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Scott Bennett

© Scott Bennett, 2005. Readers of this essay and librarians may copy it without the copyright owner’s permission, if the author and publisher are acknowledged in the copy and the copy is used for educational, not-for-profit purposes. This permission does not apply to the first four paragraphs of this essay, which the author wrote for a report for the Ohio State University Libraries. This material is used here with the permission of the copyright owner, the Ohio State University Libraries.

Making a Paradigm Shift

Over the last decade, colleges and universities in the United States have invested almost a half-billion dollars every year in new and renovated academic libraries. At that level of investment and with the long life cycles demanded of library buildings, we need to know what we are doing. While there is much to celebrate in recent library architecture and few stories of design failure, we nonetheless confront a sobering uncertainty. Architect Craig Hartman describes it as follows:

Because libraries today are in transition, both as institutions and as a building type, every library that embarks on a building program is in a sense on its own. While there is a long tradition to draw on, there is no agreed-on paradigm for the library of the future. Getting to this paradigm is the task before us (Hartman 2000, 112).

Two factors in particular drive the need for a new paradigm. The more obvious of the two is the revolution in information technology that has been gathering speed since the 1960s and that took off in 1993 with the debut of the World Wide Web. The second factor, somewhat quieter but no less profound, is the move in higher education away from a teaching culture and toward a culture of learning.

In its briefest form, the paradigm that has [traditionally] governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. . . . We are beginning to recognize that our dominant paradigm mistakes a means for an end. It takes the means or method—called “instruction” or “teaching”—and makes it the college’s end or purpose. To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that General Motors’ business is to operate assembly lines or that the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds. We now see that our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best (Barr and Tagg 1995).

Librarians and library designers need to join faculty in this paradigm shift. We need to understand that the success of the academic library is best measured not by the frequency and ease of library use but by the learning that results from that use. Our purpose is not to circulate books, but to ensure that the circulation of knowledge produces learning. Reconceiving our purposes involves a fundamental shift for librarians trained in a service culture—one that is comparable to the shift that faculty are making as they move from a teaching to a learning culture. Academic librarians need to make a paradigm shift from a service to a learning culture.

The dominance of the service culture in current library space planning is strikingly evident in how academic library directors characterize their planning methods. Describing 240 construction and renovation projects completed between 1992 and 2001, these directors reported conducting systematic evaluations of library operations 85 percent of the time, while doing systematic assessments of student learning and faculty teaching behaviors only 41 percent and 31 percent of the time, respectively. The latter two figures are probably overstated. Follow-up interviews with a number of library directors revealed that even when they had reported doing a systematic assessment of modes of student learning, they had in most cases simply surveyed student preferences regarding group study space and types of seating (Bennett 2003, 20–22, 33–36).

The knowledge base that guides library space planning is thus poorly balanced, tilted heavily toward library operations and away from systematic knowledge of how students learn. A case in point is the redesign of the learning commons at one large North American research library. While the library’s planning principles invoke the social dimension of learning, the diversity of learner needs, and the wish to foster self-sufficiency and lifelong learning, the information on which planning actually drew was operational: library program and service descriptions and statistics, inventories of public computing facilities in the library and of current staff spaces, and the results from a user survey.1

One could provide more stories illustrating the mismatch between what we wish to achieve in libraries and the knowledge we bring to bear on library space planning. However, it is important to balance such reports with stories about the considerable success of libraries built or renovated between 1992 and 2001. In interview after interview done as part of a national survey, library directors and chief academic officers pointed to significantly increased student use of their libraries as one of the clearest and most gratifying marks of the success of their projects. Responding to changing patterns of student learning was in fact one of the most powerful motivators for library construction and renovation in the 1990s (Bennett 2003, 7–8 and Table 3a). Accommodating student learning was sometimes an explicit goal of a project, as happened at one liberal arts college where the dean believes the library is “probably the most important place for learning on campus.” At other times, the result was achieved without conscious design, as for instance at a doctoral university where the library director reported significant growth in group study:

