If the classroom is the heart of higher education, the library is its soul.
Brief History of College Libraries
Typically, undergraduate libraries were not often discussed during the first part of the 20th century — It was thought that the basic library collections were able to meet the needs of all users, undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.
As a result of the rapid increase in the student population after World War II, undergraduate service became an issue for library and university administrators. With the growth of a complex research-oriented library and university system, undergraduate students were often bewildered. Huge card catalogs, closed book stacks and extensive reference materials overwhelmed new students and many did not seek assistance.
Harvard’s Lamont Library was the first large university’s effort to open an undergraduate library. Many other universities followed suit, such as Michigan, Texas and South Carolina. Some established full-scale libraries while others provided separate reading rooms aimed at undergraduates. One characteristic of these projects was that the books were housed in open stacks. Through design and layout undergraduate libraries and reading rooms tried to convey an informal and accessible air.
“Libraries need to break out…. We need to rethink our whole attitude about the relationship between students and space, furniture, and information, and redefine what a library should be.”
–Lee Van Orsdel Dean of University Libraries, Grand Valley State University
In a digital world, libraries are “ripe for reinvention,” says Derek Jones, Principal in Perkins+Will’s Raleigh, N.C., office. Colleges are trimming the space their libraries allocate for books and storage and are forming consortiums to share resources. Digitization is facilitating just‑in‑time delivery of information and materials, although, as Jones points out, “when you have a million items and no budget, digitizing can be a formidable task.”
Steelcase WorkSpace Futures researchers and designers have developed key design principles for planning 21st century libraries. Like the classroom design principles, they’re based on primary user-centered research. The library design principles reflect the changed nature of a library in higher education today:
- Design library spaces that support social learning
- Support the librarian’s evolving role
- Optimize the performance of informal spaces
- Plan for adjacencies
- Provide for individual comfort, concentration, and security
- Provide spaces that improve awareness of, and access to, library resources
These top 10 highlights capture the big picture themes of organizational change that need to take place to develop a Library of the Future for institutions of higher education:
Libraries remain the gatekeepers to rich tapestries of information and knowledge. As the volume of web resources increases, libraries are charged with finding new ways to organize and disseminate research to make it easier to discover, digest, and track.
Incorporating new media and technologies in strategic planning is essential. Libraries must keep pace with evolving formats for storing and publishing data, scholarly records, and publications in order to match larger societal consumption trends favoring video, visualizations, virtual reality, and more.
In the face of financial constraints, open access is a potential solution. Open resources and publishing models can combat the rising costs of paid journal subscriptions and expand research accessibility. Although this idea is not new, current approaches and implementations have not yet achieved peak efficacy.
Libraries must balance their roles as places for both independent study and collaboration. Flexibility of physical spaces is becoming paramount for libraries to serve as campus hubs that nurture cross-disciplinary work and maker activities — without eschewing their reputations as refuges for quiet reflection.
Catering to patrons effectively requires user centric design and a focus on accessibility. Adopting universal design principles and establishing programs that continuously collect data on patron needs will make libraries the ultimate destination for learning support and productivity.
Spreading digital fluency is a core responsibility. Libraries are well-positioned to lead efforts that develop patrons’ digital citizenship, ensuring mastery of responsible and creative technology use, including online identity, communication etiquette, and rights and responsibilities.
Libraries must actively defend their fundamental values. In times of economic and political unrest, libraries will be challenged to uphold information privacy and intellectual freedom while advocating against policies that undermine public interests and net neutrality.
Advancing innovative services and operations requires a reimagining of organizational structures. Rigid hierarchies are no longer effective. To meet patrons’ needs, libraries must draw from different functional areas and expertise, adopting agile, matrix like paradigms.
Enabled by digital scholarship technologies, the research landscape is evolving. GIS data, data visualization, and big data are expanding how information is collected and shared. These tools are helping libraries preserve and mine their collections while illuminating collaborative opportunities.
Artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things are poised to amplify the utility and reach of library services. These emerging technologies can personalize the library experience for patrons, connecting them more efficiently to resources that best align with their goals.
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