"Knowledge is a community project. People construct knowledge working together in groups, interdependently. All knowledge is therefore the 'property' not of an individual person but of some community or other, the community that constructed it in the language spoken by the members of that community" (Bruffee 294-295).
"We learned a lot from reading, of course. That was because reading is one way to join new communities, the ones represented by the authors of the texts we read. By reading, we acquire fluency in the language of the text and make it our own. Library stacks, from this perspective, are not a repository; they are a crowd" (Ibid., 8-9).
I would like to begin this report with a sincere "thank you" to the many library colleagues in Canada and the U.S. who so generously hosted my visits to their libraries and Information Commons. Without the time and knowledge of many librarians and library staff I would not have been able to complete this Study Leave and gain much valuable information. I sincerely thank each and every person who took time from their busy schedules to share their ideas, knowledge and experience of their Information Commons.
I would next like to make a comment about the two quotes at the beginning of this report. These two quotes tell something very special about learning, libraries and the "Commons." While many people rue the coming of technology into library space and fear a diminishing of "reading," the quotes above tell a story of learning that is done in "common" even if the community is the printed book. We should not forget that the advent of technology into our libraries is only an evolution and does not nullify past ways of learning. The idea of the Commons is a place where people learn, work together, and create new knowledge and for Lyman, "Research libraries are homes for [these] scholarly communities" (135). The library, then, is a perfect venue for this community of learners collaborating with each other today and with communities of the past.
This "Final Report" is not an attempt to describe the perfect Information Commons; it is, rather, a pulling together of some seminal ideas that have emerged for me during my study of Information Commons in various libraries. Over the last year I have had the opportunity to visit twenty-five libraries' Information Commons (IC) first-hand, talk with numerous library colleagues about their experiences with the IC and read widely in the literature (six-months of this time was an official Study Leave). This study was undertaken primarily because the University of Victoria (UVic), which implemented an Information Commons in January 2003, is now ready to consider enhancements to our IC beyond simply adding additional workstations. Our initial IC started with a classroom of 28 Windows workstations with internet access, Microsoft Office (except Access) and various utilities. The classroom is open to students at any time we are not teaching library instruction and is not available to be booked by anyone outside the library. This gives students many hours on most days to use the IC. The classroom is located next to the Reference area so access to Reference assistance is very direct. We also provide Information Commons Assistants (ICAs) who are located at a carrel near the door of the classroom. The ICAs provide basic technical assistance to IC users.
From this beginning we have increased the number of workstations in the area outside the classroom as we have had opportunity, but have not increased the software offerings or worked with any partners outside the library. My interest in exploring Information Commons operations at other libraries was to see what software was provided, what reference, technical and instructional support was offered and what partners were involved. The UVic library is currently undergoing renovations and will be building a new, adjacent facility over the next several years. It is in this context that we will be able to expand our concept of the IC and will need as much information as possible as we make our decisions for the future.
This report will focus on the following areas of interest: Rationale; Philosophy; Software; Physical Environment; Partners and Governance; Reference, Technical and Instructional Support; and Assessment.
Perhaps the area of most interest to me in talking with colleagues about the Commons is both the rationale that led libraries to embrace this new service and the philosophy around which it is delivered. Determining the initial rationale for providing an Information Commons sets the tone both for the service and for a new understanding of the place the library can now play in the intellectual life of both students and faculty. Two reasons for libraries to create an Information Commons stand out. One is the acknowledgement that libraries are having a more difficult time proving their worth in the internet era. Though librarians are clear that the internet plays an enormous, positive role in information provision and delivery, we also understand its limitations and the extent to which it enhances existing library service, without replacing it. It is often difficult, however, to convince administrators and students that everything is not easily and freely "on the net". In this context, I think, libraries have looked to the Information Commons as a way to "stay in the game." To be an active and busy entity in the life of students and to be seen as progressive.
