraries is currently being redrawn so that row upon row of stacks containing books that have not been touched in decades can be archived to make room for more productive use of floor space.”

A study I helped coauthor in First Monday also details insights and solutions to the challenges of supporting higher ed in libraries and IT. Survey respondents noted that library spaces are being transformed, becoming “salons” and places for multiple groups to collaborate as collections go digital. Implementing new standards, evaluating services, and focusing on adapting roles to meet learner and researcher needs were all part of the response to the disruptive forces confronting our institutions. One respondent was “creating a learning organization academy” to help their institution change.

The Itaka S+R Library survey for 2013 also supports these changes, stating, “There is ample evidence that library directors’ opinions about print collections are changing over time; a large majority of respondents agreed with the idea that building local physical collections is less important than it used to be.” University of Technology, Sydney, librarian Mal Booth agrees: “Smart library spaces are now not about accessing print collections, they’re becoming more about harnessing new/available technologies to create, mix, mash, and edit new forms of knowledge and culture.” It’s a given: libraries should not be seen primarily as book storage facilities. Library spaces are much more valuable than that.

Still room for librarians

If our academic libraries could soon be landscapes of computer access to collections and Maker style spaces, where does one of the most valuable parts of the library—the librarian—fit? In “Why Don’t Students Ask Librarians for Help? Undergraduate Help-Seeking Behavior in Three Academic Libraries,” part of the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project, authors Susan Miller and Nancy ­Murillo present findings that students may not go to librarians for help, instead turning to people they know: professors, peers, family, and friends. The role of the librarian is muddy at best for most undergrads. This begs the question: How successful will these learning spaces be if students are afraid of librarian intervention? Are they going to be self-directed explorers? Maybe in library facilities designed to enable collaboration, librarians are getting out of the way and letting students work together, providing tools and instruction needed to enable success.

I’m encouraged by the ideas of Keith Webster, dean of university libraries at Carnegie Mellon University, who shares his thoughts on the 21st-century library at his blog Library of the Future. Webster notes that as faculty and students meet their needs online, library service must be delivered outside the library. “The librarian must interact with his or her clients wherever they are: in laboratories, clinics, offices, and lecture theaters.” This involves one of the most challenging issues we face: How do we advocate for ourselves and the roles we play in research, knowledge creation, and technology use? Webster asks, “How do we share that message?”

Librarians have long used and refined service models, from building collections to planning spaces. Recent research tells us that as newer methods emerge to access and store knowledge, library space can become even more user-focused and allow explorations of the world’s knowledge, with room to grow.

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Matt Zehe

"They were all moving print book collections at their respective institutions off-site to make room for student spaces ... Library spaces morphing into 'collaboratories' filled with creation tools and collections existing off-site or in the cloud can be disruptive force." I am not a librarian, but academic libraries are among my favorite spaces, and I will loiter for hours within them. I found this article through Dr. Stephens' Facebook posts. What Dr. Stephens describes happened at one of my favorite local campuses. This article follows up neatly on what I observed at the University of Denver over the last few years. The DU library (Penrose) was old and run-down for decades until about three years ago, when the University completely renovated and reworked it. It isn't called the "library" any more, it is called the Anderson Academic Commons. The entirety of the book collections were moved to the basement, and occupy about a third of the basement space on rolling bookshelves jammed against each other and accessible only by deploying the mechanical cranks that create space between the shelves one needs to access. There is a section of new paper arrivals that take up about a quarter of the first floor. There's also reference, circulation, and other library offices on the first floor. The remaining basement spaces on a total of three floors fit the connotation of "collaboratories" - swaths of computer stations and study tables, graduate kiosks, closed rooms for individual and group study, media stations, and social areas (like the coffee shop). Walking into and around the Commons, it becomes clear that the design priority was to minimize space occupied by collections and maximize space available for study, collaboration, and academic production. One obvious consequence is the invisibility of the paper stacks. Even in the portion of the library where the stacks are located, what you see are long corridors of shelf sides, because the shelves are all lodged against each other obscuring the books they contain. It is really quite striking. I like the space a lot, and the paper holdings, though hidden, continue to be extensive for a small-to-mid-sized university. But the mission has clearly changed. The University of Denver underwent a renovation boom in the last ten years, which encompassed the development of the Academic Commons. I wouldn't be surprised if other universities all look at campus renovation as an opportunity to refashion the mission of the library and create a space like what the University of Denver has developed.

Posted : Jun 09, 2015 06:36

Amy Brunvand

Michael Casey, In fact, librarians ARE talking in zero-sum terms. In order for valuable and limited library space to be devoted to computer labs and student group study spaces other uses and services have to be displaced or eliminated. In order to make the argument that a different use of space and staff time would be "more productive" futurists like Mr. Stephens have to overstate a higher inherent value for things like "create, mix, mash, edit" over traditional values such as read, research, preserve, share. So what's happening on the ground is, projects like stacks removal are driven largely by negative values (we need to clear out those useless old books in order to create more space for some shiny new computers) rather than positive values (since our collection helps create a unique identity for our library and draws people into the building we need to weed some of the clutter in order to make our books more useful and attractive. This project could also open up some floor space. What cool things could we put there?) You see how different it is making a fatuous attack on books as old and in-the-way vs. envisioning the role of physical stacks in the library of the future?

