Just don’t call it a Commons: building the learning boutique model

September 7, 2011, 7:10 pm

Back in April I posted this on Twitter:

“Working on addition and renovation I am hoping to avoid using the term Commons– it’s a library, KISS! BTW, Commons is so last decade!”

Several people retweeted this so it seems like there is interest. Let me explain a bit of the back-story. A friend posted images on facebook of a library she visited that had just refurbished their Research Commons. In fact, this Commons 2.0 concept seems to be growing. Academic libraries that had developed these spaces five, six, or ten years ago are now rethinking them. This varies from simple refreshment of the furniture to totally redeveloping the concept.

What bothers me is the use of the term “commons” and how it caught on like wildfire. Over the last decade every modern library had to have a commons. Toss in the descriptor of your choice: information, learning, research, knowledge, scholarly, group, library, etc.
Now I’ve always appreciated the concept of the commons but never the terminology. To me it dilutes the power and symbolism of the library. You don’t need librarians to run a commons. In fact, you don’t even need a library. I’ve seen commons scattered throughout various places on campuses. From a stakeholder point of view a commons is a computer lab and study/work space, and that doesn’t require a library. Politically I fear the word commons might have long-term damage to our reputation.

I get it though. Libraries like to be able to point to a shinny new area and say “hey look, we’re modern—we have a commons!” But I think the emphasis then becomes on the technology and furniture, (and not the activity) which could be relocated to the student center, dorm areas, or an academic building. A commons is a modular concept that can be copied and pasted elsewhere. I think the distinction of it being a library place is going to wane over time.

At UCSB we’re not using the term commons, but instead saying that the library is evolving. Our narrative is built around the theme that scholarship has changed and will continue to change and hence we are outfitting the library to address these various needs and academic activities.

Our renovation and addition features over a dozen newly conceived areas, from group collaboration zones, to quiet reading rooms. There is a multimedia lab, a faculty studio, seminar rooms, galleries, a sunroom, a research hub, and more. It’s going to be an impressive complex.

But we’re not building a commons. The Library is a library; it’s not a commons. A commons is what they have over in the student resources building. The library is something beyond that. It has value-added services. Anyone on campus can build a commons, there is no real distinction there programmatically—but we’re the University Library. No one else can claim that and so through this process we are shaping and expanding what exactly the University Library is and should be.

As I mentioned we are designing numerous new spaces. Even the hallways are possible collision spaces that can support learning. Working on this project is more like developing a series of themed environments—I like to think of them as unique learning boutiques—each with a different intended purpose, style, and personality. You go here for your multimedia projects, you go here to work on group projects, you go here for casual collaboration, you go here for quiet study. Imagine this spread out over 200,000 sq ft of space and several floors. It’s really about cultivating scholarly behaviors and aligning academic outcomes to specific areas.

We’re striving to build nimble micro-spaces that can easily evolve rather than large spaces that are weighed down by desktop computers. Don’t get me wrong. There is definitely something impressive about walking into a large room with 100 computers. But the desktop is dying.

Rather than have one space with 100 computers, I’d rather have 4 spaces with 25 computers—but each of those spaces crafted for particular behaviors. Maybe one is for casual computing, another is for group computing, another is for high-end applications, and another is for quick-use stand-and- go. The furniture, aesthetics, and mood would be different in each of these areas based on intentions.

The central question is how do we design an environment that is ideal for the experience we want to encourage? How do we amplify and optimize the use of library space? It’s easy to just buy nice tables and lots of computers, but it’s much more challenging to design a place for experiences.

Obviously in a large room with 100+ computers you can do all of the activities mentioned above, but then you deal with adjacency issues: the girl stressing out about her paper, next to the group of guys working on their group project, next to the person watching a movie, next to a person editing a movie. Each of these would better suited in a smaller focused environment suited for their purpose rather than in a large open room.

Plus it’s easier to reinvent the boutique spaces. For example, with the adoption of mobile devices perhaps we decide we no longer need the standing quick-use computers—in a matter of weeks we could transform that area into something more functional—perhaps into “brainstorming stations” or a row of media:scapes or a “mentoring & TA” hub. In this manner the library becomes an always-evolving test bed of ideas, rather than a commons.

In ten years we will probably be less focused on wired technology and instead have a bin at the front door where students pick up a laptop or tablet, just like you pick up a shopping cart at the grocery story. That’s how most people will interact with the general collection and each other.

I just worry that through the commons movement we are transferring our value from having massive print collections to having massive rows of computers. We have to be prepared for the phasing out of desktops and focus more on developing spaces that enhance outcomes. Libraries are not about stuff (print, microfilm, software, hardware, what have you) but rather about experiences. I wrote before that that libraries should consider themselves as “intellectual amusement parks” and I still believe that.

Anyone on campus can build a commons, in fact here is the recipe: ¼ computer lab, ¼  coffee shop,  ¼ comfortable seating area, and ¼ group workspace with whiteboards. Blend to taste and budget.

A library though is something different. It’s a scholarly boutique. Beyond services and spaces, we need to offer experiences not found elsewhere on campus. In one of my recent focus groups a student said he wanted the library to propel him to study better—that’s the essence of what we’re trying to build. We don’t want to be just another computer lab on campus. We don’t just want to be another place to study, but rather, a place that enhances the educational process like nowhere else.


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