A second reason libraries create Information Commons, however, is the more important. I think we have come to realize the contiguity of the scholarly process in this computer age. Computing and the internet have erased the line between when you are researching a topic (traditionally a library activity) and when you are creating your assignment (traditionally a computer activity). Students now work on a computer for most of the process, moving back and forth between research and output. Though printed materials may still be heavily used, access to finding those materials is all computerized, and in many cases the once printed materials are now also in digital form. To see this scholarly process as the continuum that it is offers libraries a new way to see their place in the academy. The exciting thing is that this new understanding need not diminish the libraries' other roles in the provision of printed materials, interlibrary loan, data acquisition, etc. Rather, it broadens our understanding of the part we can play, not just making materials available, but in the entire life cycle of scholarship that students engage in. Allison Cowgill sums this up well:
"Successful, vital libraries are redefining their roles in fulfilling the many goals of both user and higher education. They understand how the increasing importance of electronic resources affects collections, services, and staffing, how scholarship involves a continuum from initial research through the final project, and how information technology is now so essential to the entire process" (433).
Philosophy of the Commons
Many libraries had a philosophy of their Commons that revealed an understanding of the library as part of the continuum of scholarship in this new age. They articulated the importance of technology in the scholarly process and understood that collaboration, not just individual achievement, are important. They also acknowledged that once library resources, technology, collaboration and support are brought together, a "place" is created where scholarship happens. Some phrases used to describe ICs included:
- the integration of technology with service--face-to-face with the right people with the right skills
- a place for new ways of teaching, learning and doing research
- a place for collaboration
- positioned to support student learning, writing, research, and technology
One phrase that sums this all up nicely for me was shared by the Associate Director for Public Service at Georgia Tech:
- a place that sustains student learning outside the classroom
Thinking of the Commons in this light frees us up to always put the focus on student learning, not on the library. If we continue to look at student learning as the thing we are all about in the academy, then our libraries may change radically over the years, but they will change in ways that are in keeping with our mandate. The University of Calgary focused on student learning by articulating their philosophy of the IC in terms of outcomes. These outcomes "were clear and user focused and would allow users to:
- acquire information literacy and information technology skill
- acquire information resources
- acquire help
- access various spaces/technology to complete the work" (Beatty 153).
As libraries have embraced the Commons and become "the" place on campus, they have also recognized the social place they provide for students. Collaborative learning is a social activity, and in fact, much student socializing is part of the thinking and exploration they are doing about their course work and about life in general. For the library to serve as a place for students to meet, share and work together, makes it truly the heart of the campus.
Libraries embracing the Commons model would do well to state the rationale for providing a Commons and articulate the philosophy of the service. Stating these two things clearly can help staff understand why such a change is being undertaken and can help the library maintain its focus as the Commons develops assuring that the IC meshes with the library's mission. Tying the development of the Commons to university and library strategic planning is also essential. It is in this way that the Commons "gets on the map" and becomes a focal point of the library's service.
The Information Commons is one manifestation of change that academic libraries are embracing in order to continue to meet their mandate and provide valuable service to students and faculty. The way the IC is understood will help determine governance, venues, partners, and services.
Once a general philosophy of service is established it is then time to make decisions about what software to offer and how to distribute it on the workstations. Choices about what software to offer are best made in response to user needs and in the context of what the library can reasonably support. These are not simple issues and need to be determined in the context of whether the library is alone in supporting the IC or whether it is partnering with campus IT. One advantage of campus IT managing the software is that it can be identical to software provided in other general labs that students use. This can be a boon for students who can then move easily between the library IC and other campus labs. It is likely, however, that the library will have additional software that is library specific, or will move into areas of software that are not offered in other general labs. When this happens the library needs to determine whether all software will be provided on all workstations or whether there will be groups of workstations for specialized software. The argument for all software being available on all workstations is that it is simply easier for students using the workstations. No matter what software they intend to use any workstation that is free will have what they need. If some software is specific to certain workstations students may need to wait longer to find a free workstation that has the software they need to use. The argument against this practice is that most students will use Microsoft Office, e.g., but very few may use GIS or multimedia software. In this case it may not be reasonable to provide ubiquitous access to a wide variety of software when the majority of students will never use it.
Another consideration in the area of software is around the issue of support. Most libraries I visited tried to provide a reasonable level of support for all the software they provided. This can be challenging depending on how varied the software is and how many hours the library feels it should provide on-site assistance. In this case it can make more sense to provide specialized software on fewer workstations and indicate the hours that technical support is available.
Two other issues were brought to my attention. If you are providing software such as multimedia production tools, it is also necessary to provide camcorders, projectors, video monitors, etc., on loan. In addition, the library needs to be prepared to provide copyright education to users in the area of media presentations.
