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, College Library Directors' Mentor Program;
Mark Tucker,
Abilene Christian University

Vol. 31, No. 4                          printable version (pdf)   home

March 2011



Bringing Back the Faculty:
The Evolution of the Faculty Commons in the Library

By Steven J. Bell

An academic library director is walking through campus one fall afternoon on the way to an administrative meeting. As she nears the meeting location, a well known and respected faculty member comes from the other direction. The two stop to exchange greetings. He says, “You know what, I really love your library.” Feeling elated and wanting to know more, the director asks “And why is that?” The esteemed professor answers “Because I never have to go there” and then heads off to his class.

While it might sound like our faculty member was disrespecting the library, in reality he was acknowledging the fantastic work of the director and her staff in designing a digital library that offers the right content that is structured for straightforward online access by the campus community. The academic library is so effective in creating a scholar’s research environment that faculty can access from their desktop, they literally never need to come into the library building. This is especially true for those science and technology faculty who are less dependent on print collections or those humanities faculty who send student assistants to the stacks for those occasions when a book is needed. Put simply, for many faculty the academic library building serves no purpose.

Those faculty who share the “I never have to go there” attitude present a unique challenge to academic librarians and their administrators. An academic library filled to the brim with undergraduates provides concrete evidence of the value the physical library brings to the campus. Without the presence of faculty, however, that value is somewhat diminished because the library building should be the one space designed to bring all members of the campus community together for learning, cultural exploration and intellectual growth. The importance of bringing faculty into the library building is finally being recognized among academic librarians and their administrators.

This issue explores the challenge of creating a library facility that offers the spaces and amenities that attract faculty, and profiles those academic libraries that are breaking new ground in designing an environment to shift the library from the place faculty never have to go to the one place on campus they will always want to go.

Old Ideas in New Spaces

Academic administrators, many of whom come from the ranks of the faculty, can easily recall a favorite faculty reading room, a space perhaps off limits to those pesky undergraduates. There, in the reading room, faculty would find a refuge away from the hectic pace of their department. Such spaces were also ideal for meeting with colleagues or simply a convenient space for a break between classes. Special offices or carrels designated for faculty were common fixtures in academic libraries.

In the past these offices were in high demand. Now, many sit vacant. It’s hardly as if academic library administrators have ignored the importance of bringing faculty into the library. Despite efforts to draw in faculty, many academic libraries remain faculty-free zones. This situation may owe not only to our success in establishing the scholar’s workstation, but also to our success in reviving the library for undergraduates.

Information or learning commons succeed because they blend computers, learning, support, socialization, food and librarians. Undergrads now perceive the library as the place to see and be seen. The price paid is that faculty now perceive the library as a space primarily for undergraduates. When the faculty think about the library they may find it difficult to visualize themselves working there. To combat this situation some savvy librarians are doing exactly what seems counter intuitive. Instead of trying to create those traditional spaces that used to appeal to faculty, they are taking what works best about the undergrad commons and applying it to create new, unique spaces within the library for faculty. What do these new spaces look like and what can they offer that will bring faculty back to the library?

Spaces for Educators & Scholars

          Some good examples of faculty-focused space projects may be found by visiting academic library websites. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Teaching Commons provides an example of the power of co-located services to draw faculty to the library.  Here is how it is described:
The UMass Teaching Commons is a portal through which faculty may discover the rich set of support services our campus offers from areas such as the Center for Teaching, the UMass Amherst Libraries, and OIT Academic Computing. The Teaching Commons is a space that supports either organized programming or walk-in support for UMass faculty members.

 The Teaching Commons is a good example of providing an answer to the “What’s In It For Me” question that faculty ask about any library offering. The Commons responds by providing faculty with multiple levels of support designed to help improve teaching and learning.  It not only offers faculty the appropriate technology and assistance for using it, it provides opportunities for faculty to gather and share their stories about what works and what doesn’t. This happens through formal workshops and informal gatherings.

The Scholarly Commons at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, takes a similar approach but with a different goal in mind. Rather than focus on teaching and learning, the Scholarly Commons, as the name suggests, emphasizes research and scholarly publication. From the website:

Our new, collaborative approach provides faculty, researchers and students access to experts in digital content creation and analysis; scholarly communication; geospatial, textual, and numeric data analysis; and innovative teaching and learning methods.

What makes the scholarly commons concept an attractive approach for academic libraries is that it brings together functionality that no one else on campus can offer faculty. It combines research assistance, information technology support and advanced data services that the campus library is best positioned to offer. The academic library always best supports its community when it takes the lead in providing a service that fills a gap.

