It seems that every few decades, a shining star of a space gets its 15 minutes of fame on college campuses. At one time or another student unions, recreation centers, and student housing have each been the preferred perceived center of campus. And while students were busy hanging out in the food-rich and socially active student unions and the fitness oriented recreation centers, it seemed that the book repository had been forgotten. The role of school library—that place where students used to read, touch and smell the thousands of books that are neatly shelved on rows in these cloistered, quiet study areas—is evolving as fast as the technologies we now rely on to get information.
Students today are rejecting library spaces that cater to focused study and clamoring for change. They want libraries that allow them to interact with their peers and collaborate on information creation. The rapid increase of digital media and our current economic situation has created somewhat of the perfect storm, and university presidents and academic librarians across the globe are rethinking the library’s role at academic institutions.
The former space standard for libraries’ dictated space allocation was 50 percent for books, 30 for percent seating, and for 20 percent support staff. Those standards are quietly being revised to 50 percent seating and 30 percent collection. As you can see, this is a complete reversal of space allocation and has consequences not only for library design but for the ways campuses are laid out.
For example, a presentation I attended at SCUP 46, which took place this summer in Washington, D.C., showed how the University of Chicago is creating a vast underground storage facility at the center of campus. The facility uses a super fast robotic retrieval system that reacts to the student’s request from a computer terminal.
At UMass Amherst, 80 percent of their acquisition resources are going towards collecting digital library materials, and the demand for physical books is decreasing. In the four to five years since they moved a large collection of books to their bunker storage facility, they have never had a request to remove a print volume but have had several requests to digitize them.
At this time of change, libraries must evolve or risk becoming irrelevant book warehouses. Students are masters of multi-tasking, and any space on a college campus that does not allow them to engage in several activities at once will come across as obsolete. The academic library of the near future will be a place where students assemble knowledge in collaborative settings rather than absorb it from decades of printed media. These spaces will need to be conceived and managed with the fluidity that students expect from digital apps and websites.
The possibilities are endless. From incorporating social spaces that react to student’s changing work habits to designing self-selective loud and quiet spaces within, universities will be forced to discern what is most suitable for their campus and their student body. It’s even possible that some libraries could incorporate student union buildings, coffee shops, and recreation centers so students would not have to travel far to access an array of amenities. This an exciting time of change, and the only thing that remains certain is students changing study habits are driving this evolution.
The thing that educators and designers need to keep in mind is that library use encourages students to interact with materials and texts from various disciplines; they remain a critical part of the college learning experience. Improving the ability of libraries to facilitate collaboration will just give students a reason to enter the building and perhaps to stay around and access a book.
David is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen non-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas". A common thread runs through his work and volunteer work- the desire to create great spaces to live, work and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.