The New Academic Library Building

Apr 4, 2011 by

Today, the SLA Future Ready 365 blog published the post I’ve prepared on the new academic library building. You can see it on the blog and I’m reproducing it below.

Any SLA member can publish on the Future Ready 365 blog, simply send 250 words (or so) on how they are future ready to

The New Academic Library Building
Posted on April 4, 2011. Tags: collaboration, design, flexibility, insights, services, space planning, space use, strategic, user-centered

by Catherine Lavallée-Welch, Florida & Caribbean Chapter, Academic, IT and Sci-Tech Divisions

Could you describe the design of an academic library constructed in 2016? It’s easy to imagine following current trends: emphasis on the learning process and the creation of a learning community, more collaborative work, the increasing amount of electronic resources, the use of technology, increased interdisciplinarity, accountability and sustainability.

What about designing the building for 2031? Or 2061? Today’s librarian in charge of designing a new building must cope with a library evolving at a rate faster than any time since Gutenberg.

Faced with such an opportunity, I recently attended a conference on library space planning and revitalization. My main takeaway was to put the emphasis on the infrastructure, and not on fixtures or furniture. Key components are flexible, multi-use space, lots of natural light, extensive electrical wiring and the presence of quiet study zones. The types of services offered and the roles and functions of librarians and staff are evolving.

The new library is a place that is used simultaneously physically and virtually; a place that permits users to participate and collaborate in a learning, scholarly community.

Should we mention the “p” word? Yes, there will be “print” collections. Some new libraries opt for a digital-only collection through extensive storage and digitizing. Other lean toward the digital-heavy approach – see Helen Josephine’s excellent post on this blog on the new Engineering Library at Stanford University. I believe that libraries will utilize select print monographs until publishers use business models for e-books that meet all libraries’ and users’ needs. Don’t hide your print books; use the stacks as architectural elements to create zones. Libraries still have a huge symbolic value and book stacks are the clearest representation of such.

Conference attendees had the opportunity to visit the recently renovated Thompson Library at the Ohio State University. With large glass walls, the book tower is a prime visual focus. However, the building stays user-centered with a variety of seating areas for individual, communal and collaborative work.

I spoke to students about their library habits. A finance junior admitted to not checking out books and rarely using the electronic resources. Still, he chooses the library to study over myriad options spread over the campus. He found when students go to the library, it’s to hunker down, get to work and study seriously. It’s the building – and the atmosphere within – that attracts him.

User studies offer one of the best ways to develop the library design. Users are usually thrilled to be a part of the process and the studies provide insights into unarticulated needs. Don’t limit recruitment to library staff, student workers or your regular users. Most important are the people who are not currently using your library.

What is keeping them away? What tools, spaces or services are you missing? What will convince them to utilize the facility? Don’t neglect to poll the school’s administration. What are the organizational strategic goals?

Gather input beyond surveys and focus groups. You can use design charrettes; usage observation; user diaries; photo surveys; usage mapping; interviews outside the library; late-night residence hall visits; reply cards left around the facility, etc.

Campus space is at a premium and financial resources are scarce. This situation may continue for a long time. Rest assured though that success in the short and long term will go to the flexible academic library closely aligned with user and organization culture and goals.

Catherine Lavallée-Welch is the Director of the University of South Florida Polytechnic Library. One of her current projects is planning and design of a library and learning commons for her institution’s new campus. Catherine is a board member of the Florida and Caribbean Chapter and of the Academic Division. She’s a candidate for Division Cabinet Chair-Elect for the 2012 SLA Board of Directors.

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