Academic library design: a commons or an athenaeum.

Author:Caniano, William T.


The rapid expansion of the Internet and the availability of an ever growing array of information technology tools have created a paradigm shift in the field of Library Science. The mission of the Library has largely stayed the same, but the means of fulfilling this mission have dramatically changed. To address this paradigm shift libraries have been forced to implement extensive physical renovations. These renovations can largely be grouped into two competing designs, "The Commons" and "The Athenaeum." These designs have been the direct result of a need to address the decline of user statistics brought about by the Internet.

A brief examination of the history of the Librarianship will reveal why library renovations and redesign have become so pressing. Furthermore, this article will attempt to chart a strategic course for 21st century academic libraries by discussing the "Commons" library design and comparing it to the "Athenaeum" design. Three sets of data were used in writing this article. Library usage statistics are taken from the Association of Research Libraries statistical reports from 2001-2002 and 2007-2008 and from the National Center for Education Statistics' Library Statistic Reports: 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008. The data on user satisfaction with library renovation is taken from a study conducted by Harold Shill and Shawn Tonner (2003).

Brief History

Since the founding of the first ancient library until recent times libraries have largly had a monopoly in regards to information and knowledge. Like any true monopoly the libraries dictated who could have access. The original libraries of the ancient world stored, what was then the world of knowledge, and rationed it out to suitable scholars. The libraries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were little changed as in either case this knowledge was maintained for the privileged few. It was not until the late 19th early 20th century that the growth of public libraries began to democratize knowledge. This trend toward democratization of knowledge would continue slowly until near the end of the twentieth century. Of course we are speaking of the rapid rise of the Internet and the associated knowledge management tools e.g. web-pages, search engines, wiki and the like. The Internet and its related technologies would change the entire field of Librarianship.

The Internet was the first challenge to the hegemony of the library. As with most long standing hegemonies the librarians had developed traditional ways of providing service. This included an emphasis on, in-person usage and a monopoly on access to research material. This tradition left the libraries largely ill prepared for the dramatic shift brought about by the Internet. Suddenly libraries were competing against the completely open and free Internet that made information, accurate or not, instantaneously available twenty four hours a day. The academic library on the other hand, with more authoritative information, was still wedded to, print indexes, print journals that would have to be painstakingly photocopied or interlibrary loaned. The early book catalogues in their telnet or DOS formats were clumsy even in comparison to the early Internet. The ease of access that the Internet provided, as well as the seemingly endless supply of information, helped the Internet become the preferred destination for many researchers.

As the new millennium began, it seemed that the Internet had supplanted the academic library as the primary destination for researchers. According to the research conducted by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) for the years 1991-2002 as total student populations increased 9% the most noticeable library user statistics decreased "Reference Transactions decreased by 26%, Total Circulation decreased by 10% and In House Use decreased by 35% (Kyrillidou, 6). And gate counts, the number of persons who physically enter library facilities as compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics declined steadily from 1994-1998, (see chart 1). This steady, decade long, decline led the casual viewers to see the library as deserted. Scott Carlson in his 2001 article "Deserted Library" for the Chronicle of Higher Education, says "The shift leaves many librarians and scholars wondering and worrying about the future of what has traditionally been the social and intellectual heart of campus, as well as about whether students are learning differently now - or learning at all" (Carlson).

Carlson was not alone in noticing this downward spiral of user statistics. Many academic librarians saw the decline and began reinventing their libraries proactively. Harold Shill and Shawn Tonner, whose work will be discussed in greater length later in this article, conducted a study of 354 academic institutions that expanded or renovated their existing libraries between 1995 and 2002 to counter the trend of decreasing user statistics (2003).

Academic library renovation does not occur without due consideration. User studies and literature reviews are fairly common practice in the renovation process. It is reasonable to expect that most library planners have at least encountered the Commons design. This design would be a radical departure from traditional designs as it centralizes access points and adopts information technology. With the growing demand for all things technology the Commons design is very compelling.

From Library to Commons

This article will use the term Commons to denote the different versions of the design, the most prominent being the Information Commons and the Learning Commons. The Information Commons is the original idea and the Learning Commons is a later evolution. Donald Beagle, Donald Russell Bailey and Barbara Tierney in their book "The Information Commons Handbook"(2006) defined the Information Commons as "... a cluster of network access points and associated information technology tools situated in the context of a physical, digital, human, and social resources organized in support of learning" (xviii).

The literature on the Commons design is dominated by articles and books on how to implement the design. From the literature it is clear that at the heart of the Commons design are three principles: user-defined space, inclusion of...

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