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Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library: A New High-Tech Center

Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library A New High-Tech Center


Wellesley College, located in Wellesley, Massachusetts, near Boston, was founded in 1870 and admitted its first degree-seeking students in 1875. It is a medium-size liberal arts college for women with an enrollment of about 2,300 students. There are 333 full-time and part-time faculty members. In 1998-99, its operating and capital budgets were about $130 million, and its endowment stands at $780 million. Wellesley is a merged-technology environment, with both library and computing staff reporting to the vice-president for Information Services, who is also the college librarian.

The Margaret Clapp Library’s holdings number more than 1.3 million books, periodicals, microforms, music scores, sound recordings, videocassettes, maps, and CD-ROMs. It also houses an important collection of federal and international documents. The special collections include letters, manuscripts, and rare books; the archives contain materials documenting the history of the college.

The library employs 14 librarians, one archivist, and about 23 full-time support staff. In addition, the library hires the full-time equivalent of about 26 student assistants. The library’s FY 1999 budget is $4,917,559.


As early as the mid-1970s, a technology review committee advocated forming a center that would bring together information resources and new technologies. In the early 1990s, the college began strategic planning for improvements in the media facility, including the language laboratory and audiovisual services, both of which were located in the library although they were not under its administration. The planners included staff from the library and Computing Services. As planning progressed, it became clear that electronic resources, including the Web, would figure prominently in the future of information delivery. The college and the library would be left behind unless they integrated new information technology. This meant that the library and Information Services would have to work together in a more systematic way.

A gift to the college in 1996 from Betsy Wood Knapp proved timely. Knapp, a professional in communications technology, donated funds to support the creation of a high-technology media center on campus. She viewed the center as providing “a facility for people to learn, so they can then use their imagination to create new ways of seeing things.” The establishment of the Knapp Center would also support two of the college’s goals related to the use of information resources and technology:

  • to ensure that a working knowledge of technology is an integral part of every student’s Wellesley experience, both by integrating information technology with the curriculum and providing an array of networked resources and services; and
  • to empower the faculty to use information technology effectively for both curricular and scholarly purposes, through a collaborative training and support effort involving faculty, staff, and students.

In 1997, Wellesley opened the Betsy Wood Knapp Media and Technology Center, located in the Margaret Clapp Library. The center brings traditional library functions, such as course reserves and microform collections, together with media services, language instruction facilities, audiovisual production areas, and multimedia workstations. The Knapp Center provides Wellesley faculty, students, and staff with greatly expanded opportunities for innovation and integration of new technologies into their learning experiences. It enables the blending of video, audio, film, graphics, and the full range of library resources.

The 17,000 square-foot center has 43 large workstations, fitted with many combinations of equipment, including flatbed scanners, VCRs and monitors for both U.S. and foreign videocassettes, and laserdisc players. Both Pentium II PCs and Macs are available. Portable tape player/recorders can be borrowed and used in any of the carrels for language listening and vocal practice. A large-format printer (for printing posters or large artwork on paper or other materials) is also available. Current software includes Photoshop, Acrobat, Illustrator, PageMaker, Persuasion, Premiere, Director, Authorware, and Flash.

The workstations are configured for both collaborative and individual work. There are 25 carrels that can accommodate two or three people and 18 carrels for individuals. Faculty and students working in groups can use one of the center’s four project rooms. These spaces offer larger-screen monitors for videos, conference tables, and computers. Other rooms are equipped for linear and non-linear editing. There is a video production studio that is large enough for filming interviews or small group projects.

Once the center was established, it made special efforts to draw in new users. Center staff held events, including open houses, demonstrations, and tours, to show faculty, students, and administrative staff what was being implemented. Special grants made it possible for a selected group of student interns to receive advanced training in the use of instructional technology applications. The students apply this knowledge to help faculty members as they develop curricular projects. The manager of Advanced Technology Applications selects the student interns. The library has participated in some of the projects, working with the interns to identify and structure the appropriate information resources.

Course reserves have been integrated into Knapp Center services. Using the electronic reserve system, students can print copies of assigned readings as needed. The Knapp Center also lends the non-electronic reserves (books and other materials) that faculty have identified as high-use items.

