The knowledge commons: Reasserting the library as the heart of campus

Frank R. Allen


Fifteen years ago a colleague and I wrote a column for C&RL News on the value of libraries as place.1 It was a point counterpoint piece in which I argued on the “place” side. My colleague, while not disputing this, argued that the library was more importantly transcending walls and physical space. It was a fun debate, but I was also a bit concerned about being perceived as the luddite, waxing nostalgic for the days of old. After all, in 1996 the digital era was dawning and we were caught up in millennium fever. The World Wide Web was revolutionizing everything. Who needed a physical library? Academic libraries would soon be housed in spaces the size of a thimble!

Well, here we are in 2011 and the world is indeed more technology-driven than in 1996. But a funny thing happened. I was right. Actually we were both right. “Library as Place” still very much exists, and technology has inarguably transformed libraries. What is surprising is that “Library as Place” may be more valid today than in 1996. How is this possible?

As a preface, the University of Central Florida (UCF) Libraries opened up its version of a knowledge commons. One can debate endlessly the definition of a knowledge commons and its derivative names. The UCF version is 22,000 square feet of wall-to-wall collaborative, technology equipped space featuring 190 desktop PCs, power outlets galore, comfortable seating, furnishings specifically designed for group collaboration, 32” wall-mounted monitors in semi-enclosed study areas, and oversized workstations designed to accommodate multiple users. The environment features rolling white boards, flip up tablets, cup holders, electronic announcement boards, acoustical treatments, and visual and acoustical screening, all wrapped up in colors and fabrics to suit 21st-century tastes.

Students have taken to it by storm. On opening day, they poured into the space by the hundreds, creating an immediate energy and excitement not seen in the library in years. Building gate count is up 11 percent year-to-year. Reference questions are up a whopping 75 percent year-to-year, though this gain is due in part to double staffing after reopening. Student groups are working in clusters everywhere. They are using the white boards and oversize monitors, and enjoying the luxuriously large study and research carrels. Laptops and other portable devices are ubiquitous. Students are posting messages on Facebook and tweeting about the wonders of the commons. They are not just enjoying the renovated space, they are consuming it.

Of course none of this is new. Academic libraries have been repurposing space in this fashion for more than a decade. But to see the transformation with one’s own eyes—the conversion of what was underused stack space, located in the most valuable area in the library, into a vibrant, collaborative, technology-driven student environment, delivers a strong message.

There are at least four reasons why the knowledge commons concept is so successful if done correctly, and why it is imperative to have such spaces.

Number 1: Online courses are curtailing face-to-face student interaction, yet human beings are inherently social creatures. Most of us live and thrive in communities. The decline of the traditional classroom is exacerbating students’ interests in social learning spaces, whether students are consciously aware of it or not.

Number 2: Course work is increasingly team-based to reflect the desires of employers to hire graduates who can successful work together. Students will seek out spaces that facilitate group collaboration.

Number 3: 21st-century students demand and appreciate sound design and form. My freshman dormitory in 1976 (at a well regarded southern university) featured painted cinder block walls, cheap fixtures, VCT floors, and bed sets mounted on metal frames. The look was upscale penitentiary, and it was completely acceptable at the time. Those days are long gone. Today’s students wish to operate in highly functional and attractive spaces.

Number 4: Knowledge commons type spaces make good business sense. Higher education has become ultra competitive. The elite universities and colleges are battling to get the cream of a slower growing number of high school graduates.2 The rest of the pack is also competing with each other, but additionally competing directly or indirectly with an explosion of online universities. One way traditional universities can maintain a competitive advantage is to not just offer online courses to meet those demands head on, but also capitalize on their superior physical environments. Knowledge commons spaces help reinforce the value of university campuses in their physical state, for which online universities have no answer.

Academic study/technology/learning spaces can occur virtually anywhere on campus, including hallways.3 This is good, and the more such spaces the better. Libraries offer compelling synergies however, that few other campus locations can match:

  1. Professional assistance is only a few feet away. UCF Libraries relocated its reference and research desk to the center of the commons, both a symbolic and practical gesture. It is staffed by librarians who are trained to provide research and technology assistance. Other campus learning spaces often provide proctors or a modicum of assistance, but typically do not carry the service culture and expertise offered by the university library.
  2. Students may derive utility in having a staffed service point nearby, even if they don’t use it. Economists call this existence value.4 Existence value stems from the notion that simply knowing a resource exists can create a comfort level in the mind of a consumer, whether or not the resource is ever used.
  3. Information resources and study materials are nearby. Not all materials are online . . . yet. One of the most commons sights in the new UCF knowledge commons is of students huddled around a plastic model of a human skeleton, which is loaned in-house. Libraries are set up to handle this type of reserve lending.
  4. For libraries fortunate to have an in-house café, each is symbiotic with the other, providing added value to the time-constrained student.
  5. There is an atmosphere of seriousness in a library that is unlike most other public spaces on campus. This stems from behavioral expectations, a staffed presence, and peer influence.
  6. Many libraries are located conveniently near the center of campus. It is an easy rendezvous point for groups.

The online era is creating the need for equilibrium. For every minute students are online there is an equal and opposite reactional need for scholarly face-to-face time. This is why students are pouring into smartly designed collaborative/research spaces in libraries and other locations. What does the “Library of the Future” look like, and when is it coming? It has walls, is laden with technology, and it’s already here.


Notes
1. Allen, FR.. Watstein, SB.. , “Point/Counterpoint: The Value of Place.”. C&RL News 57, no. 6 ( 1996 ): 372-73 –.
2. National Center for Education Statistics predicts a decreased rate of growth in high school graduates in the second decade of the new millennium. nces.ed.gov/programs/projections/projections2018/sec3b.asp.
3. MacPhee, L. , “Learning Spaces: A Tutorial,”. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 32 (November.1. , 2009 ), www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/EDUCAUSEQuarterlyMagazineVolum/LearningSpacesATutorial/163854
4. Existence value is most commonly used in environmental economics. An excellent treatment is www.eoearth.org/article/Total_economic_value.
Copyright © 2011 Frank R. Allen

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