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;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
Vol. 27, No. 5 May 2007

An Emerging Model for the Undergraduate Library

by John Mark Tucker

A significant movement is sweeping across the country and is transforming both the college library and the undergraduate library on the university campus. Librarians are re-thinking space. While the movement originated in the act of establishing an Information Commons (IC), the ideas conveyed are not limited to IC components but rather expand beyond them. The IC has grown to the point that it has begun to incubate a new model for the undergraduate library, one that promises to meet the experiential needs of today’s undergraduates.

The rapid rise of the Information Commons has been driven by a dramatic decline in the use of the traditional library over the past ten years. Students, undergraduates in particular, turned to other sources of information, and they found other places to study. Simultaneous with declining use was the growing appreciation throughout academe that much learning takes place in social settings outside the lecture hall. In response to these trends, libraries have sought to bring students back by defining themselves as the place of choice for learning beyond the classroom.

What is an Information Commons?

A fully formed Information Commons could contain most of these components.

·   facilities for teamwork and collaborative study;

·   state-of-the-art technology for research and coursework including multimedia capabilities and production  software;

·   library reference and research assistance;

·   printed reference works and online databases;

·   a writing center serving the intellectual interests of all disciplines offered by the institution;

·   faculty development staff and resources;

·   tutorial guidance and adaptive services;

·   lectures and musical performances;

·   art gallery space;

·   a café service;

·   lounge-type furniture for leisure reading and conversation;

·   copy center and binding equipment for printed resources.

The Information Commons would become a privileged destination, the place outside the classroom where students would complete every phase of an academic project, aided by individuals with a range of appropriate technological and professional expertise. It would be a main floor library attraction intended for high-volume use. It would be aesthetically pleasing, a setting that one might regard as an extension of the residence hall or living room. Many who have created such a place have conceived of it as an intellectual community center, as a learning commons, or as a contemporary version of the Library of Alexandria.1

The contours of an emerging model for the undergraduate library are embedded in the Information Commons experience but go far beyond a simple listing of individual services. The new model is about perspectives on services rather than about services themselves, and it involves the following.

·   Re-defining collaboration

·   Promoting social learning

·   Encouraging students to create their own content

·   Nurturing community

·   Challenging traditional academic structures

The Growth of Digital Resources

Earliest iterations of the Information Commons at the University of Southern California and the Information Arcade at the University of Iowa involved displacing printed materials with computer workstations. As mark-up languages evolved, universities also established electronic text centers, expanding access and research capacities especially in literary and historical disciplines.

The rapid growth of the Internet with billions of pages of content, presented through graphical interfaces, created a new setting for students retrieving academic information. Access from remote locations became commonplace; and students began to retrieve bibliographic, numeric, graphic, and full-text information from homes, residence halls, airports, Internet cafés, and countless other locations. Distance education enjoyed a new era of robust growth and some local governments began to install wireless networks throughout entire municipalities.

Student Response to the Internet Context

These trends created an environment where students began staying away from the library building in droves. Indicators such as gate counts, books circulated, books and journals used in-house, requests for research assistance, and related indicators have been declining for more than a decade. Even excellent students often said, “I go to the library only when I absolutely have to.”

The model of the library building that had emerged in the post World War II construction boom did not attract the GenNext student, currently in the age bracket 16 to 21, but rather had appealed to the independent learner of an earlier age. GenNext students have found the book-lined facility with many individual study carrels to be ill suited for the multiple ways they access, process, and interpret information of all kinds, including academic information for their undergraduate studies. Thus the model for library space use now required adaptation to the underlying cultural and social assumptions of 21st century undergraduates.

Collaboration and the Academic Enterprise

To understand why the IC has become not only a new way to provide library service but also and, more importantly, an incubator of a new model of the undergraduate library, one must first kill a sacred cow then examine broad contours of academic culture. “The library is the heart of the university” is an oft-repeated phrase that we must relegate to the dustbin of academic refuse. We persist in this myth to our peril.

Instead, the core work of the university resides in the professor-student relationship, in the knowledge, skills, and perspectives that can be transmitted, inculcated, and nourished in the minds of rising generations. Academic authority resides in the disciplinary expertise of teaching faculty, the cultural norms of the disciplines themselves, and in the credentialed rituals of professional schools. Students grow intellectually and academically as professors teach, mentor, and assess them with a system of grades, the academic “coin of the realm.”

Libraries, librarians, and information and research sources stand apart from but alongside this process. This dynamic explains that, while a fine library may be essential to success in many disciplines, it can often fall into the budget category of things that are important rather than things that are urgent. By extension, the librarian is seldom seen as an equal partner with the classroom professor in the educational enterprise.

