Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Larry Hardesty, University of Nebraska at Kearney;
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia;
Steven Bell
, Philadelphia University; Kathleen Hoeth, Florida Gulf Coast University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
Vol. 26, No. 4 March 2006

 Repurposing Older Libraries for New Times:
Creating New Learning Space

by Edward D. Garten & Delmus E. Williams

Libraries have changed. The availability of electronic resources, chat reference, electronic reserves, the web, ubiquitous computing on and off campus, laptops, wireless communications — among other things — have made it possible for students and faculty to use our resources and others any time and any place they choose.

As a result, the primacy of the library as a place is less assured than it once was, and the kind of space that is needed to support library services and information resources has irrevocably changed. Though it has become clear that libraries are not likely to fade from the scene, we are now being asked to reconsider how we use the space we have and how we re-envision reallocated space to meet the needs of users.

As noted by Steven Foote, Partner, Perry Dean Rogers Architects in Boston,

“It’s now commonly accepted that libraries are partners with conventional academic departments in the educational enterprise. This concept acknowledges that knowledge is actually created in the library as well as stored there in the form of collections and accessed via staff skill.”

Operationalizing that understanding means that library buildings must adapt to the changing needs of the campus and its students.

Recent literature has offered us a number of show-and-tell examples of new libraries that offer a clean slate on which to develop the library of tomorrow. But, for both political and economic reasons, few campuses get the opportunity to create a new library designed specifically for today’s new learning paradigm. And even a new library, built to serve a campus for 25 years, will have to change constantly to address the needs of technologies that now seem to change every five years. The need to reconfigure, or “to repurpose” older academic libraries is becoming a constant as we continuously adapt to a changing environment.

The Challenge of the Older Library

The problems presented in redesigning older buildings is one of the most difficult and interesting ones now confronting the architect and the librarian. There is a limited desire on the part of campus planners to start from scratch with a new library, either because there is not enough money available or there are other priorities that must be addressed. Donors and funding agencies that underwrite construction projects have become tired of funding ever-larger storage facilities, particularly when they read of technological advances that have consistently promised to make the library obsolete.

And, of course, there is always the rationale that: “Perhaps we should wait a few more years and make do with what we have; after all no one really knows where libraries are headed, right?” Make do, buy time. But collections continue to grow to the point where libraries become shackled to the image of a “book warehouse.”

Two things, however, have become very clear in recent years. The first is that the need for libraries will persist for many years to come. The second is that the character of that need has changed forever. As Geoffrey Freeman, the architect for Illinois Wesleyan’s library put it, “the library is increasingly being viewed as a critical center, the breakout space of the classroom. You turn in one direction and see a book; turn in another and see a terminal. They are both there, designed in scale and detail supportive of their role as central to the university’s academic center.” As Steven Foote puts it,

“In the end it is not the offering of a broad range of services which underlies the planning and architectural goals, but rather the facilitating of student-driven learning. The quality of the enterprise will be measured by the degree to which libraries succeed in triggering and nurturing students’ curiosity and intellectual growth.”


The Information Commons

Enter the concept of the Information or Learning Commons, an aggregation of services intended to encourage engagement with information in its various forms, reinforce the value of collaborative inquiry, and create new opportunities for community interaction. The space for accommodating this partnership is most commonly found in the re-envisioning of an academic library’s main floor. The need for reference materials in print form is dwindling and that space can be given over to technology-rich workstations, multi-media group study rooms, and flexibly arranged collaborative study space.

One of the more interesting approaches to this is that developed in the University of Massachusetts Amherst “Learning Commons.” UMass’ library has partnered with other units on campus to address the new learning paradigm. The concept that emerged from this process of reinvention of its service program includes a vibrant open studio environment encompassing most of the main floor of the library. Its seamless, coordinated resources and services use state-of-the-art technology for research and coursework; provide intimate spaces for faculty and fellow student collaboration; offer inviting breakout rooms; and provide ready access to experts in research, technology, writing, and the various disciplines.

