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Business Officer Magazine

Connecting at the Library

Once primarily repositories for books and periodicals, academic libraries can become hubs for group collaboration and multitasking.

By Taras Pavlovsky, Jay Lucker, and Ann Barolak

Vibrant academic libraries today are very different from their predecessors, and facilities that have not kept up with the changes are often seriously underutilized.

Students today want library buildings that foster both individual and collaborative learning, offer access to current technologies, provide academically oriented socialization opportunities, and serve as the symbolic “intellectual heart” of the campus.

What is the future of the book, given ubiquitous electronic resources? Why maintain a library when students appear to do all their research from their laptops? And, for business officers and facilities planners, what is the relationship between library facility features and increased student interest that can influence recruitment and retention?

Here we explore the many questions that arise regarding academic libraries in an age of electronic media; illustrate those qualities and attributes students perceive as most valuable in a collegiate library building; and describe the planning process, final design, and some before-and-after analysis for The College of New Jersey’s successful new library building.

The Changing Landscape

The amount of information being written, published, and disseminated is growing at an unprecedented rate. While there has been and continues to be exponential growth in electronic information, the amount of material published in more traditional formats—print, video, and audio—is also escalating. The number of books published worldwide increased by about 5 percent in 2006. The message is clear: The academic library of the 21st century will probably continue to exist in a bimodal (print and electronic) environment for the foreseeable future.

Key Points for New Libraries

Through any library redesign process, remembering these four principles can help guide the effort and keep the focus on outcomes that will make a positive difference:

1. A shared vision leads to the desired facility. The vision of the library’s purpose and usefulness must be widely shared on campus. Don’t leave the planning solely up to the librarians or to one strong-minded administrator or facilities person. To succeed, the facility must be designed to reflect the values, pedagogical model, personality, and academic goals of the entire college community.

2. A high-quality design will generate increased use.  Applying quick-fix solutions to major architectural, programmatic, or collections management flaws will not result in a renaissance of popularity for the library. The building and its furnishings should not only be bright, clean, inviting, and comfortable, but the overall design must match the needs of the institution.

3. The facility must accommodate new student study modes. Simply being a repository for books will not make the library a destination on campus. Make sure that electronic resources are plentiful and user-friendly and that patron seating options are varied, plentiful, and suitable for the types of group and individual study that define today’s student scholars.

4. Services offered and hours of operation are important. Late nights and weekends are very important study times for students on today’s campuses—a pattern that may not correspond well with library staff schedules. Similarly, today’s libraries should be easy for staff to operate. Keep service points to a minimum, and keep reference librarians accessible to those seeking research assistance.

Libraries must continue to acquire and store printed materials as long as that is a principal means of disseminating scholarly information, even as the amount of electronic and network-distributed information increases exponentially. Most higher education resources, because of licensing and download fees as well as copyright issues, are not likely to migrate quickly to electronic formats that would replace existing print publications.

Electronic publishing has and will continue to have its greatest impact on abstracting and indexing services, scholarly journals, reference works, and government publications. Library buildings must anticipate the growth in volume and diversity of electronic information as well as other media: video, multimedia, satellite-transmitted information, and teleconferencing.

Two key influences in the electronic information explosion are the decreasing cost of electronic means of storage and the diversity of electronic storage formats. The storage factor provides unbelievably immense searching and retrieval capabilities but brings with it the problems of authority and information overload.

The format problem is a more serious one for libraries, because unlike printed books, nonprint and digitized information keep changing in structure, packaging, and stability. This is why libraries still have microfilm and microfiche readers and reader printers, filmstrip viewers, light tables, slide projectors, videotape players, audio devices, and more. To paraphrase a law of economics, new technologies do not drive out old technologies.

Meanwhile, libraries will continue to celebrate the book as object, especially for materials with historical or institutional value. Rare books, manuscripts, and archives should be preserved and displayed with recognition of their form as well as their content.

Supporting Information Literacy

One might ask: Since everything is in the computer, why do we need libraries?

What is increasingly clear is that the ability to publish information—electronically, in most cases—does not automatically make it valid, authoritative, or scholarly; just finding recent articles on the Web is not research. A major challenge for academic libraries, then, will be to assist users in identifying, sorting, evaluating, and integrating useful information.

This places an additional burden on college and university libraries that have historically undertaken the responsibility for educating students in library skills. The information age has required an expanded approach to what had traditionally been called “bibliographic instruction.” Supporting “information literacy” as a component of undergraduate education requires an institutional commitment. This means that graduating students should have the ability to identify, locate, evaluate, and integrate information in all of its forms during their school years and as a lifelong skill.