We’re seeing that virtually all of [some 250 tables seating four to six students] are filled with students working together, and . . . the thing that makes us happiest is that we somehow stumbled into a really high-use kind of thing here that reflects how people function within their classes and work with their fellow students. . . . [This space] will be filled, literally every chair, . . . and they’re all talking at the same time. And the hum that rises above this is just amazing. And they don’t care. . . . There’s all this din that occurs [from] hundreds of students in the same space, all working together and all talking at the same time. . . . Somehow it just all came together as a very useful space for students. . . . We just beam with pride (Bennett 2003, 16–18).

So while we face some sobering facts about the heavily skewed knowledge base that often guides library space design, we can also point to some notable accomplishments in building libraries as learning spaces. The question is, Can we do better? Given the immense sums spent every year on library construction and renovation, we surely cannot afford to “somehow stumble” into our successes.

Asking the Right Questions

How can we get better value for our investment in library construction and renovation? As librarians, we must start by asking the right questions. This will be challenging, because those questions require a basic and deeply unsettling shift in professional outlook. We are unlikely to make this shift so long as space design is guided primarily by knowledge about library operations and only infrequently, if at all, by knowledge about learning. We need to focus on learning issues with at least the same intensity and sophistication that we bring to the analysis of operational issues. We need to ensure that choices about operational issues—the design of reference areas, for instance—are strongly guided by what we know of student learning. When a choice must be made, we may well need to give preference—dare one say it?—to learning needs over operational needs. What would happen, for instance, if the delivery of reference services were designed not around a service desk but around lounge seating? What would be the consequences for learning if the design elements asserting the librarians’ authority (e.g., the queue, the desk, the shelves of reference books) were abandoned in favor of design elements (e.g., lounge chairs, computers designed for collaborative use) that suggest the reference librarian is the student’s partner in the learning enterprise?

Jeanne Narum reinforces the importance of asking the right questions by pointing to the wrong questions that prompt many construction and renovation projects. To ask first about the amount or size of the space that is needed is to start wrong, Narum suggests. Instead, “questions about the nature of the educational experience [that is desired]—about quality and the nature of the learning community—are questions that must be asked first and asked persistently throughout the [planning] process” (Narum nd).2How many librarians can say they started space planning in this way and, equally important, kept educational issues at the center of their planning activities as they progressed?

In truth, we have little experience in asking the right questions in a focused, thoughtful, and purposeful way.3 Happily, I am able to report on a notable example of library planning that has begun by asking questions about how students learn. An opportunity to renovate the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems at the Jessie Ball duPont Library at Sewanee: The University of the South has prompted a large-scale inquiry, led by Daniel S. Backlund, chair of the Theatre Arts Department. This inquiry pursues several vital questions about the library using a set of subcommittees, one of which is concerned with information literacy and is chaired by Richard A. O’Connor, who codirects the Center for Teaching at Sewanee.4 O’Connor is systematically studying student learning behaviors at Sewanee intending that this knowledge will inform planning for library space and services.5

The right initial questions for library design should include two factors known to be critically important to successful learning: time on task and educationally purposeful activities, such as discussing ideas from classes or readings outside of class.6

Increasing Time on Task

The more time that students spend on learning tasks, the more likely they are to learn effectively (National Survey of Student Engagement 2002, 2003). One probable implication of this for library design is that inviting spaces that honor study are likely to encourage students to study longer. This conviction surely underlies the view, so often expressed by those interviewed for the national survey, that the success of library construction and renovation is best measured by a project’s ability to draw students to the library.7 Libraries are not just study halls; they should be purposefully designed to promote study and learning.

In an independent-study course in anthropology, Richard O’Connor collaborated with five students to learn about the campus culture for study by interviewing students individually and in small groups.8 The interviews were just one part of their collaborative work, which also included observations and class discussions that shaped an evolving understanding of what the investigators were looking for and what was implicit in the questions they were asking. The subject of inquiry was the connection students make, or do not make, between their academic and social lives. Responses to this question revealed a great deal about the social dimension of study and how students managed their study time and their study environments.