Many specific ideas about the physical environment of the IC are listed in the "Gleanings" page of this website. In general, however, it is most important to understand what you are trying to accomplish in your space. If the philosophy of the IC is clear, it should lead to an understanding of how the space can best be used. For example, if the IC is just seen as learning space, then design it for that. If it is also seen as social space, then different criteria need to be considered.
A few particular ideas that were repeatedly brought to my attention bear mention:
- Provide several spaces for quiet study;
- Group study space is in very high demand. Some institutions have developed "collaboratories" -- larger spaces with many computers and tables for group work and consultation. Or, design workstations with enough space for more than one student, as well as having additional chairs available;
- Include appropriate space for students with a disability;
- If feasible, provide a "presentation" room where students can practice making presentations;
- Provide as many power and ethernet outlets as possible, as well as the loan of laptops...this will expand the IC considerably without needing to add workstations;
- Students need computing space, but they also need good areas for reading, collaborating, and relaxing;
- Provide a space that is aesthetically pleasing and where some amount of food or drink is allowed since students will spend large amounts of time in the space. An attractive, comfortable space is much more conducive to work and study.
Partners and Governance
The topic of partners was the most emotional of the issues among the libraries I visited. In most cases the partnership of concern was between the library and the campus IT department. Much has already been written about the potential tension between librarians and computer professionals and many of these concerns were raised by librarians at institutions I visited. While there are certainly gains to be made by partnering with campus IT for assistance in managing the technical aspects of the IC, a successful partnership is more likely if initial steps are taken:
- Be clear about why you are including a partner and make a written agreement about expectations and responsibilities, including goals and decision-making;
- If a partnership is being initiated with a group that has a different culture from the library (e.g., computing professionals) begin the joint relationship by planning ways in which the partnering units will learn to work together and get to know each other;
- Partners besides computing professionals need to be considered, such as educational technologists, learning and teaching staff and student services staff (e.g., writing and study skills);
- In several places where there was a strong, successful partnership, staff made a point that it was essential for partners to have offices in the Library. Successful partnerships were forged through working together on a daily basis.
With or without partners, the library needs to determine the governance of the IC. Different models can work equally well -- in several places there was joint governance between the library and IT or the library and the Learning Centre. In some, the library alone governed the IC. In order to be successfully governed, the IC needs a sound philosophy, clear agreement among partners, good feedback from users, appropriate human and technological resources, well-communicated policies and procedures, and clear reporting. The important thing is that the services should be seamless to students, regardless of the governing structure.
The value of the IC concept is that it provides a venue and support for the entire scholarly cycle, from research to knowledge creation. Because of this, reference, technical and instructional support are all requirements of a successful IC. It is essential to have reference assistance available in proximity of the IC, but if this is not possible, several libraries are experimenting with other models: staff that circulate throughout the IC making themselves available to students at their workstations; encouraging the use of cell phones from workstations to the reference desk; the use of a "call button" at the workstation; and the use of virtual reference. The point here is that in order for the IC to provide service beyond that of a typical computer lab, reference service must have a high profile in the IC and there must be easy access to reference assistance.
Technical assistance is equally critical and there are numerous ways to provide this support. In some libraries separate staff (often students) are hired to handle the first-level technical problems. In others, reference desk staff are expected to take this on. The addition of computer troubleshooting to the mix of expectations has been particularly difficult for many reference staff. If reference staff are expected to learn areas of computing that are unfamiliar it can be very intimidating. But, likewise, if technical staff are located at the reference desk, it becomes a logistical problem of how best to organize the staff so that appropriate staff are available to answer the student's question. Crockett suggests a totally holistic approach: "Perhaps one should go a step further, though, and begin to think of holistic service in information commons, meaning service that is completely transparent and intuitive to the user" (181). While a noble goal, this is not simple to attain. Add to this the problem noted by McKinstry: "A student often does not know if he or she has a technical, production, or information question" (395). For McKinstry the solution is: "The combination of reference and computing assistance provides an efficient way to approach the problem and to provide the best answer" (395). Others are more hesitant with this model:
"The creation of a "one-stop" information/help desk located physically in the Library and fully network accessible has been explored for future implementation. While in theory, this seems to be an efficient mechanism for providing a full range of user services, numerous problems have surfaced inhibiting early implementation. Both the computing consultants and the reference librarians were quite skeptical about the success of such a unified service point. Space considerations, staffing differences, and fear of having to learn a new discipline interfered with out ability to create a unified desk during the first year" (Shapiro 289).