Since the library stands apart from the university’s central intellectual relationship, it must forge partnerships in order to achieve academic relevance. More than sixty years ago Duke University Librarian (and later Vanderbilt University Chancellor) B. Harvie Branscomb defined the structure for effective collaboration. In 1940 he published Teaching with Books: A Study of College Libraries, the result of site visits to sixty liberal arts colleges and interviews with scores of professors, administrators, and librarians. He focused his study on the effectiveness of the library as an educational instrument rather than the efficiency of the library as an administrative unit. Historian David Kaser credited Branscomb’s book for stimulating more improvement in college libraries than any other single publication in the 20th century.

Branscomb’s classic makes one powerful assertion that still resonates and informs contemporary dialogue. Branscomb envisioned that in the classroom the librarian would assist the professor and that in the library the professor would assist the librarian. He thus promoted a vastly enlarged instructional role for the librarian and he established librarian-professor collaboration as the central relationship in effective library practice.

Perspectives on an Emerging Undergraduate Library Model

Re-defining Collaboration

With professor and student at the center of academe and the librarian-professor relationship as the foundational partnership, the emerging model embraces the establishment of additional partnerships such as those involved in creating an Information Commons: writing center, copy center, café, research assistance, tutorial assistance or adaptive services, and others. But the work of collaboration, in order to yield a new product, takes on a new definition. For example, in creating the iPod, Apple employees talked

incessantly about what they call “deep collaboration” or “cross-pollination” or “concurrent engineering.”. . . Products are worked on parallel . . . . in endless rounds of interdisciplinary design reviews. Managers elsewhere boast about what little time they waste in meetings. Apple is big on them and proud of it. . . . You have to develop a product in a more collaborative, integrated way.2

The deep collaboration and cross pollination necessary to create a new undergraduate library have yet to characterize academe generally since they must operate on the foundation of a flattened structure, but the university terrain, long encased in silos, is in the process of becoming flatter. The undergraduate library is changing rapidly and early indicators from the Information Commons experience are yielding some suggestive observations. Partners who collaborate to build something new must develop a common language; they must appreciate the expertise of another; they must yield, re-purpose, and gladly share academic real estate. They must operate over and beyond—or perhaps outside—the disciplinary and departmental structures that dominate the university. The results should improve the learning experience for students, making the library relevant and functional in new ways, some of them unexpected perhaps, but certainly making it the intellectual and social hub of student and faculty activity.

In creating new partnerships librarians can operate on a principle that economists have long understood. Certain complementary goods and services become much more valuable in combination with other goods and services than when standing alone. This principle of value creation means that the quality and productivity of a given service will rise with the quality and productivity of a naturally complementary service.3

Undergraduate librarians, for example, can increase the demand for traditional services such as books circulated and research questions answered by adding into the mix a writing center and an Internet café. As they enter partnerships with the library, the café and the writing center likewise attract higher demand for their own services. The three entities in combination shed light on what an emerging model for the library might look like. Their new purpose now expands from their original purpose into something more dynamic, something that re-envisions the overall experience for the student in settings where the partners fully collaborate.

Promoting Social Learning

GenNext students continue to surprise and enlighten those of us who matured in an earlier era. These students work together and play together constantly; they seem always to be connected with cell phones, iPods, Blackberries, laptops, and related devices. They learn in groups in contrast to previous generations who learned as individuals. Increasingly their professors make team-based assignments. Early examples of such assignments involved case studies that simulated industry; more recently group study has branched into many disciplines beyond that of Business Management.

"We must design hospitable places where the ebb and flow of social interaction is the norm, and where food and drink and intellectual and social discourse are invited, nurtured, and honored."

Group projects result in multimedia presentations that require a wide range of skill sets and that span disciplinary boundaries. For students engaged in collaborative learning, librarians and educational technology professionals must design public spaces that replace computer labs arranged in rows to resemble traditional lecture halls. We must design hospitable places where the ebb and flow of social interaction is the norm, and where food and drink and intellectual and social discourse are invited, nurtured, and honored. One success story is at Trinity University in San Antonio where professors have begun to hold regular office hours in the library café, interacting with students in a setting more hospitable, more information-rich, and less authoritarian than the faculty office.

The software and the systems now coming into use enrich social learning. Wikis, for example, function by consensus with users adding and revising information as they attempt to create clearer, more accurate, and more comprehensive topics. Surfers can follow the status of articles, track changes, discuss the meaning of the changes, and continue to modify and refine the content.