In these interviews, Sewanee students distinguished sharply between their academic and social lives, saying little that indicated a deep mingling of the two. These students were proud of Sewanee’s strong academic reputation and the way the life of the mind often colors campus social life. But the distinction nonetheless remained powerful, as evident in one student comment:

I’ve definitely had intellectual sorts of conversations outside of class, but I don’t necessarily characterize them as academic. They’re learning, but I don’t really think of them as academic pursuits. Academic pursuit should require effort, dedication, and energy. With those [intellectual] kinds of conversations you talk about [a subject] for 30 minutes and you learn something. It’s probably important and matters to your life, but you’re not going to follow through. And, there’s not really anything riding on that conversation. I’m not getting tested later, so I don’t think of it in the same way.

This student characterized study as involving focused, disciplined, consequential effort. Other students frequently commented that they chose to go to the library for particularly serious, sustained study. At the same time, Sewanee students clearly regarded study as having a strong social context. As one student put it:

I think the library is conducive to studying and to socializing; it depends what you’re looking for. The good thing about it is I can take a study break while walking around and finding some of my friends who are in the front and obviously not working that hard. But you can find little holes in there where you’re not going to get found very often if you don’t want to be.

This comment indicated a need to manage the social aspects of study. Other students expressed this need in terms of a need to take frequent breaks and a need for the right amount of personal seclusion, which varied significantly from student to student and from time to time for a given student. One student’s observation made plain just how changeable the definition of a distraction is:

If I’ve been sitting down there [in the library basement] for hours, the littlest things can distract me. Like somebody talking or the doors. . . . And a lot of times, somebody’ll walk by that you know, so you stop and have a conversation. When other people do it, it gets on my nerves . . . especially when I can’t join in on the conversation! But if I’m doing it, then I’m constantly thinking we’re getting on somebody’s nerves. But you’re not gonna not talk to somebody.

Another student described the study options provided by the library explicitly in social terms, casting them as largely negative options he rarely chose for himself:

And especially you cannot study on the second floor in those carrels or on the main floor unless you WANT to be distracted. And I think . . . the people who have open carrels are the ones that realize they’re gonna be talking a lot, and they’re not always in the library. And it’s more of a social thing. Especially the main floor. It’s more of a social gathering than it is a study area. I’m not gonna do that.

As O’Connor observed in private communication with the author, “we found [in both the interviews and the class discussion of them] that students adjusted the level of distraction to fit the task and its importance. . . . [M]any students have learned to vary where they are in the library to control their level of distraction.”

This active management of the study environment by controlling social distractions was also evident in the comments of several students on a small study space in Snowden Forestry Building, home of the geology and environmental studies departments at Sewanee. Snowden and the duPont Library present many of the same issues for students wanting to control their study environment. The difference is that student comments on Snowden are untouched by the faint praise that so often damns the library. For instance, one student said, “I really like the library. The boring environment forces me to pay attention to my work, since there is nothing else to do.” By contrast, another student described the mix of academic and social activities at Snowden as follows:

I spend a lot of time hanging out in the reading room in Snowden, so academic and social come together there. [Interviewer: When you say “hanging out” in Snowden, do you mean hanging out in the same sense that you would hang out in someone’s dorm or at a fraternity house, or something else?] Well, we’re definitely there to do our work, so it’s not the same hanging out as getting together to play video games or something. But we all talk about our work and sometimes the conversation will shift to social stuff, like what everyone’s doing this weekend.

