Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Commons Is So Last Decade" Says The Ubiquitous Librarian

Has The Information Commons worn out its welcome?

Blogger Brian Mathews (The Ubiquitous Librarian) has challenged us to dump the term (and all its variations) in favor of tried and true Library.
"Just don’t call it a Commons: building the learning boutique model" http://bit.ly/ne2I8S

He makes a convincing case. Here are some provocative quotes:

"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."

"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."

"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."

I agree with everything in those quotes, and with almost everything in the post. And yet...

I think we had to use something like commons to get beyond the iconic cliche of the library as the place where books are stored and librarians sit at the reference desk waiting for someone to ask a question. We had to overcome the resistance of some traditional librarians who objected to standing that concept and image on its head. Architects got it. The IT folks got it. And eventually a critical mass of librarians got it. But it took visionary librarians like Philip Tompkins and Scott Bennett to point the way. Their idea was to bridge the boundaries of print and electronic by creating a new organizing principle, a convergence based on user need, not traditional turf. Commons seemed to signal that coming together of service modes. And it is an evolutionary concept. As Tompkins told us during a consultation for our 1999 renovation: "The library builds the commons, then cedes it to the college. The commons becomes what the community needs."

It may be that the academic library has evolved to the point that our clients expect the library to be an "academic amusement park." (Brian's phrase) The open computer lab has evolved into a full spectrum academic support center. Witness the transformation of U. of Calgary's Information Commons to Taylor Family Digital Library. Or Goucher College's Athenaeum.

There are some exciting new takes on the evolution of the library as a learning environment, even, as Brian suggests, moving the commons concept out of the library and into places like the dorms. I've tried to flag some of those on this blog.

It's a great time to be in this business. To use a phrase that Flannery O'Connor borrowed from Teilhard de Chardin, "everything that rises must converge." What better place for that convergence than The Library?

Thanks to Carolyn Cunningham, Information Commons at U. Texas - San Antonio for alerting me to Brian's blog.

1 comment:

  1. Both this and the original post by Brian Mathews are thought-provoking and well considered. It’s interesting that Information Commons and Learning Commons facilities come in so many shapes and sizes worldwide, as a quick surf of the very valuable set of links at left will confirm.

    Maybe there is a difference between ICs that are new or reconfigured spaces within a much larger university library building, and those which are completely new buildings such as those at Loyola, Auckland and Sheffield.

    I can see that where the IC or LC names are used for part of a larger library, there could be a perception that the rest of the space is devalued, by implying that innovation in the development of the learning experience is restricted to a particular physical zone of the building. That may less problematic with large new-build ICs.

    When we sought a handle for our new building in 2006, “Commons” appealed precisely because it seemed to have potential longevity that a lot of superficially trendier names lacked. The Matrix. The Thinkspace. The Nucleus. Etc. We didn’t call it another library because we felt that didn’t do justice to the campus partnerships involved, or to the extent of the innovation involved.

    Yet our IC is reality the principal library destination for most undergraduates, and many of them use the L word to refer to it.

    And if there’s ambiguity there, both we and our students are deeply relaxed about it. Long may the Commons live!