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Using Evidence in the Design of Academic Library Spaces

For decades and even centuries, a new academic library could be built just like any other—on the same architectural plans and with the same scholarly accommodations in mind. But today this is no longer possible. Recent years have brought dramatic changes to academic work practices such as reading, writing, and communication. The means, speed, and extent of scholarly collaboration have also undergone tremendous development. The traditional library model that has sufficed for so many years can no longer suit these changing practices. Furthermore, the role of the library varies significantly from one college or university to another; academic libraries no longer share a mission in any way like they did as recently as thirty or forty years ago.

If it is no longer possible to follow architectural precedent, how can library leaders make decisions about construction and renovation? Does each library have to “reinvent the wheel”? What is a library for? These are some of the questions that we at Ithaka S+R considered in developing the latest iteration of our “Evidence-Based Decision Making” series of workshops, which also includes sessions on collecting and collections and the library’s role in support of discovery.

In our workshop on space design, we use a combination of large- and small-group work to share a process and tools for the design of academic library spaces. We question some dearly held assumptions and urge participants to use existing and new information rigorously and aggressively to open a path forward to good decisions. We especially stress the importance of better partnerships since academic and library spaces are becoming even more intertwined and decisions about one affect plans and uses of the other.

In the two space-design workshops we have held so far, we have discovered that libraries engage in a wide range of projects, from limited renovations to completely new construction, sometimes of multi-use space. They also face an array of issues, including changing pedagogies, rapid growth in student populations, the transition from print to digital, and so on. Almost all academic librarians we have worked with share the problem of tightening budgets. In this atmosphere, it is difficult to serve growing numbers of patrons while maintaining and preferably increasing access to scholarly resources.

Also interesting, the libraries that have participated in the workshops so far see their missions very differently. For example, we saw major differences in the ways participants understood their libraries’ responsibilities vis-à-vis the disposition of physical collections and the provision of study space for undergraduates. This means that there is no single model of what an academic library is or what space it should occupy that fits all institutions. While this diversity might make it seem that one library has nothing to offer another, in reality it makes it even more helpful for librarians and library leaders to collaborate across institutions. Their differences provide structure and traction for comparing, drawing contrasts, and expanding their thinking. They are also eager to learn from each other’s experience and have the potential through partnership to extend their ability to gather information about the current and emerging work practices of students, faculty members, and researchers.

Those who are interested in questions of academic library design may want to read the Ithaka S+R Issue Brief: Designing a New Academic Library from Scratch. Learn more about Ithaka S+R’s workshops on Evidence-Based Decision Making and join us in Portland this March before ACRL for the next workshop on space design.

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