Another student described the study environment at Snowden at length:

The reading room in Snowden is the best place to study around here, in my opinion. For one, the light is good. Also, there are comfortable chairs if you’re just reading and don’t need to be sitting up straight. Plus, it helps that there are always other people from the department wandering through, so if you need help or don’t understand something, there’s usually someone around to help you. And I really like the table in there. I like to be able to spread out all of my books and notes at once in front of me. I can’t use the tables in the library because they’re all pretty much on the ground floor and there’s too much distraction, people moving around and talking and stuff. And I hate carrels: They box you in, the lighting is bad, they’re really metallic, and they don’t actually prevent you from distraction, because they’re all in rows and you can tell that there’s someone in front of you or next to you. It’s just too distracting. I like Snowden because there’s room to spread out without being distracted and if someone’s talking, they’re talking about a related subject.

One of the group interviews touched on the powerful learning environment achieved at Snowden as a function of the building itself creating a community for learning:

M: I feel like it’s because they have buildings to go to. The natural-resources kids have Snowden, the other sciences have Woods [laboratories]. All the classes and the professors are in the same building, and so you see people in the halls and stuff. The other departments, like English and languages and history, etc., . . . are more spread out in different buildings, so it’s harder to just see people around.

B: Space for each department is definitely important. If you don’t have classes together with the people in your major, you’re not even going to figure out who they are. I think the Snowden people get to know each other so well because even when they don’t have classes together, they have that great building to study in.

These student comments suggest that good study space is responsive to the academic and social dimensions of study in ways that allow students to control them both. Such space encourages study and fosters learning by

  • supporting a distinction between studying and socializing that does not deny the social dimension of study
  • favoring learning functions in the space’s mix of academic and social functions
  • providing choices of place, ranging from personal seclusion to group study, that variously reinforce the discipline needed for study
  • permitting territorial claims for study that enable students to govern the social dimension of their study space
  • fostering a sense of community among students, allowing them to be seen as members of that community while they take strength from seeing other community members.9

None of the interviewees described study space in the duPont Library nearly as enthusiastically they described Snowden. This contrast draws attention to the general challenge for library space design: Is it possible to design a library so that it functions as a powerful learning space—one that encourages students to devote more time to study—as well as an effective service space?

Fostering Active Learning

One of the markers of active learning is the discussion of class content outside of the class (National Survey of Student Engagement 2003). To get some measure of this activity at Sewanee, O’Connor formally polled students, asking a series of written questions, including “Has what you were studying in a class this semester led to a lengthy conversation with others not taking that class? If ‘yes,’ please choose a memorable example and describe where it happened and how it happened.” The surveys were conducted at the end of class sessions by cooperating faculty; the surveys reached 19 percent of the Sewanee student body and yielded nearly 100 percent return rates.

There were 169 affirmative responses to this question, or 65 percent of the 260 responses to the survey. Students identified 200 locations for their discussions:

  • 86 locations (43 percent) involved domestic spaces (i.e., dormitory or fraternity/sorority space, the student’s familial home)
  • 42 locations (21 percent) involved the central dining facility for the Sewanee campus, McClurg Hall
  • 23 locations (12 percent) involved campus spaces other than the dinning hall (e.g., classrooms, faculty offices, campus walks, a campus coffee shop, the gym)
  • 23 locations (12 percent) involved a variety of “other” spaces (e.g., cars, phone conversations, electronic messages, bars, and coffee houses)
  • 2 locations (1 percent) involved the library
  • 24 locations (12 percent) were unspecified

Domestic space was by far the most frequent venue for conversations about class content with others not taking that class. Food and beverages were clearly a part of many of these conversations. A number of respondents located the conversations at family meals, and the campus dining hall (and coffee houses and local bars) were mentioned frequently.10

The library should also be congenial to conversations that share knowledge gained in class. It is the one place where all the academic practices of the campus are brought together, making it one of the best places for students to grasp both the integrity of knowledge and the idea of knowing as a collective ongoing practice. But conversations that share knowledge gained in class almost never happen in the library. To change this, one might ask how library space might be domesticated. The objective, of course, is not to turn libraries into residence halls. We should instead try to understand what characteristics make domestic space so congenial to the desired academic behavior and discover how those characteristics might become part of the library ethos.