Acquiring these skills should be part of the curriculum and not simply an adjunct function. Faculty should require students to do research and write research papers using a wide range of resources. Librarians should work closely with faculty to develop course modules and instruction. Library buildings should provide space where students can be taught information skills in a hands-on environment, both in groups and individually.

Library as Place

College of New Jersey's new library

The College of New Jersey's new library was designed to integrate seamlessly with existing Collegiate Georgian architecture. Its site placement preserved a major campus green and formalized surrounding landscape into quadrangles. Photo by Jeffrey Totaro.

As a faculty and student meeting place, the library serves as the “intellectual commons” for the campus. It provides a secure, comfortable, and supportive atmosphere for both residential and commuting students.

As “digital natives,” today’s students increasingly require space for group study and group access to electronic and multimedia information. Collaborative learning has become a key component of many academic programs, and the library is the ideal location for responding to this development.

The body of literature dealing with the concept of “library as place” is relatively new, but steadily growing. One such study, by Ying Zhong and Johanna Alexander of the California State University–Bakersfield, was presented at the 13th National Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries in 2007. In their study, “Academic Success: How Library Services Make a Difference,” Zhong and Alexander examined the effect of the library facilities on a student’s academic success, using metrics such as retention rates and grade-point averages.

The researchers administered a survey to about 1,500 undergraduate and graduate students, representing 17.5 percent of the student population. In the survey, students were presented with 33 library attributes divided into six categories: services, research assistance and instruction, resources, access and technology, facilities, and personnel. They were asked to identify the 10 factors that they believed contributed the most to their academic success. The most striking result showed that four of the top six factors identified as contributing to students’ academic achievement had to do with library facilities, clearly validating the concept of “library as place.”

The authors concluded: “The library should adopt strategies to promote academic and social integration, encouraging library use and connections,” underscoring the changing role of libraries on college and university campuses.

Richard Sweeney, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, conducted focus group interviews on library needs of today’s students at institutions of higher education all around the United States. In a 2005 article titled “Reinventing Library Buildings and Services for the Millennial Generation” in Library Administration and Management, Sweeney defined and described the Millennials (those born between 1979 and 1994), then presented conclusions based on his research, all of which are relevant to library design.

To remain relevant to this generation, he concluded, libraries must provide many different types of spaces, adapt to new needs, provide more comprehensible services to users, and rethink and restructure organizational policies to support those services. Sweeney’s research has since been the subject of two articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one of which was the cover story for the Information Technology section.

Student Usage Patterns

So, what is the relationship between library building features and increased student use? In a pair of articles featured in College & Research Libraries, researcher-librarians Harold Shill, of Penn State, Harrisburg, and Shawn Tonner, then at Reinhardt College, Waleska, Georgia, provided a statistical analysis of about 200 new or expanded academic library projects. The researchers gathered data on the nature of the improvements undertaken and drew conclusions about how libraries today are quantifiably different from those of only a few decades ago.

Part of the analysis correlated features and attributes of the renovated or expanded library buildings to before-and-after usage patterns. Interestingly, a regression analysis revealed that perceptions about the improvements’ design quality had the strongest correlation to increased gate count.

Institutions with older library buildings and outdated infrastructure may experience declines in use, while newer facilities where architectural design, student comfort, and technological infrastructure are perceived as high quality are experiencing sometimes dramatic increases in student traffic. The research also shows that the pattern of increased use typically endures long after the novelty of the new facility has worn off.

The fact that design quality matters may not be news to librarians and library design architects, but it should certainly help guide resource allocation decisions on campuses, where student recruitment, retention, and satisfaction are significant concerns in higher education’s competitive landscape. For example, what matters with regard to library use by students is not so much how many group-study spaces or high-tech computer labs a library contains, but how good they are perceived to be by students.

Broadly stated, the statistical analysis supports the intuitive observation that a high-quality building will attract students. It reinforces the fact that successful academic libraries today must be very different from those of the past: They are typically larger, offering more seating variety, current technology, collaborative learning spaces, and nontraditional functions. In addition, they are designed for more comfort and convenience.

Gathering Input on Campus

How do you gather input from multiple stakeholders about how an academic library should evolve?

The College of New Jersey used a highly transparent and collaborative process in soliciting feedback and advancing design decisions for the new library.

A library implementation committee was established, consisting of the library dean, two librarians, two teaching faculty members, and the associate vice president for facilities planning. This group became the core working group during programming and design phases, working with the architects and library planning consultants and reporting directly to the college president and provost.