Typical Solutions

Without funds or support for building new libraries, however, many colleges and universities today are opting for a combination of a reconfiguration of stack space and perhaps a small building addition which might both create an inviting new entrance to the building and afford immediate exposure to the information commons or learning commons. Among the essential elements to be considered with any repurposing include:

Students as Clients

Colleges and universities need to put much thought into redesigning their libraries because students have choices.

Students are attracted to institutions with modern residences and recreational facilities, parking garages and wireless data networks in common areas. New students come with diverse college readiness levels and include many different ethnic groups who find that physical handicaps are not viewed as an impediment to their future.

Students often work in teams on collaborative projects and are not always comfortable in environments like the traditional library that encourage quiet solitude. Indeed, it is rare to see students using even a few of the hundreds of carrels in libraries.

Students expect to have easy access to electronic networks, printers and media ranging from films to photographic images to books. While they take for granted the fact that these things will be in their environment, they come to college with a wide range of skill sets. Some are more adept at getting what they want from the university than their teachers and some are technologically naive.

No matter what their level of competence is, these students want to do things on their own, be actively involved in creating new knowledge and learning from fellow students as well as from teachers, and are wary of systems where they are expected to defer to “experts.”

To meet the needs of these students, colleges and universities are expected to address the sensitivities of their users, offer an array of places where students can study, ranging from comfortable chairs to quiet carrels to small rooms and flat tables. As a result, building facilities that will help a campus compete for students and satisfying them once they are on campus is a highly competitive industry that has spurred construction and renovation projects for all kinds of facilities.

The Library's Competition for the Attention of Students

Until recently, students and faculty were compelled to come to the library to get the resources they needed. The librarians were the experts who made the rules, and users were obliged to follow those rules, enforcing quiet and making every effort to discourage “inappropriate activities.” While these efforts were generally unsuccessful, they left an impression that libraries were generally sterile places to be avoided and to this day associated the library only with books. But, even with this level of control, usage of most libraries remained relatively low, and a fair percentage of undergraduates could boast (and often did) that they finished their degrees without visiting the library.

Times have changed. We talk often of the competition Google and other search engines pose to the library, but in truth, libraries have created their own competition by enriching the resource base of the web with electronic collections that can be accessed anywhere any time. Students can shop around for the services they need, accessing free electronic resources, data that the library pays for, course reserves, streaming video, art images, and much more anywhere that they can access the Internet. Group study rooms can be also be found at the technology center on campus, the local public library, or the student center. Quiet places are all around. And, if they want a cup of coffee while they work, it is not that hard to find a wired cybercafe or Starbucks.

"If libraries want to maintain their role as the intellectual center of the campus...they must compete based on their desire to meet the needs of users as the users define them."

If libraries want to maintain their role as the intellectual center of the campus and as an attractive place where serious students and faculty gather, and interact, they must compete based on their desire to meet the needs of users as the users define them. That may mean developing cafes in the library, varying work spaces to fit the desires of students, identifying places where people can work together without disruption and quiet places that meet the needs of students who work best in that environment. To meet the demand, libraries and those who work in them must adapt to new expectations for service and step out of their role as “experts” and assume ones that stress “facilitator.”

New Bedfellows

At the same time, the library must establish itself as part of an interlocking support system for students and faculty that may include some new bedfellows. Technology has blurred the lines between many campus learning support operations and has encouraged new alliances with campus and community partners that were previously dismissed out of hand.

It is important that people at the reference desk be able to help users with technical problems with their computers as well as content issues. It is equally valuable for people working in writing centers to be able to have ready access to staff who can help with the substance of what is being written. Centers for the improvement of teaching draw from libraries and computer centers, and, as users integrate graphs, media, and other resources into their projects, they need access in a single place to people who can help them with all of the elements of their work.

While some users will still prefer to work in their bedrooms, in residence hall lounges, in classroom buildings, and in offices, librarians must find more reasons for them to explore options in the library building and be provided with ample and appropriate space to accommodate their work.

Preferred Place or Just a Place?