A scholarly commons can attract faculty to the library by giving them the tools needed to produce better scholarship. While teaching and learning is part of the space’s functionality, the Commons is based on helping faculty achieve scholarly publishing success. That is the point of these contemporary faculty spaces: to emphasize use of the library space as a vehicle to improve scholarship and mastery of teaching.

Notable Projects

The best way to learn about the value of creating unique space for faculty in the library is to see these projects first hand or to hear their developers talk about them. Having had the opportunity to do both, I asked three colleagues who know well the advantages of bringing faculty back to the academic library to share their experiences.

The common thread running through these notable projects is that each demonstrates that having faculty in the library is a good thing for the campus community, and that the dedicated faculty space in the library serves as a catalyst for creating positive change.


The Faculty Commons at Ohio University’s Alden Library

Jan Maxwell is Assistant Dean for Collections & Access at Ohio University Libraries. In 2007, Alden Library opened the Faculty Commons, a 9000 square-foot facility showcasing Ohio University’s centers for Academic Technology, Teaching and Learning, and Writing Excellence.  The project began in 2005 when the provost decided to move these underutilized centers to a more prominent campus location; the dean of libraries was inspired by the library’s successful Learning Commons to suggest a counterpart facility for faculty.  Space for the construction was created by purchasing digital journal backfiles, allowing for removal of thousands of bound journals.

Faculty and staff of the centers worked with library administrators and architects to design the space.  The primary goal was to develop a comfortable facility in which faculty could focus on teaching skills and could experiment with new techniques and technology.  Additional goals that emerged from faculty focus groups included providing a faculty club atmosphere (complete with coffee bar) for reading and quiet conversation, and providing displays related to faculty research and creative activity, as a way to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. 

The final plan for the space maximized flexibility and minimized customization. Offices and conference rooms (mostly similar and interchangeable) line the perimeter. Upholstered chairs and sofas are grouped in the open central area of the Commons; work tables, Macs and PCs are interspersed.  Most furnishings have wheels, and all are easily and frequently rearranged.  Plasma screens and wall space are available for displays. A small kitchen provides a staging area for catered events. Subdued lighting and signage discreetly discourage students from entering.

In its first year the Commons was heavily used for faculty development workshops.  Individual use of the facility and services – for experimenting with technology, for relaxing and socializing – was relatively low, however, and displays of faculty research and creative activity went undeveloped.

While there were a number of reasons why the original vision for the Commons was not fully realized, changes in leadership played an important role: key administrators who planned the facility had already moved on to other positions before the first anniversary of the Commons, and new stakeholders did not share the same vision for the space. 

Planned as a facility that would be more than the sum of its parts, the Commons also needed substantial additional funding for operating expenses, and this could not be sustained over time.  University-wide budget cuts led to consolidation or discontinuation of many of the facility’s core services. 

As units have left or been scaled back however, new services have replaced them.  Both of the Libraries’ assistant deans now have offices in the Commons. With these changes, the Faculty Commons is no longer a space from which students are specifically excluded, and it is now more frequently used by faculty and librarians working together.  Though the space is less strongly associated with the university’s goals for teaching excellence, faculty use is growing steadily.  Overall, the Faculty Commons is a positive addition that benefits faculty, students, and librarians.

Indiana University Herman B Wells Library

Carolyn Walters is the Executive Associate Dean at Indiana University Libraries, where construction of the Research Commons (RC), is now underway. The RC is designed to be a one-stop destination for scholarly research on the Bloomington campus. The RC will complement the very successful Information Commons (IC), which primarily serves undergraduates and supports instruction. The IC is an example of a partnership, in this case between IU Libraries and University Information Technology Services (UITS), that has transformed undergraduate learning on the Bloomington campus. The concentration of new technologies and services is designed to attract faculty and graduate students to the RC.

At the RC, faculty and graduate students will have an array of services and tools to choose from including  textual analysis, digitization services, and project consultation; advanced visualization support; data storage and curation; and statistical and GIS consultation. Also available will be services related to intellectual property, publishing, media production and archiving, and teaching.              

Although the RC will offer new services and tools, the rich collections and the subject expertise of librarians will form the core of the RC. Books, journals, microfiche, films, and other materials that are particularly critical to research in the humanities and social sciences will be available centrally and remain in the Wells Library. Carefully selected collections housed in the Auxiliary Library Facility are available upon request for delivery daily to the RC.