A library programming committee, much larger than the implementation committee, was established with broader representation from the student body, teaching faculty, library faculty and staff, and information technology staff. Members of this group undertook responsibility for gathering input from their respective constituencies and participated in various planning exercises.

The programming committee also employed various techniques to improve communication with the campus community. These included:

  • A Senior Week student survey of library issues, including attributes and deficiencies of the existing library facilities, collections, and services, and a wish list of future amenities and improvements.
  • Open library building forums, providing the entire campus community with public opportunities to respond to the draft vision statement, view building program and design concepts as they evolved, and generally to discuss library-related issues.
  • Web-based communication for publishing meeting minutes, the evolving building program, design drafts, and construction photographs.

Indicators of Effectiveness

Libraries typically collect all sorts of data that they organize into input and output measures, then analyze to determine library activity and effectiveness. In an era when libraries were primarily repositories of print-only collections, circulation of library materials was the single most important measure of library effectiveness.

Now that libraries are also recognized for the value of their other functions, library use (as measured by gate count) has surpassed circulation as the most-often-cited library statistic. It is reasonable to assume that a new, better-designed facility will be more heavily used than an older one; anecdotally, library directors expect a new facility to yield a use rate double or triple that of the old.

Having collected fairly extensive before-and-after data, the staff of the new library at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) finds that the facility has exceeded even those ambitious goals. Not only did the gate count rise threefold in the library’s first year; it continued to increase the following year to top out at quadruple its preconstruction rate of use.

Library activity by day of the week changed, too, with TCNJ’s new building. The levels of increased use during the week were about as expected, but the increases on weekends were fairly astounding, with Saturday’s numbers tripling. In addition, many students choose to hang out at the library on Friday evenings—some even have to be asked to leave when it closes. During the week, the late-night study spaces in the new facility are typically full.

Queries at the reference desk are another popular library metric. At TCNJ, the overall increase in reference desk queries corresponds fairly directly to the increased number of users.

Although circulation of library materials is not considered nearly as important a measure as it once was, it remains a valid indicator of the value of the library’s circulating collections. Circulation rates at TCNJ actually went down for the first semester after the building’s opening, but once users became comfortable with the collection’s arrangement in the new space, rates began to increase thereafter, by as much as 50 percent in the second year.

Organizing the Library

As the academic library has evolved over the past two decades, there have been a number of organizational changes that have had major space implications. These include but are not limited to: reducing the number of management layers; placing greater emphasis on self-organizing teams; combining circulation and reference desks; reorganizing technical services; and creating new library departments (e.g., systems, distance learning support, development).

A central atrium-style lobby organizes the building's many program areas. In addition to housing traditional library collections, the new building provides 24 group-study rooms, a café, a late-night study lounge, computer labs, and a 105-seat auditorium. Photo by Jeffrey Totaro.

In addition, academic libraries have been involved in incorporations, amalgamations, and integrations with—even separations from—other campus departments like information systems, information services, academic computing, administrative computing, audiovisual services, and others. Numerous examples of new library buildings―and even some renovations―demonstrate the incorporation of information technology and other formerly disparate services into the building.

A most welcome feature of the changing information environment has been the realization of increased interdependence between academic libraries and academic programs. Three trends are evident:

  • Library instruction is more integrated into individual courses of instruction, replacing in part the idea of library orientation and general instruction.
  • Librarians are providing multiple teaching options, including formal classes, workshops, and one-on-one sessions.
  • More librarian/user interaction on an informal, unscheduled basis is needed.

Librarians are well aware of and eager to accommodate changes in the modes of teaching and learning on the campus today. Within the library, students and faculty expect workstations that make effective use of the proliferation of hardware and software. They want to be able to perform multiple tasks at a single powerful workstation, and also expect assistance in using the technology.

Collaborative and problem-based learning techniques, such as group research projects and presentations, are common in many academic areas today, resulting in more demand for appropriate facilities within the library and throughout the campus.

Faculty eager to advance cutting-edge teaching methods desire dedicated technology-intensive space to make use of information technology in the curriculum.

Distance learning programs have allowed many colleges and universities to export their expertise to those unable to get to the physical campus. These Web-based programs require that faculty have access to appropriate facilities and technology to develop and deliver their content in various formats: written notes, slide presentations, video presentations, online streaming chat, and so forth.