Today’s students are often invited by campus planners and architects to participate in the creation of new learning environments in expectation that this close collaboration will help them become comfortable with their new learning environments. Illustratively, one of us recently consulted with a liberal arts college about its library. In several visits to the campus during the evening, it was observed that (1) the new, student-centered academic technology center with its combination of high-tech collaborative learning spaces and conversation and breakout rooms was a hub of activity; and (2) the student union, developed with the feel of a large family home, where students took their meals, met with their clubs, relaxed, where dozens of groups of students were sitting around — sometimes on the floor — working in teams, engaged in intensive dialogue, with wireless enabled laptops at the ready, was another hub. Clearly these two facilities seemed to be the “vital center” of both campus learning and community.

At the same time less than half a dozen students could be found in the campus library. When asked whether they used the library, most students replied, “only when we have to” or “we pretty much ‘do library stuff’ outside the library, either here in the technology center or in the student union.” The challenge, it seemed in that particular college context, was how to make the library one of the preferred places to be on campus — if not the best place to be. It will require an image re-branding that is forcefully and consistently driven by senior academic leaders and reinforced by deans and faculty opinion-leaders. Nothing less will do.

Adding Value to the Campus Experience

A disconnect seems to exist, however, between the present culture of the academic library and that of Net Gen students. To date, most of what we have done under the cover of transformation is really little more than cosmetic (e.g., the creation of information commons, rearranging furniture into pleasant more intimate groupings, opening up stack floors by sending lesser-used books and bound journals to remote or compact storage, and marketing campaigns to “sell” the library to students who have decided that the library is not relevant to their studies). That needs to change. Librarians, and those who invest in libraries, need to ask students and faculty what they need from the library and then use their advice to reinsert the library into the mainstream of academic life.

Librarian-Faculty Collaboration. Librarians are comfortable arguing that they must be the drivers of student use of the library, but they do this at their peril. The role of faculty in this effort can be very important.

Recently a school of education faculty member noted with one of us that instructors’ assignments are, in fact, driving the nature of student library usage at his institution in several significant ways. First, the use of that library’s 20 breakout rooms reflects a significant amount of students’ collaborative learning at strategic points in the semester. And reference librarians have told our colleague that it is not unusual for three or four students from one of these groups to approach the reference desk together to ask a question and share the response.

In his opinion, the incidence of collaborative learning in this colleague’s library clearly mirrors his university’s commitment to the philosophy of a community of learners coupled with extensive staff support operating in cross-functional teams. Enthused, he noted that “our library design, library acquisitions, and student use are heavily driven by professors’ instructional goals and assignments, together with the culture of the campus.” As a profession, librarians have known this to be true since the 1960s, but what is old has become new again.

This culture of collaboration between librarians and faculty has to be intentionally orchestrated and sustained by all campus constituents, and must be supported by the educational hierarchy working under the chief academic officer.

The Library as a Distinctive Learning Environment. The library’s role is too often threatened by newer campus facilities that are technology-rich and which showcase collaborative learning spaces. However, if the educational environment in the library can be transformed from a model that has largely catered to faculty and librarians to one that is learner-centered and reflective of contemporary learning models, faculty and librarians can work together to create and guide students’ learning experiences in productive fashion.

We maintain that C. Carney Strange and James Banning’s observation that “the creation and maintenance of campus environments that attract, satisfy, and sustain students in the achievement of their educational goals” is critical in a market-driven climate if libraries are to focus on learning.

To prosper, academic libraries must consult broadly with their stakeholders to ensure that they become and remain one of the preferred, yet distinctive, learning environments on campus.

Edward D. Garten is Dean Emeritus of University Libraries at the University of Dayton while Delmus E. Williams is Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron.



1Morris, Jeff. “History meets state of the art: 2 case studies.” University Business, Volume 5, Issue 8, October 2002, p. 32

2Williams, Delmus E. “Reengineering existing buildings to serve the academic community,” in The National Electronic Library, Gary Pitkin, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.

3Strange, C. Carney and James Banning. Education by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments That Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001, p. 74.


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last modified: March 2006


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