Areas for active collaboration and computing, as well as quiet space for reading and contemplation will be available.  The reading room on the first floor will be redesigned to emphasize individual work. Shared spaces, such as seminar rooms, will afford opportunities for interaction across and within disciplines. Research centers on the upper floors will be grouped by related disciplines, such as humanities, social sciences, and area studies, with their relevant collections. Together we are creating services designed to attract, recruit, and retain this and the next generation of scholars and researchers.

Christopher Center at Valparaiso University

Rick AmRhein is currently the Chief Information Officer and Chief of Staff in the President’s Office at Valparaiso. In 1999, when detailed planning began for Valparaiso University ‘s new library facility, to be named the Christopher Center,  AmRhein was Library Director.  There was a decided shift in philosophy as to how space should be used. Philosophically, the entire Christopher Center is viewed as an information commons, so rather than locating most technology in the facility at a single location, books and computers appear on every floor. The traditional model of the library as a box for books gave way to the concept that libraries are for discovery, learning, and human interaction. While there was still a need to efficiently house and provide access to growing physical collections, the principal focus was on how to create spaces that would be welcoming and comfortable for all segments of the university community,  collaborative work among students and faculty was replacing the stereotype of the sequestered solitary scholar.

While many faculty members relished the image of an abundance of private study carrels in which they could diligently carry out their research, an informal survey of usage of such rooms at other institutions indicated that this was not effective use of space.  Faculty need for dedicated space in the new library was met by the development of a common Faculty Study, which is outfitted with comfortable seating and an adjacent fireplace, study tables for collaboration or solitary work, and a small computer cluster. Additionally, the Faculty Study is home to the Director of the Teaching Resources Center, who has the responsibility of coordinating faculty professional development across the curriculum. This, and the persistent availability of free coffee in the adjacent library/IT joint administrative offices, makes it an attractive meeting place for faculty at any time.

Beyond dedicated space for faculty use in the Christopher Center, numerous locations throughout the building were designed to encourage faculty interaction at all levels.  Small, intimate clusters of furniture encourage serious conversation, and group study rooms come in various sizes from conference rooms that accommodate help sessions led by physics faculty members, to small alcoves among the group study rooms where a student can meet privately with a professor without being in a room with the door closed. Choosing to include a large tiered classroom meant that faculty would regularly engage with students in the library. 

The combination of all of these attributes make for a venue that is appealing to all, not just for individual research, but also for collaborative learning.  With intentional design, the Christopher Center, through the integration of classroom space, co-located services, and a faculty study, brings together faculty, students and librarians in ways that might not otherwise happen. By doing so, the entire academic community is strengthened.

Getting it Right

Perhaps the biggest mistake any academic administrator can make is to give up on the idea that faculty and libraries go together. The libraries profiled in this issue decided that having faculty in the library is far better than having none. Why did academic librarians create the information commons in the first place? Because they knew that the first step to connecting students and librarians was to get the students back into the building. At first the students may have come for only computer access or the cafe, but in time, relationships began to build and students evolved into more serious users of the library and the services of librarians. Now academic administrators can easily see the true value of the information or learning commons in revitalizing their campus library. Academic administrators and their library directors should examine how to reproduce these results with their faculty.

As the profile of Ohio University demonstrates, despite efforts to involve faculty in the planning process, it is possible that some ideas will fail. Those seeking to bring faculty back to the library can learn much from the experiences of the libraries on the leading edge of the faculty commons concept.

Basic Approaches. The profiled libraries demonstrate some basic approaches for developing spaces that will draw faculty into the library:

Finding the Right Mix. One question asked by those planning a faculty research space is whether it should be limited to faculty or open to the whole community. While there are advantages to having opportunities for faculty and students to mix and connect when the space is public, makng it openly accessible may make it less attractive to faculty who may be seeking a space away from students. There are no easy answers to this question, and it should be the subject of a community conversation. As with the addition of any new space and related services, administrators need to consider additional staff time and other regular expenses needed to support a faculty commons.

Academic administrators know that new library buildings and major renovations create a campus revolution by bringing students, in droves, back into the library. Now we have the opportunity to do the same with faculty. When it comes to the faculty commons project, the prediction that “if you build it they will come” is generally true, especially at the libraries described above. Results elsewhere may differ, so it is best to consult with faculty as the project begins to materialize.

As with other initiatives targeting faculty and requiring their input and support, success is more probable when idea champions, those among the faculty who will immerse themselves in the planning and implementation process, are identified at the start. With the right mix of design and faculty engagement, academic library directors and their administrators can create a roadmap for getting faculty off the path that takes them right past the library and back on the one that leads them right through the door.


Teaching Commons at University of Massachusetts Amherst


Scholarly Commons at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign


Press Release Announcing Opening of Faculty Commons at Ohio University


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March 2011


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