Predicting and Managing Collection Growth

In the face of the economic pressures that come with these changes, libraries have to figure out how much space they need to store their collections. They need to answer five questions:

  • How much material needs to be stored?
  • What is the optimal format for storage: print, electronic, microform?
  • What kind of shelving makes the most sense in economic terms as well as in terms of maximum user access?
  • For what period of time is the building designed to serve: 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
  • What happens when the building is filled?

In earlier times, library space plans were built on a model that looked at three factors: the current size of the collection; a projected annual rate of growth based on historic data; and a total size to be reached at some point in the future. The assumption was usually made that when the building became full, an addition or new library would be constructed.

These are still valid criteria for predicting collection space needs. But such metrics become much more complicated as they are affected by issues like retrospective digitization, cooperative electronic access—such as JSTOR, which provides online access to large collections of journals—and cooperative storage of older materials. (See sidebar, “Strategies for Growing Collections,” for further discussion of ways to manage specific types of materials.)

Strategies for Growing Collections

The continuing growth of stored information in both print and electronic forms, combined with budget pressures on academic libraries, is opening new options, such as university library collaboration or off-site storage for infrequently used materials.

Collaboration With Other Libraries

Among strategies for collaboration are interlibrary cooperation, reciprocal borrowing, remote access, and document delivery.

Academic library administrators may explore online access to information locally and collaborate with other libraries in sharing the cost of subscriptions. Within the next decade most scholarly journals, especially in the sciences, engineering, medicine, law, and the applied social sciences, will be published only in electronic form.

Libraries have begun to cooperate in the retrospective digitization of scholarly journals. The very successful JSTOR project, which provides online access to large collections of journals in fields like economics and political science, will likely expand.

Likewise, academic libraries have begun to cooperate in the physical storage of lower-use materials through the establishment of state and regional storage facilities. Thus, libraries can benefit from the economics of high-density book depositories as well as from agreements to store single copies of journals and books rather than having each library absorb the cost of local storage.

Another method of cooperation involves groups of libraries agreeing to maintain back files of journals and other materials cooperatively. Instead of having multiple copies of items, a single copy is maintained for use of the entire group, with articles delivered electronically.

Taken together, these sharing strategies can make it possible for academic libraries to manage their collections without major expansions well into the future.

Off-Site Storage

The use of off-site storage is another option that academic libraries increasingly employ. The basic concept is that in any large research collection, there is a portion that receives relatively low use. The makeup of this segment varies considerably from library to library and discipline to discipline. It does seem, however, that for collections of one million volumes or more, it is feasible to move up to 30 percent of the collection off-site and affect only 5 percent of circulation.

The sort of material that is most appropriate is more or less the same as for compact shelving—older periodicals, older monographs, government documents, as well as any closed collections like archives, manuscripts, and limited-access books.

The result of such a policy, however, does bring into play the problem of divided collections. Materials shelved off-site are not browsable as are materials shelved on site. Experience has shown that a great deal of what is requested from off-site storage locations is not what the patron wants because the user doesn’t know as much about the contents as would be possible with the item in hand. One method for dealing with this problem is to scan the table of contents of all items stored off-site and to include this information as an attachment to the bibliographic record, either in the online catalog or via a connected Web site. In one library, the use of tables of contents reduced requests from off-site storage by 95 percent.

What It All Means

Usage metrics and other criteria clearly indicate the importance of a campus’s academic library. The right facility contributes to recruitment and retention―and serves as a hub for students’ intellectual and social identity.

The quality and functionality of the library building appears to have a direct relationship with the volume of use by students. To make the connection, the academic library of the 21st century must:

  • Reflect in its mission the academic priorities of the campus it serves;
  • Integrate information literacy throughout the curriculum;
  • Provide access to older printed materials;
  • Take a leadership role in training students and faculty in the use of new technologies;
  • Provide for group study and group access to technology;
  • Provide access to worldwide information;
  • Provide access to expertise required by users in person and online;
  • Provide access to equipment needed to access specialized forms of information, or to assemble and present scholarly research;
  • Link the campus with cooperative information networks;
  • Provide a wide range of online services, both local and remote; and
  • Be a place for study, reflection, and learning.

While none of us can predict the precise future of the library as a destination or of particular library collections, the decision to defer library updates is certain to result in an underused facility. It is important to continually look at library services, collections-management strategies, current technology, and the quality of the building’s architecture when allocating resources toward an active and well-used library. Regardless of how collections may change, the library will continue to serve as the intellectual heart of the campus.

Taras Pavlovsky is dean of the library at The College of New Jersey, Ewing; Jay Lucker is a library consultant and director emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries, Cambridge; and Ann Barolak is principal, architectural division, Cubellis, Philadelphia.