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Renovation as a Catalyst for Change
Posted By Erin Dorney On November 9, 2011 @ 3:52 pm In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled
This Lead Pipe post is about two libraries attempting to reinvent services, collections, and spaces as the walls of their buildings come crashing down. Rather than embarking on phased construction projects, the library buildings at both St. Edward’s University and Millersville University will be completely shut down for a period of one and two years, respectively. Co-authors Eric Frierson, Library Digital Services Manager at St. Edward’s and Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Milersville discuss renovations as catalysts for change, experimentation and flexibility, and distributed/embedded librarianship. These facets contribute to the identity crisis librarianship has struggled with since the Information Age began – only exacerbated by unique circumstances. The conversation below is one example of the kinds of real questions being proffered to librarians at both institutions:
“I don’t mean to sound disrespectful,” began the biology professor, “but if we can do without a library for a whole year, what does that say about the library?” An awkward silence settled over the science faculty meeting before the librarian was able to pull together a response.
“You’re right. The library as it exists now – the print collections, the reference desk – these may not be required elements of a thriving university library. This renovation project gives us the opportunity to re-examine what a library does on campus, what things we don’t need to do, and what things we could start doing that we haven’t done before.”
This post will not cover the new, technologically-situated, collaborative learning spaces which will exist following the renovations, but rather discuss how renovations can bring organizational change that has the potential to shape the library of the future. It is our belief that the pace of change our libraries have adopted should become the norm at all libraries.
St. Edward’s University is a private, Catholic institution in Austin, Texas. It is home to over 5,000 students and is situated on a hill overlooking the lower Colorado River, boasting gorgeous views of the Austin skyline. Enrollment has nearly doubled in the past ten years, and the campus master plan has made the grounds and buildings cohesive, beautiful, and a delight to explore. The library, however, has been a 30-year anomaly with its white stucco, rounded-edge shell.
(Current St. Edward’s University Library Building)
During the summer of 2011, the university received a gift of $13 million from Austin-area philanthropists Pat and Bill Munday for the creation of a new library and learning commons. The only catch is that construction must be complete within a period of two years. This aggressive timeline demanded the selection of an architect almost immediately, and the library, along with its partners in the new commons, needed to have the plan for the new space completed within a few short months.
Because the project involves renovating existing square-footage and building a new addition, almost all physical resources – including collections – will be need be removed from the building for one year. The print collection of 170,000 books will need to be aggressively weeded and stored off-campus, inaccessible during the project. Only a few hundred high circulation items and the media collection will remain on campus. Seventeen staff members will find a new home in Mang House, a three bedroom residence with kitchen and a laundry room. The 100 computers and public use furniture from the old library will be dispersed throughout existing campus locations.
(Mang House – The temporary location for St. Edward’s University’s library.)
The librarians are not sure what Mang House will be like. For so long, they have identified public services with the desk that sits near the front door of the old building. There is no space for a robust reference desk in the temporary location; instead, staff will have a smallish living room with a fireplace. For an entire year, the library will exist without a reference desk, a print collection, or dedicated computing and study spaces. “If we don’t have those things… who are we, exactly?” asks Frierson and countless others.
Millersville University is a regional comprehensive Pennsylvania state school with a 2010 FTE of approximately 6,970 undergrads and 583 graduate students. As a state institution, campus buildings are only eligible for renovations on a strict schedule. Originally allocated $7 million from the state for basic infrastructure updates, the library and university administrators have successfully increased that amount to $25 million based on additional state allocations, university support, and private donations.
(Millersville University Library – Under construction for two years)
This intense renovation project will take 2 years to complete, gutting the interior of the 11-story building to replace all major systems (including heating, cooling, lighting, fire protection, vapor barriers and elevators). The library had to be emptied of all people, books, microfilms, computers, shelving, and furniture, down to the last piece of signage and window shades in order to allow construction to move at a quicker pace and ensure the safety of staff, visitors, and physical materials. Over 300,000 print items have been placed in storage off-site, where, similarly to St. Edwards, the books will be inaccessible to students and faculty members.
(Millersville University – The temporary library @ Gerhart Hall)
For the next two years, the campus will rely on a temporary library in Gerhart Hall containing approximately 10,000 items and less than a quarter of the study and computing space that the old library provided. There is no traditional reference desk and most of the librarians are distributed across campus, embedded in offices within academic buildings that align with their liaison areas. Similarly to the situation at St. Edwards, this period of massive change calls into question everything an academic library has traditionally been known to provide and represent.
From a librarian’s point of view, temporarily disconnecting from the building provides an opportunity for a clean slate. Many legacy processes are tied to institutional history and specific circumstances. To put it another way, buildings come with baggage. Libraries make exceptions, create lengthy policies, even determine resources and services based on prior experiences. Concern has been voiced by librarians (particularly those new to the profession) over the “way we’ve always done it” mantra that sometimes infiltrates institutions, marking this steadfastness as resistance to change that will leave libraries irrelevant to their constituencies. Ross and Sennyey (2008) describe some library services as holdovers from an era that has disappeared, “making our professional assumptions seem as foreign as a medieval manuscript in chains” (146). Included in these assumptions are services that are tethered to user needs that no longer exist.
