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Redesigning Libraries for Learning

A Summary of a Report Published by the Council on Library and Information Resources

Redesigning Libraries for Learning

by Scott Bennett
November 2003

Traditionally, the academic library has been viewed-and planned for-as a place where information is held and managed, and where staff help give access to that information. The past decade has seen two developments that challenge planners to think of the library as serving a much broader educational role.

First, rapid changes in technology, especially the growth of the World Wide Web, have made it possible to use information in virtual, as well as physical, space. The second development is a change in how students learn. Collaborative work has become common, and the importance of social space for learning and teaching has become more fully appreciated.

How were these two developments reflected in academic library planning in the last decade? Scott Bennett, Yale University Librarian Emeritus, addresses this question in his study Libraries Designed for Learning. The author conducted a Web-based survey of more than 380 institutions that had renovated or built new libraries between 1992 and 2001, representing an investment of $4.5 billion. He also conducted phone interviews with 31 library directors and chief academic officers to understand better the planning and motivations that influenced library renovation.

The need to create space for growing collections was the single strongest motivator for library renovation and construction in the 1990s. In the interviews, several library directors voiced their belief that the growth of e-journals and, in the more distant future, e-books, will diminish the importance of this traditional reason for expansion.

Operational needs beyond shelving-for example, electronic classrooms, correcting dysfunctional aspects of existing space, and enhanced space for circulation, interlibrary loan, and special collections-were also strong motivators for redesign. Some libraries made space for nonlibrary operations, such as media services, academic computing services, centers for teaching and learning, and student writing centers. However, library directors indicated that decisions to place these functions in library buildings were “most often simply pragmatic . . . rather than a product of strategic collaboration between such units and the library.”

The creation of flexible space was an important characteristic of library design. While creating flexible space initially costs more than creating fixed space, it appears to be a good long-term investment: 61 percent of the survey respondents reported having to make further space changes soon after completing their projects.

During the 1990s, many planners recognized the importance of social study space in libraries: the second strongest motivator for building projects was the need to provide new types of student study space. The result was the allocation of more space for group study, food services, and socializing. Many libraries are discovering that there is no contradiction in thinking of the library as a place for socializing as well as for study.

In addition to exploring what prompted library investments, Bennett sought to understand how decisions were made and who was involved. Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that library staff, especially directors, took primary ownership of library planning. Chief academic officers, while responsible for approving projects and allocating funds, typically did not become deeply involved with space planning. Faculty and students were usually consulted in planning, but typically did not stay involved throughout the process. Librarians “observe campus teaching and learning behaviors,” closely, but, Bennett writes, did not pursue genuinely collaborative planning methods. In fact, most planning was based on an assessment of library operations, without any systematic assessment of the modes of student learning and of faculty teaching.

Bennett asks, “Was library space planning in the 1990s primarily extrapolating on past experience, in the belief that the only prediction about the future that could confidently be made was that it would look rather like the past? Or was planning in some way attempting to interpolate a significantly different vision of the future and hoping to bring that future into being through planning decisions?” He concludes that even as planners responded to a need for more social space, and as buildings were reconceived to make better use of information technology, the planning process remained “primarily extrapolative, responding strongly to traditional needs and ideas of library service.”

In Bennett’s view, a different vision of the future is needed if libraries are to achieve their potential as spaces for teaching and learning. The most important contribution that library space might make to the educational mission of colleges and universities would flow from a better understanding of how students learn and how faculty teach, and from designs consciously meant to support those activities. As an example, he describes the concept of a learning commons, which brings people together around shared learning tasks. “The core activity of a learning commons would not be the manipulation and mastery of information . . . but the collaborative learning by which students turn information into knowledge and sometimes into wisdom.”

The greatest challenge in designing a learning commons is to ensure it is conceptually “owned” by learners, rather than by librarians or teachers. “A learning commons must accommodate frequently changing learning tasks that students define for themselves, not information-management tasks defined and taught by library or academic computing staff.” Achieving the full educational potential of library space will require a planning process with the following characteristics:

  • Library design should not be dominated by a concern for information resources and their delivery. It should “incorporate a deeper understanding of the independent, active learning behaviors of students and the teaching strategies of faculty meant to support those behaviors.”
  • To better understand the potential for the library as education space, planning partnerships that are shaped around substantive questions of teaching and learning should be created with faculty and students.

Would systematically built and applied knowledge of the modes of student learning and faculty teaching produce appreciably different results in library design? The author says that it is not yet possible to answer this question. However, he maintains that it is “hard to see other means by which library space can be brought so strongly into line with an institution’s fundamental learning and teaching missions.”


Libraries Designed for Learning
by Scott Bennett, November 2003.
89 pages.

The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at

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