The Process

The stage was set for merging the library, computing, and media services into a single information services unit in 1994. That year, the college administration decided to elevate the library director, Micheline Jedrey, to senior staff, making her vice president for Information Services (she also holds the title of college librarian). Library, computing, and media services staff report to her, and she reports to the college president. Besides integrating staff under her leadership, the promotion gave her access to decision makers and allowed her to advance the library’s role in planning for media, technology, and space. She said that she doubts the library would have received funding to expand its functions if she had not been part of the senior staff.

Planning for the merged information services unit began in 1995 and was led by Sally Linden, research librarian. The planning group consisted of faculty from various disciplines and members of the Information Services staff from various departments: Advanced Technology Applications, Systems and Networks, User Services, Media Services, Library Systems, and Course Support Services (course reserves).

Conceptualizing the center’s services and its design required extensive consultation and collaboration within the Information Services organization. The Knapp Center is now a physical manifestation of this merged organizational effort, and the staff of the center are drawn from the library, Media Services, and the Advanced Technology Applications group. The center also employs more than 40 student assistants who have worked in various parts of Information Services.

The decision to locate a high-technology center in the library, as opposed to elsewhere on campus, was the result of some deliberation. For example, the language departments, which had outdated facilities in the library, envisioned a new lab in the building they occupied. There was also some resistance to the idea of a librarian leading the planning process. But the library had the compelling advantages of being open the most hours per week and having staff that could support technology functions. Ultimately, these were critical in the final decision.


In reviewing the project, Jedrey believes that the design has worked well. Although staffing issues must still be resolved, the library’s position on campus has been much strengthened, and the center’s facilities have begun to significantly affect the modes of teaching and learning at Wellesley. This innovative facility can be a model for other college libraries to consider, breaking ground in the integration of library and information technology services. The success of the Knapp Center is summed up by Associate Dean Lee Cuba: “The Knapp Center has become a major site for learning on campus and its multi-use function has catalyzed what was already there.”

In evaluating the outcomes of the project, two questions might be asked. How has the technology offered by the Knapp Center improved learning? And how do the functions of the Knapp Center relate to the more traditional library functions? The views of faculty, students, and administrators provide some answers.

Staff Response

Bringing more technology into the library has placed new demands on staff. “Feelings of frustration and incompetence with the new systems pushed some people beyond their tolerance,” says Jedrey. The library has made efforts to help staff develop new skills through technical training. “Cross training is a strong issue. It took a while to sort out how much to expect from each level [of expertise],” says Diane McCorry, co-director of the Knapp Center. But in some areas, notably the electronic reserve desk, staff continue to struggle with library technology and have had difficulty viewing their jobs more broadly. In the future, Jedrey says, “bridge builders and transition managers will be the ones to succeed.”

Several staff members noted that the open design of the office space made their jobs more difficult. The reduced privacy makes them more vulnerable to interruptions and distractions.

Faculty Response

Faculty members from several departments have started to use multimedia materials in teaching, but it is hard to systematically evaluate multimedia’s impact on learning. First, its broad availability at Wellesley is so new as to be still experimental. Second, educators have not agreed on a way to evaluate objectively the benefits and drawbacks of technology-based learning. There is, however, ample anecdotal evidence to provide some clues. A common observation of faculty, from sociology to languages to the sciences, was the strength of multimedia in allowing instructors to “show rather than describe.”

Some of the strongest endorsements have come from language teachers. A professor of French noted that exposing students to culture and context is an essential aspect of language training. Multimedia allows students to make associations between visual and auditory information that would otherwise take a long time. “Multimedia gives students access to meaning through image,” he notes, which is especially important when English is not used. He believes that the use of multimedia has doubled or tripled his effectiveness in teaching. He also notes that using the computer to project the course outline allows the students to maintain their concentration collectively, rather than focusing their attention on photocopies.

A professor of German added, “Multimedia has not replaced the core, traditional curriculum,” but it has provided students tools for research and production of projects. The professor cited one example, “Berlin in the Twenties,” a Web-based project to which each student contributes one piece of research, using a variety of multimedia sources. The Web resource will then form the basis for a writing project.