The situations at St. Edward’s and Millersville are unique in that the renovations are not incremental. At both institutions, the scale of construction will shut down the entire space – not just one floor at a time. There are no branch or specialized libraries to absorb collections, services, or personnel. Business simply cannot proceed as usual – the status quo has become impossible to maintain. The libraries at St. Edward’s and Millersville have an opportunity to let go of legacies in order to better meet the needs of their respective campus communities.
One assumption under interrogation is the idea of a library as a warehouse for print books. Neither institution is a research library attempting to collect and preserve all of the world’s knowledge. Millersville has a collection development policy stating that theirs is a “teaching collection” which directly supports the university curriculum. With limited physical space and budget, items not used are transitioned out of the collection and replaced by more accessible materials relevant to institutional learning goals. The renovation at Millersville has prompted the library to increase its number of electronic books and databases in order to support campus research needs.
At St. Edwards, the massive renovation project has provided the library with an “excuse” to look holistically at the print collection. One year ago, the library owned 170,000 volumes. Through the first weeding project in the library’s long history, staff managed to reduce that number to 130,000. In the new building, space allocated for stacks can house approximately 90,000 books, meaning staff have some ways to go before boxing up the collection. Because librarians can’t guarantee that the library will hold the same number of print volumes in the future, the space needs to have a flexible infrastructure in order to be used differently.
It is possible that after two years of adjusting to primarily electronic scholarship, faculty and students may shed some of the traditional stereotypes held about libraries as warehouses for books. Although collection assessment and strategic reallocation initiatives at both St. Edward’s and Millersville were primarily designed to help students and faculty survive the lengthy renovation periods, this may in fact become the de-facto standard for content development for the foreseeable future. Preliminary findings of ebrary®’s 2011 Global Student E-book Survey revealed that while E-book usage and awareness have not increased significantly in 2011 compared to 2008, the vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered. Reflecting global trends like this, libraries are moving towards an increase in electronic holdings and are reorganizing space within their buildings to emphasize engagement with content, not simply storage.
In addition to addressing changes in content and collections, the renovations at St. Edwards and Millersville provide opportunities to experiment with (or without) certain longstanding library services. At Millersville, the two years without a building have been internally referred to as “a big experiment” in order to test out new ideas and determine which existing or new services are brought back into the new library.
Traditional reference is one service currently being investigated for transformation. Staff at Millersville decided not to install a reference desk inside of the temporary library in Gerhart Hall. In fact, there are no librarians located within Gerhart Hall, only staff and student employees. For just-in-case research questions, the library has developed a stand up, self-help kiosk where users can walk up to a dedicated computer and instantly chat/IM/email a librarian or pick up the phone and call. To assist, student employees working at the circulation desk are being trained on a referral system where they can lead students to the kiosk or direct them to specific subject librarian.
Staff at Millersville have expanded their suite of virtual research help options for just-in-time questions. Librarians take shifts providing assistance through phone, text, email and chat/IM (11-8 Monday through Thursday, 11-4 Fridays, and 2-8 Sundays). Another facet has been initiating at least three consistent office hours during which subject librarians will be available in their office for research consultations or appointments.
Inspired by Austin’s Coolhaus Ice Cream Truck use of Twitter to notify customers of their current location, St. Edward’s is considering heavier use of social media to inform students and faculty where reference assistance can be found. While still in the planning stages, the general idea is for librarians to check in using Foursquare or Gowalla at various campus locations with a note about how long they will be there. This check in will automatically propagate to the library’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and show up on the website in a rolling feed of library news and updates. In this scenario, even users who do not connect with the library through social media services will still benefit from the check in.
Librarians who station themselves around campus will be equipped with a netbook or a tablet computer with a keyboard and have the ability to print to any campus printer. The hope is that fully mobile librarians with high-end technology and the ability to help wherever the student may be will begin to shape expectations of students.
Traditional reference desks are often immobile and, in some cases, emphasize the power disparity between the knowledge seeker and the knowledge holder (either purposely or inadvertently). In these situations, it may be difficult for libraries to experiment with new methods of interacting with users, either face-to-face or digitally. It is easy to fall back on what is known, what is safe. The removal of these structures for renovation purposes is described by Dorney as an “almost cathartic experience,” providing a sense of freedom to test user and librarian reaction to innovative avenues of service.
While impact of these two renovations on their respective campus communities is an area ripe for discussion, the projects have also released the internal floodgates. Both institutions are witnessing discussions relating to professional identity and the library’s relevance/value within higher education. Often, anxiety accompanies these conversations, a natural reaction for any passionate professional.
At Millersville, staff is distributed on and off campus. There are librarians in academic buildings, staff in Gerhart Hall, librarians and staff at the off-site storage facility, and student employees everywhere in between. The way library work is accomplished is changing dramatically. Employees are beginning to rely more and more on technology to assist in everyday activities. Where resistance to change may have before existed for initiatives like video conferencing or using a wiki to share documentation, individuals have been forced out of their comfort zones to grow as a high-functioning team of professionals.