One might hypothesize that the library, like faculty offices (which are also rarely the locale of the desired conversations), are “work spaces” where one subordinates, rather than expresses, self. Restating this point in terms suggested by Kenneth Bruffee, these are spaces that affirm the foundational or cognitive view of knowledge, where “knowledge is an entity formalized by the individual mind and verified against reality,” often by a person with expert knowledge of the topic. Classroom and office space design typically underscores the authority of the teacher,11 just as library space often reinforces the authority of library staff. Domestic spaces, by contrast, affirm a nonfoundational view that holds knowledge to be “a community project. People construct knowledge working together in groups, interdependently. All knowledge is therefore the ‘property’ not of an individual person but of some community or other, the community that constructed it in the language spoken by members of that community” (Bruffee 1999, 180, 294–295).12 The argument here is that campus work space, be it faculty offices or the library, usually reinforces inequalities of authority in knowing—inequalities that strongly inform the accepted social norms of academe. By contrast, in domestic space it is possible to manage inequalities of authority (which of course often still exist) in ways that at least partly neutralize them.13

How is this done? How do students come to claim a learning space as their own, as distinguished from, say, the classroom space managed by faculty experts? How is knowledge space domesticated? Surely food plays a significant role in domesticating authority, as it does in so many other realms. It is good that food service of one sort or another has become a standard feature of library design (Bennett 2003, 18–19). However, food service needs to be seen not as an end in itself but as a means for creating community among learners. It is useful to return to the student interview comments (not formally associated with the survey responses being reported here) to see how learning communities are built at Sewanee. The language of domestic space figures prominently, for instance, in the way students see congenial feelings among faculty shaping powerful learning environments. One student made the following observation about the French Department:

All the teachers get along and if one of them has a question in the middle of class, they can just run into the class next door and ask it. They’re all really excited when someone joins the department, even if it’s just to take one class. And they get everyone to eat lunch together and have stuff at the French house, and they’re always having fun. The French house is sort of a center for the department where everyone can get together.

Sense of community figures importantly in a comment made by another student during the same group interview:

The [religion] department is smaller [than many other departments], so you get to know everyone. I think that getting to know people happens in most of the majors, but in departments like religion it just happens later than like in natural resources. The religion kids start coming together junior year. Like anthro[pology] kids start coming together after social theory. But the professors in the religion department all get along, and I think that helps to keep things together. That’s part of the reason why I want to switch over there [from another major] sometimes. I think the professors are really cool and everything, and I like how everyone knows each other.

Sewanee students are strongly attracted to domesticated public spaces as learning spaces.14 The domesticating behaviors of those who occupy such space, especially faculty who model these behaviors, account for much of the attraction. Such behaviors are exceptionally powerful, as these student comments indicate, in drawing people into a community of knowledge. Thoughtful space design can foster a number of behaviors that help domesticate public space, which may be characterized as space where

  • one knows something of the others who use the space
  • little is alien to the community that uses it
  • there are few threats to one’s ability to be oneself, to grow, and to learn
  • activities are often spontaneous and responsive to the learning tasks at hand
  • the occupants’ identities and activities are celebrated.

Libraries are one of the most widely shared public spaces at colleges and universities. Should they be designed as domesticated spaces, in the sense voiced by these Sewanee students? Surely, we must answer this in the affirmative. It makes little sense for higher education to invest millions of dollars every year in library construction and renovation without designing for active learning behaviors, including the kind of conversations asked about in O’Connor’s survey. Library designs that fail to do this may achieve little more than making library operations convenient and efficient for readers and staff alike. That is not a bad thing, but it mistakes the library’s core responsibilities, which lie not in the efficiency of its operations but rather in the effectiveness with which students learn.

Achieving Design Objectives

This essay argues that in designing library space we attend too exclusively to library operations and pay too little attention to student learning. We know, for instance, that we want to provide seats for readers. To ask students what kind of seating they prefer, or to give them sample chairs to evaluate, while useful, is to remain focused on the operational issue. To ask first how students learn and then to design environments, including seating, to foster that learning is to focus on learning. The latter approach sets right the balance between operations and learning. It gets right the relationship between means and ends.

