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Adapting Library Spaces for Today

Once upon a time, virtually all students came to the university library to use its books and journals and to study.  Faculty members came to browse journals in their field or conduct their research.  As databases replaced printed indexes, the nature of library use changed, and as the libraries’ resources began to be delivered over the Internet, some of that use could be done remotely at home or in the dorm or office. Many libraries saw the number of physical visitors drop as the number of online or virtual visitors skyrocketed.  Some observers gazed into their crystal balls and foresaw a future that would be almost entirely virtual, and a few libraries became almost paperless.

Nevertheless, at UNCG and some other university libraries, the number of physical visitors to the libraries grew, surpassing one million each of the last two years.  Why did that happen?  What still causes people to visit libraries in person in the Internet age?  Has the way patrons use libraries changed?  Is there a growing desire to be present in a physical space redesigned to support teaching, learning, and research in the 21st century?

At UNCG, we pose these questions and offer some observations below:

1)     Upon her arrival in 2004, with the support of the Provost, Dean Rosann Bazirjian made it a priority to upgrade the comfort, convenience and attractiveness of the physical space, investing in carpeting, paint, new furnishings, new and more technology, and other amenities as were indicated in assessments of library space.

2)    A variety of assessments, including surveys, observational studies and focus groups have guided us in making a number of changes in the libraries, including new furniture purchases, designating floors of the library as either quiet floors or group study floors, adding vending, and increasing the number of computers in the libraries.

3)    The number of persons actually coming into the University Libraries (Jackson and the Harold Schiffman Music Library) has grown, topping 1 million for the first time in 2010-2011, and rising to almost 1.25 million in 2011-2012. Virtual or online visits have also grown, with web page views rising from 5.25 million in 2010-2011 to 14.4 million in 2011-2012.

4)    The nature of student assignments is changing, and spurs demand for new kinds of library space that fosters the collaborative work that is now part of many courses.  Collaboratories and learning commons space, built only a few years ago to facilitate group study, have now been supplemented by the newly opened Digital Media Commons (DMC), which addresses the needs of today’s learners with a unique collaboration between the libraries and other campus units to help patrons develop various types of technological literacies.  Student feedback is very positive as students use the DMC to advance their learning through the technology and staff/faculty expertise there.  The DMC just opened in August, but use is already steadily climbing. The space remains full all day, and often supports 100 students or more working on projects late into the evening.  

5)    Study space on campus continues to be at a premium.  UNC system standards recommend library seating for 20% of the student enrollment.  Jackson Library’s 1000 seats, while an increase of 10-15% in the last three years, still falls short of that recommendation.

6)    The pairing of the Elliott University Center and Jackson Library, joined by the connector in 2005, has made for easy access to the Library by students coming to the EUC for other purposes.  The convenience of this access is believed to drive much of the increased use as two of the centers of student life on campus were joined in proximity.

7)    Users visit the libraries for different reasons.  Some seek quiet study space, and certain floors of Jackson Library are so designated, while other floors are designed for group study.

8)    Not only has use of Jackson Library increased, it has been extended to 24 hours a day, 5 days a week, and serving between 350-500 students between midnight and 7 am, 600 or more prior to exams.

9)    The Libraries have pursued other avenues to enhance library space, including working with an interior architecture class to renovate the Harold Schiffman Music Library with better design principles, comfortable space, and the use of color.