From Library to Learning Commons... Back To The Future?
by Patricia J. Thomas, from the Fall 2011 edition of Marywood Magazine
Back on the BC side of history, Demetrius, at the behest of Egypt's Ptolemy Soter, organized a magnificent "Musaeum" or "House of Muses" (hence the word museum) in Alexandria. It was a vast complex, which included lecture halls, meeting rooms, gardens, a zoo of exotic animals, shrines to the Muses, and the glorious Library—the world's greatest archive of knowledge. Availing themselves of its estimated half million documents, scholars lived, studied, researched, and wrote there together. Their number included the fathers of math, engineering, physiology, geography, and medicine. The Library was a happening place in the ancient world.
Intervening centuries saw a determination to acquire and preserve precious books and documents that represented human learning, culture, and thought. Libraries were valuable, vital, though not necessarily happening places.
Then, the world went high-tech—with dazzling speed! Computers, cell phones, e-mail, e-books, iPads, internet... we could download, upload, printout, mouse click, touch screens, get apps, go wireless....
Demetrius would be speechless. For that matter, a stunned cadre of "traditional" library users has already been left speechless.
A new e-generation of learners, however, is far from speechless. They not only embrace the paradigm shift that technology has wrought, they push the edges of wonders yet to be.
The late Sister Patricia Ann Matthews, IHM, former Vice President for Academic Affairs, had seen it coming. Technology, she pointed out, had brought sweeping changes, not merely in the physical accoutrements of education, but had altered the very processes of thinking and learning for modern multi-tasking, tech-savvy students. "Their brains," she said, "seem to be wired differently from their counterparts of a generation ago."
For today's students, yesterday's libraries would not do, and Sister Patricia Ann knew it.
Marywood's Library Director, Cathy Schappert, also observed that burgeoning technologies seemingly strengthened multiple means of learning. She collaborated with Sister Patricia Ann and Dr. Michael Mirabito, Professor of Communication Arts, to study usage and learning spaces in academic libraries around the country. What they found confirmed that those varied styles of learning demanded new, varied ways to empower the process.
The traditional view of libraries, Sister Patricia Ann had pointed out, was mainly as a repository for books. Life revolved around the stacks—where people searched for what they wanted or lingered to read—quietly—so as not to disturb others similarly engaged. But for today's students, learning has become more of a collaborative process. Study and research is often done in groups. Questioning, answering, sharing, and evaluating information requires interaction. For students who have grown up with social media and communication-at-a-click, interaction is standard operating procedure.
"It's less about the books; more about the people," says Dr. Mary Anne Fedrick, Dean of the Reap College of Education and Human Development. "Students think of the library more as a place to use information...not necessarily to find it.
"They already know how to locate information," she says with a laugh. "They look to electronic sources automatically. They are used to having information at their fingertips—literally. They often get it in bits and pieces. They need good librarians and specialists who can show them how to evaluate and filter it...to understand what they've accessed and what to do with it. They need opportunities to discuss, exchange ideas, find inspiration from their peers."
Actually, Dr. Fedrick points out, Marywood's library had been ahead of its time when it was built in 1968. It was planned as a comprehensive Learning Resources Center, which would include a range of both print and non-print media—an innovative idea then that would give it a head-start in adjusting to a new era.
As both a former librarian herself and dean of the college that houses the Department of Education, Dr. Fedrick has a unique perspective on the special mission of academic libraries. "We need to prepare future teachers to use—and teach—different learning strategies...to help their students link what they already do with what they need to learn."
Dr. Tammy Brown, who heads the Graduate Reading program, received a grant from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund to undertake just such a project, exploring ways to connect in-school literacy with the out-of-school (i.e., text/cell phone/computer) literacy in which the students are already competent. "We created a classroom in our library with 'pods' of computers that fold down to create a flat table top. Students can work collaboratively, discussing as they access information and create documents," she explained.
A model, perhaps, for classrooms of the future?
"Unquestionably," says Cathy Schappert, "we had to rethink our library. A new building is a long-term dream, but we thought we could improve what we had."
A survey of library users drew frank commentary and gave direction for improvements. Stacks were removed on the main floor and the space filled with chairs and tables to create movable, group work spaces. Additional computer workstations were added. The Study Grounds Café opened to provide a friendly, coffee shop atmosphere. The Help Desk got a face-lift and a prominent location to make it more accessible.
How were the improvements received? Ms. Schappert recorded impressive statistics. In six months, the student gate count tripled. Gate count in a typical week increased by 50 percent; reference transactions almost doubled in the same period.
"It's been exciting to watch," she says, "to hear the chatter, see the activity. At first, our housekeepers—who are so conscientious about keeping everything orderly—told me, with great alarm, that students kept moving chairs around. I said, 'Wonderful! That's what we want them to do!'
"Improvements we can make now are limited. We need better, natural lighting. We'd like to have a writing room. An Automated Storage and Retrieval System would provide 'green' storage and put us on the cutting edge of academic libraries. Ultimately, I think, the answer is a facility that is more than a library...rather a Learning Commons that will reflect what Marywood has become," she says.
National recruitment data affirms and dramatically illustrates the importance of a library in the selection process by prospective students. Facilities for the major (as expected) ranked first in influencing decisions—but an institution's library ranked second; sophisticated technology, third—by wide margins.
"Not surprising," says Ms. Schappert. "A library is the heart of an institution."
As the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Libraries may have come full circle. Like the Musaeum of Alexandria, they gather information from across the known universe. They store infinite quantities of it—now in infinitesimal electronic flashes. They may host creative thinkers...studying...collaborating amid an artistic ambiance....
Ummm...possibly minus the zoo.
“They already know how to locate information. They look to electronic sources automatically. They are used to having information at their fingertips—literally. They often get it in bits and pieces. They need good librarians and specialists who can show them how to evaluate and filter it....to understand what they’ve accessed and what to do with it. They need opportunities to discuss, exchange ideas, find inspiration from their peers.”
Dr. Mary Anne Fedrick, Dean of the Reap College of Education and Human Development