In the case of St. Edward’s, questions abound about how group dynamics may change when seventeen staff members are forced to exist within a cozy, three-bedroom house for one year. Without personal offices, librarians there may have a completely different experience in terms of collaboration and it is inevitable that all interactions will reach new levels of intensity, for better or worse.
Though the St. Edward’s library website already provides a great deal of services and resources, it will become even more apparent that it is the primary means of interacting with the library. David Lee King writes that “the library’s website IS the library,” and the absence of a robust, physical presence will solidify that perception. It is time for as much – if not more – effort to be placed on our digital assets than our physical spaces.
It would not be apropos to conclude this article without mentioning the importance of flexibility and freedom to fail. Both authors have found that it is often the best laid plans that have disintegrated while spur-of-the-moment ideas have taken off like wildfire. There is no ultimate road map to ensure success.
At Millersville, for example, the old library was the tallest, most heavily-trafficked building on campus. Assuming that the next largest building for student gathering was the newly-renovated Student Memorial Center, librarians set up a “Research Blast” table in a high-visibility area. The plan was to have multiple librarians available in shifts with computers and informational handouts to help students with their research questions. Staff promoted the one-week event heavily, using Facebook, QR codes, emails, posters, word-of-mouth. Librarians wore bright green tee shirts saying “Ask me about the library” and were proactive, making eye contact and greeting students as they passed.
The librarians barely received one research question the entire week. It turned out to be a great opportunity to answer questions about the library – what’s in the temporary library, where can I go to print papers, what is the new library going to look like, when is it the project going to be done? But librarians certainly weren’t helping students locate or evaluate peer-reviewed articles, analyze sources, or brainstorm search strategies. It was a failure in one aspect and a success in another. The freedom to fail and flexibility to adapt accordingly is paramount to initiating change.
St. Edward’s has the benefit of learning from Millersville’s two-year experiment before knocking down their old building. If students are not using roaming librarians to ask research questions, then where are they asking those kinds of questions? Studies of student research behavior suggest that faculty members, teaching assistants, the writing center, and course readings and websites are frequently sources students turn to for help (Foster & Gibbons, 2007; Head & Eisenberg, 2009). Though liaison librarians continue to inform faculty and teaching assistants about the services that will be available during construction, reaching students through course websites is another avenue worth exploring.
Exploring new options takes staff time and creative thinking; some projects will fail, but the spark of innovation provided by challenging circumstances may result in new and improved practices that last well beyond the transition period into these new buildings.
As economist Paul Romer once said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” (Rosenthal, 2009). In the cases of St. Edward’s and Millersville, the crisis of being without the library as one cohesive place provides librarians with an opportunity to initiate change. Without the baggage of the past, libraries can look holistically at the their portfolio of services, determining which to continue investing time and resources into. Others may have simply run their course, poorly designed from the outset or dated for serving a new generation of scholars.
Measuring the success of these experiments is often difficult. Due to the magnitude of change (moving from one centralized building to many distributed/embedded locations), neither St. Edward’s nor Millersville can simply compare usage statistics to the those of the old library. Because these libraries are focusing on interacting with users in new ways, measures have to be more comprehensive, taking both qualitative and quantitative aspects into account. In some cases, this will be longitudinal data. Both authors are hopeful that what is learned during these experiments outside of the library will be brought back into the new libraries in order to support the university community at a higher level, showcasing our professional growth and relevancy.
For each traditional library aspect that is re-envisioned, time and resources are made available to investigate new and innovative ways to interact with information. While keeping the history and mission of the academic library close to heart, librarians need to initiate honest, open, and difficult conversations and take immediate action towards readying academic librarianship for a new era.
In her fall 2010 convocation address to the university community, Millersville University President Francine McNairy stated: “…Indeed, the Ganser building will close, but the University library will not. You might think that the library is at the intersection of Frederick and George Streets, but it is actually at the intersection of scholarship, innovation, creativity and collaboration. And that’s the road to our future.” It is possible that upon moving back into each of these new libraries, the resources, services and spaces provided to users may look completely different. When individuals inquire about the risk of becoming irrelevant after a year or two without a building, perhaps that is the opportunity for librarians to inform their communities that the library is much more than bricks and mortar, and we are in the midst of fundamental shifts regarding our impact on students and learning.
Embarking on extensive renovations like those discussed here bring unique opportunities to initiate change within libraries, but they are not the only way to prepare for the future. The authors are issuing a call to action: How would you change your library as if you had a year without the historical baggage of a building? Take those plans and run with them – there is no reason why you have to wait for the bulldozers.
Many thanks to Melissa Gold for her feedback on this piece. Thanks also to Lead Pipers Hilary Davis, Leigh Anne Vrabel, Ellie Collier, and Emily Ford for edits, comments, and thought provoking questions.
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