Studies that attempt to understand the impact of libraries on student learning are often not instructive for space design for reasons well illustrated by George Kuh and Robert Gonyea. Drawing on highly regarded survey data gathered for more than 20 years, they conclude that

library experiences of undergraduates positively relate to select educationally purposeful activities, such as using computing and information technology and interacting with faculty members. Those students who more frequently use the library reflect a studious work ethic and engage in academically challenging tasks that require higher-order thinking. Although certain student background characteristics (race, major, year in school, transfer status, access to computers) affect the nature and frequency of students’ library activities, the library appears to be a positive learning environment for all students, especially members of historically underrepresented groups. At the same time, library use does not appear to contribute directly to gains in information literacy and other desirable [educational] outcomes [emphasis added].

The difference here is between correlation and causation. Looking at student behaviors that register in library operations, one discovers a correlation between use of the library and successful learning, but one does not find evidence that engagement with these library operations causes desirable educational outcomes. The situation facing librarians and library space designers is the same as that confronting faculty. There surely is a correlation between good lectures and effective learning, but there is little evidence that lectures cause learning. Kuh and Gonyea note that the situation regarding libraries “is not surprising, as rarely does any single experience or set of activities during college affect student learning and personal development one way or the other; rather, what is most important to college impact is the nature and breadth of a student’s experiences over an extended period” (Kuh and Gonyea 2003, 269–270).

The character of the study environment matters immensely, and that environment must in direct and tangible ways foster effective learning. This essay argues that space that allows students to manage the social dimensions of learning, that domesticates the foundational character of knowledge (the character that dominates at most colleges and universities), and that celebrates the communal (i.e., the nonfoundational) character of knowledge will indeed foster learning.15

Good planning can produce striking results. The most dramatic planning accomplishment of academic libraries over the past decade or so has been the creation of wonderfully rich digital information resources for readers. Information commons are a principal architectural expression of this achievement, and they have even spawned their own professional literature.16 Academic libraries have no comparable record of creating wonderful learning spaces. Aside from the provision of group study space, libraries have acted as if the challenge of creating excellent learning spaces would be met, if at all, elsewhere on campus. The self-directed student learning discussed in this essay has not inspired library design or propagated a professional literature in the way that digital technology has inspired the information commons.17 As long as this imbalance persists in our conception of libraries and in our ambitions for them, academic libraries will continue to accommodate learning rather haphazardly—sometimes stumbling into success (to use the words of the library director quoted earlier) and sometimes not. We will change our record of lopsided accomplishment only when we begin systematically to build an understanding of how students learn and apply that knowledge with at least as much purpose as we apply our knowledge of library operations. We know how to design library space that is operationally convenient and efficient. There is ultimately nothing but our own inattention that prevents us from designing library space that fosters effective learning.

The argument that we must domesticate the public spaces of libraries and enable students to manage the social dimensions of learning in library space employs some ideas and words not frequently encountered in the literature of library design. These ideas are incomplete, and the words are likely to be inadequate for what we need to do. The chief merit of these ideas and words is that they come from listening to students who were asked not operational questions but questions about how they learn. The listening involved only a handful of students at just one institution; without question, there are other voices to be heard and much else to be learned. One can only hope that any dissatisfaction prompted by the arguments of this essay will engender other, more-instructive inquiries into student learning. We must not just fall back comfortably on what we know of library operations. As Hartman (2000, 112) cautions, “While there is a long tradition to draw on, there is no agreed-on paradigm for the library of the future. Getting to this paradigm is the task before us.” The tradition to which Hartman points builds primarily on knowledge about how libraries operate. There is no paradigm for the academic library of the future because we have not yet brought what we know of student learning to bear on library design. When we do so, we will be able to align library operations and library space with the fundamental learning missions of the colleges and universities that sponsor them. It is by realigning libraries with institutional mission that the paradigm for the future will be found.