Posted : May 08, 2015 11:26

Pat Dunn

Very interesting article and responses. By a turn of Fate, I graduated from the same library school Mr. Stephens works at now (San Jose State University), back in the mid-Eighties, when we were also being warned the Future would hold changes for us as librarians. They told us "end users" would need us to "interpret" these complicated information systems and their specialized search languages, because it would never be possible for someone to do their own searching on a topic. Welll... "they" blew that one! I've worked at small community college libraries, and I've seen those stacks of rarely-touched books and bound serials, and the empty chairs. I've worried about administrators wanting to remove the physical collection completely and rely on "the Internet" at a time when we were all still figuring out what it was and what it could be. I liked the article, because it does reflect what I see now, as I'm trying to choose materials to update a neglected collection and help our students use the article databases. They work alone or in groups, but they are working and using the campus library-- and that is the main thing!

Posted : Apr 29, 2015 06:55

Amy Brunvand

I'm glad to know that Mr. Stephens is personable face to face, but I read this particular essay as an ad hominem attack on librarians and librarians. It would be nice to be able to have a conversation about the advantages of offering collaborative spaces, shared computer equipment, salons, and such without having to defend against absurd claims like the one that "libraries should not be seen primarily as book storage facilities". When since the Middle Ages has has anybody seen libraries as book storage facilities? To characterize librarians who want to have this conversation as offering opposition,angst, dissent and discord is unhelpful to say the least. I think in order to have an honest conversation about the future of libraries we need to be able to talk about the value of physical materials and traditional practice without simply dismissing them as utterly irrelevant and old fashioned. For instance, let's agree that "building local physical collections is less important than it used to be." Less important. Not unimportant. Now we have a foundation to talk about what aspects of building local physical collections have become less important and what aspects are still important. It may well be that devoting library space to “collaboratories” would be more important to support research, teaching, and learning than having less-important parts of physical collections in open stacks; I seriously doubt that “collaboratories” are more important to the University than the still-important parts of library collections.

Posted : Apr 23, 2015 09:27

Michael Casey

Amy, I read the column very differently. I hear a conversation about the struggle -- the struggle surrounding the future role of the librarian in today's learning environment. Dr. Stephens is citing the findings of many others, including the 2015 Horizon Report, and he's examining the real-world implications of these noted changes. Librarianship is evolving and I believe all of us in the profession can agree to that fact. I don't think anyone is arguing is zero-sum terms, especially Dr. Stephens. The role librarians will play and the services we will offer are not written in stone -- there is no guarantee that our worth will always be recognized (or needed). It's up to us to pull the profession forward so that we are meeting the needs of our communities. This conversation may be difficult, but it is necessary, and I applaud Dr. Stephens and so many others for continuing to put this question in front of us. Our future will not be our past.

Posted : Apr 23, 2015 09:27

Amy Brunvand

As mathematician Jordan Ellenberg pointed out in "How Not to be Wrong", not all curves are lines. (and by the way, our paper copy of that book is currently checked out of the library). The trend towards removing open stacks may not be "reversing any time soon" but that doesn't mean it will continue linearly and indefinitely until academic libraries consist of nothing but "landscapes of computer access to collections and Maker style spaces." In fact, it's absurd to suppose that there are any library collections out there entirely made up of "row upon row of stacks containing books that have not been touched in decades" . Clearly even in the most forsaken library stacks there is still a part of the collection in active use. The existence of eBooks has not yet eliminated library circulation, and that's because print and open stacks support support specific kinds of learning: browsing, serendipity, deep reading, and text-based research strategies, particularly in the Humanities and Social Sciences. If the space is valuable for other purposes, then libraries should actually pay more careful attention to selecting and curating materials that are offered in open stacks in order to make sure that print collections are active and useful.. I must say, I'm rather horrified by Mr. Stephens' portrayal of us librarians as lost souls, "getting out of the way" of students who are frighted by our presence and wandering the campus in search of someone else who might appreciate us. That doesn't sound to me like people whom he truly considers "the most valuable part of the library." Particularly since he characterized librarians who don't buy his vision of the future as rumbling with "dissent and discord." Frankly, I don't think he likes us very much. So I think that we as a profession need to be far more skeptical of this kind of overstated, attacking futurism. Surely Mr. Stephens knows that there are other trends counter to technological trends -- relocalization, deep reading and slow reading, reskilling, self publishing and letterpress printing to name a few. There is growing evidence that even generation Z has limits to how much screen time they can tolerate and that people are in search of experiences that feel "real' and "authentic" in a way that virtual and computerized experiences just don't . In his book "Letters to a Young Scientist" Edward O Wilson warns against defining yourself as a technology expert, because once the hot new technology changes you will be obsolete too. By overstating the uselessness of traditional libraries and librarianship, Mr. Stephens seems to be unwittingly advocating a path that turns librarians and libraries into the obsolete technology experts of the future.

Posted : Apr 21, 2015 11:39

Kay Nilsson

Thank you, Amy Brunvand! I agree with everything you said, and couldn't have said it better.

Posted : Apr 21, 2015 11:39

Cath Sheard

Amy you make some interesting points, thank you! I have completed a MOOC with Michael Stephens, met him at Conference etc, and I can assure you he is a staunch advocate for librarians and their value - I am sure he did not intend to be interpreted in the way you suggest. Kind regards from New Zealand.

Posted : Apr 21, 2015 11:39

Polly-Alida Farrington

Cath, I was going to say something very similar! I think there may be a bit of misunderstanding. Dr. Stephens is indeed a strong supporter of library staff and encourages all of us to connect with the communities we serve and to collaborate with them to meet the needs of those communities.

Posted : Apr 21, 2015 11:39



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