Collaborative knowledge creation has never before existed on such a wide scale; it constitutes a massive socialization process and presents new terrain for higher education. Yahoo Groups bring individuals together around any number of specialized human interests, serving individuals who, without the Internet, could have lived their entire lives not having the opportunity to communicate with others of like mind. Second Life, and its cousin, There, have become virtual worlds where people buy and sell property, establish neighborhoods, and engage in commercial and educational pursuits in the process of creating online communities.

Encouraging Students to Create their Own Content

While authority in academic cultures continues to reside in the disciplines, the ability and the opportunity to create new content are becoming more widely distributed throughout the entire institution. Blogs and sites like FaceBook, MySpace, and YouTube encourage students to produce and distribute texts and images and, while much of the content reflects youthful indiscretion, the entire process elicits the sort of candid observation and diary-writing that had long ago disappeared as part of the general culture. Purely academic versions of such free flowing content have yet to be implemented, although listservs have proliferated and courseware such as WebCT and Blackboard has become routinized.

Nurturing Community

The concept of community deserves a high priority in higher education; its importance has been often assumed but too seldom articulated.

Community is the social context of people with shared values, engaged in pursing a common purpose and seeking common goals. People in a community agree to communicate with one another on increasingly authentic levels. They set standards and create a sense of expectancy. An ethos of this nature has become essential for student success in college.

Despite multiple theories about how people learn, they agree on one point: the critical role of interaction. In particular, social cognitive learning theory argues for a rich environment in which students and faculty share meaningful experiences that go beyond the one-way information flow characteristic of typical lectures in traditional classrooms. Second, learning in community will have an important role in preparing students for their work-life to come. . . .Some companies today call for graduates with different perspectives to collaborate across traditional disciplinary and business lines. . . . Knowledge may be seen as vested in a distributed network across communities of practice, not in individuals.4

With the idea of community deeply embedded in the their DNA, universities established centers for the research and dissemination of information about specialized subjects; they created learning communities and research communities; they established first-year programs and, more recently, their libraries designed and implemented the IC. These developments suggest that universities hold an innate grasp of the power and significance of learning in groups and a relentless pursuit of ways to make it a reality.

Challenging Traditional Academic Structures

Although discipline-based departmental structures have served for centuries to promote innovation and to train countless individuals for participation in a profession, the structures themselves are less than well-equipped to respond to the sweeping technological changes that are democratizing knowledge.

Academic silos fail to account for the multiple ways that a campus is interconnected. New technology drives social learning arrangements and is building an ethos for collaborative work that barely existed before the 1990s and, in fact, did not exist at all for millions of undergraduates.

“Academic silos fail to account for the multiple ways that a campus is interconnected.”

The deep collaboration that is becoming increasingly possible should afford librarians the opportunity to create in the college library—or the undergraduate library on the university campus—the kind of meaningful, life-changing library experience that we have long envisioned. The wide acceptance of flattened, collaborative ways of working is changing the academic terrain, giving new power to older stakeholders including the undergraduate librarian.

What is going on today is not simply about how governments, business, and people communicate, not just about how organizations interact, but is about the emergence of completely new social, political, and business models. “It is about things that impact some of the deepest, most ingrained aspects of society right down to the nature of the social contract.”5

With assessments from Information Commons installations, librarians can continue to improve and to make more mature the new model for the undergraduate library. Success, as determined by student popularity and measurable outcomes, has given the library unprecedented visibility. That visibility can translate into on-campus credibility, making the library a more highly valued partner in collaborative learning.Mark Tucker is Dean of Library & Information Resources, Abilene Christian University and Professor of Library Science, Purdue University. email–mark.tucker@acu.edu

Suggested Readings

Beagle, Donald Robert, Donald Russell Bailey, and Barbara Tierney, eds. The Information Commons Handbook. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2006.

Bennett, Scott, ed. Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2005. www.clir.org/PUBS/reports/129/contents.html

Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Updated and expanded ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Oblinger, Diana G., ed. Learning Spaces. Boulder, Co.: Educause, 2006. www.educause.edu/learningspaces


1Edward D. Garten and Delmus E. Williams, “Repurposing Older Libraries for New Times: Creating New Learning Space,” Library Issues 26:4 [March 2006] and Sam Demas, “From the Ashes of Alexandria: What’s Happening in the College Library?” pp. 25-40. In Scott Bennett, ed., Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space, 2005.

2Steve Jobs quoted in Friedman, The World Is Flat, 440.

3Stanford University economist Paul Romer quoted in Friedman, The World Is Flat, 204-05.

4Deborah J. Blackford and David J. Wright, “Community: The Hidden Context for Learning,” p. 4.3. In Oblinger, ed., Learning Spaces, 2006.

5Former senior Department of Commerce official David Rothkopf quoted in Friedman, The World Is Flat, 48.


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last modified: May  2007


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