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

Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space

This summary was written by Kathlin Smith
February 2005

What is the role of the library when, increasingly, users can obtain information from any location? And what does this role change mean for the creation and design of library space?

CLIR commissioned six experts to explore these questions in a series of essays. The authors-an architect, four librarians, and a humanities professor-provide diverse visions of the library, its services, and its space in the twenty-first century. The essays suggest that changes in approaches to teaching and learning, combined with the possibilities offered by technology, present rich new opportunities for libraries and for library design.

Architect Geoffrey Freeman opens the volume by discussing how our view of libraries is changing and how these changing perspectives affect spatial design. “Ten or fifteen years ago we were taking all the teaching facilities out of libraries. . . . Today, these spaces are back . . . and in a more dynamic way than ever.” The spaces to which Freeman refers are responding to new information and learning technologies, to new pedagogies, and to the demands of interdisciplinary work. The library is increasingly seen as an extension of the classroom, offering the tools and the space to support collaborative learning.

Space planning itself has changed. Once driven by formulas based on number of volumes housed or technical functions supported, such planning today relies far more on anticipated user patterns and how the space contributes to the educational mission of the institution. The goal, writes Freeman, is that the library “function foremost as an integral and interdependent part of the institution’s total educational experience.” To achieve this goal, planning must involve administrators, trustees, students, and faculty, as well as library directors and staff. The appropriate balance must be struck between present demands and future, unidentified goals and needs. Freeman underscores the need for flexible spaces that can be reconfigured and provides examples of how, as an architect, he has responded to this need in libraries with very different missions.

Institutional mission is a dominant theme in an essay by Scott Bennett, Yale librarian emeritus. He asks: What do we know about how students learn, and how can we bring this knowledge to bear on library design? His research has shown that academic library planning is typically guided by operational needs, rather than by a systematic knowledge of how students learn. This misguided focus must be corrected, he contends, if libraries are to support the learning missions of the colleges and universities that sponsor them. Designing space that supports learning begins with asking the right questions. Bennett draws on a recent example of library space planning at Sewanee: The University of the South to illustrate what he considers to be the right questions and to explain how the answers to these questions can inform design.

Sam Demas and Bernard Frischer, authors of the third and fourth essays in the volume, explore the role of the library as a space that supports collaboration and stimulates intellectual inquiry across disciplines. Demas is college librarian at Carleton College; Frischer is a professor of art history and classics at the University of Virginia and director of UVa’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

Demas cites the Library of Alexandria as a useful frame of reference for the modern library. Decrying the specialized focus of many of today’s academic libraries, he turns to the ideal of the Mouseion, or temple of the muses, which was “a research center, a museum, and a venue for celebrating the arts, inquiry, and scholarship.” By providing not only information resources but also special collections, art exhibits, and performances, libraries can support scholarship and encourage engagement with it. Demas explores several library roles-both traditional and nontraditional-that his library has accommodated in its design. He makes a case for museum and library cooperation.

Frischer’s observations are based largely on his experience at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he developed groundbreaking three-dimensional models for the study of classical Rome. He shows how technology enables scholarship that was not previously possible-for the humanities as well as for the natural and social sciences. He argues for placing this technology at the intellectual center of the library. With the growth of interdisciplinary approaches to education, no place is better suited to provide the needed support for research, teaching, and study, he notes. Believing that the library needs to be made the place for the production of knowledge, and not just for its distribution and consumption, Frischer outlines some ideas about what would make research libraries more valuable to scholars.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San José and the Welch Memorial Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University exist at the nexus of academic, research, and public library functions. Both place a strong emphasis on teaching. In addition, each provides an interesting example of how traditional library boundaries are blurring: King melds the formerly distinct spaces of public and academic libraries, and Welch transcends physical space to serve both researchers and the public.

While serving research and teaching purposes, both libraries also provide important services to the public. Christina Peterson, a librarian in King’s Academic Services Department, describes how King draws on the traditions of public library service to offer a broad range of information and reference services, as well as information-literacy training, to students and the public. The library sees itself as a resource for lifelong learning-a role of increasing importance to academic libraries. Welch Associate Director Kate Oliver describes how her library has developed Web-based audio and visual materials on disease prevention and treatment for use in a women’s clinic, where many of the patients are illiterate. Welch librarians have partnered with caregivers to provide information tailored to specific patient needs.

Peterson’s and Oliver’s essays highlight vastly different approaches to library design that support their institutions’ missions. Peterson writes about the needs, common and distinct, of public and academic library users, and explains how the King library has accommodated these needs in its design. At Welch, the idea of “the library as base,” extends the traditional notion of the “library as place” and illustrates how librarians can assume vital new roles. “Touchdown suites”-spaces close to users that encourage interaction with librarians-and liaison services, in which librarians serve as information resources on clinical, research, and teaching teams, bring the library’s resources directly to Hopkins clinical staff and patients. Later this year, Welch will take this a step further, when it begins training a new type of information professional-an “informationist”-who has specific content knowledge and will be a member of the hospital’s clinical, research, and teaching teams.

Some common themes connect the essays: the value of the library in supporting the social dimensions of learning, facilitating interdisciplinary work, serving as a media broker, and offering-in their staff-partners in learning, teaching, and research. Yet these themes emerge in distinct, engaging visions of what the library, its services, and its space can be.

More About this Report

Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space
February 2005.
ISBN 1-932326-13-8. 81 pages.

The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at https://www.clir.org/pubs/abstract/pub129. Print copies can be ordered at this URL for $20 per copy plus shipping.