Banning, James H. and M. R. Canard. 1986. The Physical Environment Supports Student Development. Campus Ecologist 4: 1–3.

Barr, Robert B., and John Tagg. 1995. From Teaching to Learning—A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education. Change 17 (November/December): 12–25.

Beagle, Donald. 1999. Conceptualizing an Information Commons. Journal of Academic Librarianship 25: 82–89.

Bechtel, Joan M. 1986. Conversation: A New Paradigm for Librarianship. College & Research Libraries 47(3): 210–224.

Bennett, Scott. 2003. Libraries Designed for Learning. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. 1999. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. 2nd ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Characteristics of the Ideal Spaces for Sciences. nd. A Project Kaleidoscope document available at

Chism, Nancy Van Note. 2002. A Tale of Two Classrooms, in The Importance of Physical Space in Creating Supportive Learning Environments. Edited by Chism and Deborah J. Bickford, in the series titled New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 29. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hartman, C. W. 2000. Memory Palace, Place of Refuge, Coney Island of the Mind: The Evolving Roles of the Library in the Late 20th Century. Research Strategies 17:107–121.

Information Commons: a directory of innovative services and resources in academic libraries. nd. A Web site available at

Kuh, George D., and Robert M. Gonyea. 2003. The Role of the Academic Library in Promoting Student Engagement in Learning. College & Research Libraries 64 (July): 256–282.

Narum, Jeanne. nd. Building Communities: Asking the Right Questions. A PKAL document available at

National Survey of Student Engagement. 2002. 2002 Psychometric Framework. Bloomington, Ind.: National Survey of Student Engagement. Available at

National Survey of Student Engagement. 2003. NSSE 2003 Annual Report. Blomington, Ind.: National Survey of Student Engagement. Available at http://www/

Strange, C. Carney, and James H. Banning. 2001. Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


1 Planners looked as well at the published literature on information commons and visited a number of such installations. Project summary privately communicated to the author, 2004.

2 Narum is the director of Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), which champions strong learning environments, including classroom and laboratory facilities, for undergraduate programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. For PKAL’s programmatic activities relating to facilities, see the PKAL Web page (

3 See Banning and Canard 1986, who argue that “among the many methods employed to foster student development, the use of the physical environment is perhaps the least understood and the most neglected.” The landmark report How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford et al., eds. 1999), is silent on space design and exemplifies the neglect of the physical environment in understanding learning behaviors. See also Chism 2002, 8, where it is observed that very little has been written that applies learning theory to the design of learning spaces. An important exception, Chism notes, is the chapter entitled “Physical Environments: The Role of Design and Space,” in Strange and Banning 2001.

4 Richard A. O’Connor, Biehl Professor of International Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Sewanee, has been a generous and thoughtful interlocutor in the writing of this essay. He observes that, “the service paradigm can be corrosive” for librarians, just as the teaching paradigm is for faculty. Librarians “do not want to be clerks at Wal-Mart serving customers. Like faculty, [librarians] are people who fell in love with books, learning, and libraries long ago. They want to invite others to share their passion. If we understand learning as not ‘what’s on the test,’ but [as a measure of] how well we draw newcomers into communities of knowledge, then promoting student learning means understanding what makes these communities ‘joinable.'” Righting the balance in library space design between service and learning issues requires, as O’Connor observes, that “we conceptualize learning correctly. It is not about providing materials (books, databases—at your service!) but about structuring motive and meaning to nurture the young” (private communication, 2004).

5 I am grateful to Richard O’Connor for permission to use parts of his and his students’ research data. Because he so generously shared with me the field data that he and his students had collected (something not commonly done among social scientists), I became a virtual, asynchronous participant in their independent study. I am, however, solely responsible for the interpretation of the data reported here, an interpretation that does not necessary reflect the views of Professor O’Connor or his students.