Has access to the Web and new technological possibilities enhanced the use of the library’s print and other resources or the expertise of its staff outside the Knapp Center? The answer to this question is ambiguous. Some faculty members who use the new technology admitted that they had not drawn much on the services of library staff or on library materials in developing their electronic curricula. The German instructor said she had not sought help with content for “Berlin in the Twenties,” but she expected that librarians would help her use technology for the writing component. On the other hand, a professor of biology credited the library with introducing the faculty to digital imaging and scanning, and for providing students with technical expertise to help faculty members carry out ideas.

Some faculty members who have used the Knapp Center would like to use it more. A history of science professor offered an interesting example of how he has merged the content of the traditional library with the services of the Knapp Center. In his courses, he uses books drawn from the library’s rare book collection. Many contain woodcuts that illustrate aspects of the history of science. He has scanned and then animated some of the illustrations to show, for example, complex motion. Giving students the chance to learn in a way that no book provides has been effective. But consulting the originals is also important. “Students are impressed by the book as object,” he notes. As an added bonus, the books are old enough that the faculty member does not need to worry about copyright infringement when making parts of them available for online viewing.

Faculty members noted that learning how to incorporate the new technology into teaching takes time. They also noted that they must consider their students’ level of familiarity with basic tools before deciding how to use technology. For example, when students are asked to help build a Web site, not all students know hypertext markup language (HTML). Teaching it and working out the bugs takes a lot of class time.

Student Response

The success of the Knapp Center is evidenced in part by its popularity among students. Workstations are constantly in use. “See you at Knapp” has become an often-heard refrain. The center has become a social as well as intellectual magnet for students. But student users are not the only ones to benefit from the center’s facilities. Student employees note that their work has allowed them to build important skills in information technology. Besides their important function in training faculty and fellow students to use the equipment and software, the students have developed skills that will be extremely valuable when they enter the job market.

Student users have reported that they are very happy with the range of software and equipment offered by Knapp. When pressed, however, student employees noted that it might be good to have more PCs in an “express” area, which would handle routine, simpler software so that machines with greater capabilities were available for multimedia work.

Some students and faculty noted that they viewed the Knapp Center as separate from, rather than integrated with, the library. One student mentioned the visual disconnect when the Knapp Center’s high-tech design meets the conventional decor and traditional stacks of the main library. A faculty member in computer sciences agreed, saying that his students go to the Knapp Center-not the library. These comments underscore a key challenge for library staff. Having brought the center into their domain, they must now explore ways of integrating the traditional more completely with the high-tech. They have begun by making some administrative staff changes, including job swaps and cross-training, to reinforce the integration of the facility into other information-service offerings.

Administrator Response

Administrators unanimously said that the results of opening the Knapp Center were better than anyone expected. The biggest challenge for them has been ensuring the center’s smooth functioning while also fulfilling responsibilities for purchasing such items as audiovisual and satellite equipment. Administrators are also aware of the impact the technology has had on teaching. According to Associate Dean Cuba, the impact of multimedia has been significant in the teaching of art history. “Tests have become harder,” he says. Because students have better access to art images, they can more easily memorize and identify them. Tests can use embedded images, and students can spend less time describing and more time analyzing them.

Conditions for Success

What were the factors leading to the success of the Knapp Center? According to Sally Linden, project manager for the center, there were several.

  • First, there was the confluence of a donor’s desire with the need of the college. The $2 million gift provided funds for construction and outfitting of the center and included a $250,000 endowment fund for upgrades and new technology.
  • A second factor was the extent to which planners worked with faculty in social sciences and humanities. It was important that faculty be part of the process and pleased with the result. This was especially true of the language faculty, since students in language courses would be heavy users of the center.
  • A third factor was the cooperation of specific individuals in Information Services who had enough technical expertise to understand the whole picture, since no one on the planning staff had sufficient expertise. Linden notes that it was gratifying to see so many constituencies working together to “build the same house.” She did not believe there were any significant trade-offs or compromises required during the planning process.

Next Steps

With the Knapp Center up and running, the library is now re-examining its role. What needs to be a library function? What should be an information services function? Or what should be a course function? How do students and faculty want to use information and how can the library help? What is the library’s role in supporting basic courses? How does the library prepare itself to provide new services? The library director hopes that focusing on these questions during the planning process will lead to seeing services in a more integrated way and to viewing them from the point of view of the customer rather than from the professional perspective alone.

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