All of these issues were verbalized in many libraries I visited. Some libraries had clearly differentiated desks and referred the question to the appropriate desk. Others were trying to work toward an integration of reference and technical service, whether this meant just technical staff and reference staff working from the same desk, or reference staff and technical staff actually sharing each others' work. For these libraries there was an acknowledgement that students do not need one more problem of trying to categorize their problem before seeking help.
The desire to provide reference and technical support from one desk leads immediately to the issue of providing training to staff working at this desk.
"The most difficult [challenge] is the need for trained staff. With student demand for twenty-four hour access resulting in more library hours, an IC can be staff intensive. Assistance must either take the form of cross-trained staff that can handle both technology questions and provide research assistance, or a joint staffing arrangement with experts in both information resources and technology available to provide the appropriate types of service on demand. Training must keep pace with technology changes and system upgrades" (MacWhinnie 244).
I think the advantages of working together on one desk outweigh the disadvantages. Primarily it says to the user that the service they are using in the library has unified support, it also promotes librarians and technical assistants to learn more about each other and each other's work. This can only be good in that it helps both parties understand more fully what the student is doing. Working together, it seems, is also the best way to see, early on, changes that will make the service even better. As the technological change in libraries continues, it will behoove all library staff to embrace this scholarly process, understand it, and participate in its support. Shapiro says it best;
"Librarians and computing professionals now have shared roles that are inextricably intertwined. Information technology is the pillar of both of organizations and there is increasing demand for the union of our expertise because our users are utilizing computing to both access and create knowledge. Connectivity has become a critical element in acquiring, organizing, preserving and providing access to information. And while we still need staff with some of the traditional skills of librarianship, increasingly we will need staff who have technological expertise in addition to their subject expertise. No longer can libraries afford to have a small cadre of technological wizards to manage technology. Rather, technology must be integrated throughout the library" (289).
Beyond the immediate troubleshooting, however, the library requires a robust support system for the hardware, software and network. This may be systems staff in the library, campus IT, or a combination of both. When campus IT staff are involved it may be as staff assigned to the library with office space in the library, or as contact people. Several institutions have moved the campus Help Desk into the library which provides excellent proximity for assistance.
Instructional support assists students in maximizing their use of the IC. Most libraries currently support students with general drop-in classes on using the catalogues, internet, indexing databases, etc. The popularity of the IC gives the library an opportunity to make these offerings more apparent to students and faculty and to, perhaps, offer classes more frequently for smaller groups. In the era of the Information Commons, however, this basic instructional programme is now only a beginning. Duncan identifies three categories of library courses appropriate in the Information Commons: "Three categories of courses have emerged: information access and literacy, knowledge management and evaluation, and skills-based content creation and delivery" (580).
Most libraries already provide instruction in information access and literacy; some now also instruct in knowledge management and evaluation; but few, outside of those with extensive multimedia commons, have taken up the challenge of instructing in content creation and delivery. Though providing instruction in software may not seem to be related to library instruction, the recent appearance of referencing software has changed that concept. The move from researching material to capturing citations or creating a bibliography is all well within the research process. For the library to assist students with this software seems in keeping with the mandate of reference service.
In libraries offering instructional support for other application software (either as one-on-one consultation or as a workshop), the support was often given by student staff hired to provide technical support in the IC or by library systems staff. This support varied greatly, however, depending on the variety of software that was offered in the IC. Generally in libraries with a breadth of software, support was offered for those general products which would be used by the majority of students; for more specialized software it was often expected that the student would have knowledge of the software before coming to the IC. This was not the case at the University of Oregon that had a very extensive instruction programme, including all aspects of library research instruction, as well as technology instruction. Also, several libraries that had developed very sophisticated multimedia services offered substantial support in the way of one-on-one assistance and training workshops.
Many campuses provide software courses for students through the campus IT, but some do not. There may also be software which is offered in the library which would not be offered through campus IT, e.g., GIS. Though normally students using GIS heavily would have had a lab course on its use, many students not in subjects that use GIS heavily may also want to learn it and use it. The library needs to determine what software will be supported with hands-on assistance and workshops, and which will not. The library must be clear about what is offered and offer referrals to other options when those are available. If there are no options on campus for students to get training in the use of software, the library should look at possible joint staffing with technical assistants in other departments, e.g., work with the Geography department to jointly hire a student with GIS skills or with the Sociology department to hire a student with SAS or SPSS skills.