6 These questions resonate closely with those posed in Kuh and Gonyea 2003, an important article on the role of the academic library in promoting student engagement in learning.

7 This view was notably expressed by the president of a doctoral university, who emphasized that the formal goals of the library project, which he had made his signature project for the campus, were to provide shelving for the collections and to enhance the library’s electronic capabilities. When asked about reader accommodations, the president said the library had formerly been little used by students, much to the detriment of “the academic tenor of the institution.” But two advisory committee members made it their business to build excellent reader accommodations into the project. The president said that this “has worked out brilliantly. You go to the library now, and it is a very active and alive place, and I think that may be the singularly most important outcome of our project.” He described this success, not formally a goal of the project, as “some form of serendipity, I guess” (Bennett 2003, 36–37).

8 The student researchers were Beth Christian, Chris Honeycutt, Shawn Means, Aimee Rogers, and David Zeman. They interviewed 22 students in 13 interview sessions.

9 Some of these characteristics of the Snowden study space resonate with a PKAL document, Characteristics of the Ideal Spaces for Sciences. nd.

10 Respondents frequently mentioned exchanges about religion, current affairs, historical events, and politics as prompting discussions of class material with others not taking the class. Students also frequently evaluated classes and instructors for their peers. Sometimes, conversations begun in class continued afterwards and involved students not taking the class. On occasion, a respondent reported being so excited about a class meeting, a reading, an assignment, or a course that he or she would instigate a conversation about class content. O’Connor observes implications for space design in these responses, in that some locales invite inquiry and interruption. For instance, one student said he had conversations sitting on his dormitory porch when people noticed what he was reading. Commenting on this situation, other students reported that certain locations and behaviors combine to invite people to stop and ask about what one is doing. The first floor of the duPont Library was often described as such a space, at least for brief conversations.

11 Faculty figured hardly at all in the interviews conducted by O’Connor’s students with their fellow students, except as academic authorities and the source of grades.

12 Writing specifically of reading and libraries, Bruffee observes that “reading is one way to join new communities, the ones represented by the authors of the texts we read. By reading, we acquire fluency in the language of the text and make it our own. Library stacks, from this perspective, are not a repository; they are a crowd” (Bruffee 1999, 8–9). Libraries should be designed to facilitate “conversations” within this crowd of voices. On this matter, Bruffee cites Bechtel 1986.

13 O’Connor suggests another set of concepts—”elevation” and “enthusiasm”—to understand the domestication of space. Regarding elevation, “things are right or wrong in foundational space, but ‘domestic space’ accepts all thoughts as participation.” As regards enthusiasm, “being too enthusiastic in foundational space—a place that carries authority—is like asking for extra work at the factory. In community space, [enthusiasm] is welcome. It is a way of sharing, of revealing yourself. I wonder if we should not talk about formal, personal, and in-between or convertible space” (private communication, 2004).

14 Is it possible for learning space to become too domesticated? This same student suggests so in observing students majoring in geology and natural resources: “I definitely think the Snowden kids are the most connected of the majors. They’re together all the time, almost like a little cult. They even sit together at lunch. Today there was a whole table of them, and they were just sitting there talking about rocks like they do all the damn time. Sometimes they make me feel really inadequate because I don’t have anything to contribute to the conversation, even though I’m friends with lots of them.” O’Connor suggests that what is “wrong” here is that the students are in a public space but are acting too exclusively in domestic ways—just as “the proliferation of cell phone use in public space bothers us” (private communication, 2004).

15 The word foster, rather than cause, is used to avoid a deterministic view of space design. The view espoused here is architectural or environmental probabilism, where design features make certain behaviors likely (Strange and Banning 2001, 13–15).

16 See, for instance, Beagle 1999 and Information Commons, a Web site that contains a useful bibliography.

17 There is, of course, a rich literature on information literacy. Information literacy is often conceived of as a library service, and it has engendered no architectural response except for the provision of electronic classrooms.

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