Determining what software to offer should stem primarily from identified student need. Although software needs to be supported by the library to make sure it operates properly, it is useful to provide those applications required by students even if instructional support cannot be provided. In many cases students do know how to use software. In cases where they do not, the library should look at the possibility of having the IC technical assistants trained in the basics of the software in order to give at least a modest amount of hands-on assistance.
The point here is to find the best way to balance the identified need of the students with any possible ways the library can assist in support and to trust that many software packages are familiar to students. For pragmatic reasons I would recommend that we look at the possibility of having IC Assistants provide consultation and training in software use, rather than reference librarians. This is primarily because ICAs can be hired for much less salary and may be able to gain a great deal from the possibility of learning the skills of one-on-one and classroom teaching. The instructional department of the library can take responsibility for providing a programme of instruction and providing training to appropriate ICAs.
Librarians might, instead, turn their attention to working more closely with faculty members as they reengineer their courses to take advantage of technological advances. When the staff from the learning and teaching department of the institution are an active part of the IC, subject librarians have an excellent opportunity to become involved in the course development of their departmental faculty. One example of this kind of instructional partnership is describes by Hughes:
"TWIST's (Teaching With Innovative Style and Technology) primary goal is to design a model program to assist faculty in incorporating new technologies and information resources into their courses" (29)...In the TWIST model, reference librarians continue to act as information specialists for course-related materials. However as the faculty member discusses the course Web page with the project director, the instructional technologist, and the subject-area librarian, the librarian's role shifts. No longer on the periphery of the course, librarians and technologists discuss with the faculty member the course goals, what electronic resources the library has that could be linked to the course pages what print resources should be integrated into the course, where in the course library instruction best should take place, and information-related skills the students need to acquire in order to fully participate in the newly built course" (30).
Librarians of the future will need to have both a subject specialty and computer literacy as noted by Shapiro: "The need for specialization among library user services staff will continue to increase. They will require not only a subject specialty, but also will have to acquire basic computer literacy" (287). With this expertise, they will be well positioned to work with faculty in the creation of courses.
While few libraries have done formal assessments of their ICs, even fewer did a formal information gathering of potential users before implementing the IC. Getting a clear picture of student and faculty need before implementing the IC is the preferred model; this would allow the library to target need and make the best use of its resources. It is valuable to find out from potential IC users what model of service and support will work best for them before the IC is built, but, regardless of whether that is done or not, routine, formal assessment of an existing IC will help the library develop the IC into the best service it can offer to its users.
Beatty, Susan. "The Information Commons: Strategies for Integration." Information and IT Literacy; Enabling Learning in the 21st Century. Ed. Allen Martin and Hannelore Rader. London: Facet, 2003. 151-160.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Cowgill, Allison, Joan Beam and Lindsey Wess. "Implementing an Information Commons in a University Library." Journal of Academic Librarianship 27.6 (2001): 432-9.
Crockett, Charlotte, Sarah McDaniel and Melanie Remy. "Integrating Services in the Information Commons: Toward a Holistic Library and Computing Environment." Library Administration and Management 16.4 (2002): 181-6.
Duncan, James M. "The Information Commons: A Model for (Physical) Digital Resource Centers." Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 86.4 (1998): 576-82.
Hughes, Carol Ann and Dee Morris. ""Facework": A New Role for the Next Generation of Library-Based Information Technology Centers." Library Hi Tech 16.3-4 (1998): 27-35.
Lyman, Peter. "The Gateway Library: Teaching and Research in the Global Reference Room." Gateways to Knowledge: The Role of Academic Libraries in Teaching, Learning, and Research. Ed. L. Dowler. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. 135-147.
MacWhinnie, Laurie A. "The Information Commons: The Academic Library of the Future." portal: Libraries and the Academy 3.2 (2003): 241-57.
McKinstry, Jill and Peter McCracken. "Combining Computing and Reference Desks in an Undergraduate Library: A Brilliant Innovation or a Serious Mistake?" portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.3 (2002): 391-400.
Shapiro, Beth J. and Kevin Brook Long. "Just Say Yes: Reengineering Library User Services for the 21st Century." Journal of Academic Librarianship 20.5-6 (1994): 285-90.
Maintained by: J. Henning
Last updated: March 23, 2005