A Makerspace, Teaching Studio or Wellness Center? The Role of Libraries in College Innovation

Sep 26, 2019

Libraries have long been central to college campuses. In fact, one way colleges have measured their greatness has been to boast about the size of their library collections. (Harvard wins on that metric, with 18.9 million volumes.Yale is close behind at 15.2 million.)

But now that so many materials are digital, is a book count the best way to measure a library’s impact? And how have libraries become central to new efforts to remake the college campus for the information age?

These were some of the questions discussed this week during the latest installment of EdSurge Live, our series of online discussions about big topics in higher education. Our guests were:

  • Steven Bell, associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple University, which recently opened a glitzy new $175-million library on its campus.
  • Emily Drabinski, critical pedagogy librarian at the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center, CUNY

Listen to the conversation below, or read a transcript of highlights, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: So what is the best way to measure a college library’s value these days? In this digital age I’m guessing it’s not the number of books anymore.

Emily Drabinski: I don’t know. But accumulation of wealth seems like a poor measure. Harvard and Yale are essentially hedge funds with some educational extracurriculars attached. I don’t know how innovative I find that, or how compelling I find it. I guess my question would be: Why is it necessary to measure it?

A lot of us believe that the context in which we operate means that we can’t take our inherent value as enough. But I wish I lived in a world where the value we provided was what our users said was valuable about us, which sometimes is just a bathroom and an outlet.

Steven Bell: We count things like books and how much money we pay for staff and investment, because that’s what’s easy to count. Those are the sorts of things that deans like to take to the top administrators so we can say, “This is how we compare to others.” And this is something we grapple with quite a bit. How do we show our value?

I think one of the things we’re trying to emphasize more are the stories that we can tell about how we’re making a difference for academic departments, individual students and other academic support offices that we work with.

Colleges often face controversy when they renovate their libraries and move more books off-site to storage facilities and use the space for other needs. What are some innovative ways that people are using library spaces these days?

Bell: That’s part of the dilemma that we face. If you want to have a library that’s all books, and you have all your books on site, that’s fantastic. In the case of our library, we would have probably had to spend another $50 or $70 million to build the building big enough so that we could store two or three million books on-site, and plus have all the space that we wanted. So we had to make some really tough decisions, and we certainly did consult our community members to see what their thoughts were.

We tried to do a blended approach. We have a remote storage site that’s not far away, and we have our oldest materials that very rarely get requested. So that seems like a fairly safe way to handle those materials. But in the building itself, we do have an automated storage and [robotic] retrieval system that holds up to about 1.5 million books, but it compresses them into this space that’s 10 times less than what you would need if you had even compact shelving for all those books.

The thing that it enabled us to have was a much more expanded scholar studio for our makerspace, our innovation center, our virtual reality studio and visualization studio. And it allowed us to have a new graduate and faculty space that they never had before.

Drabinski: Everything you’re describing, Steven, sounds amazing. But when I think about having to do that in a CUNY system—we’re dealing with incredible austerity. It’s so dependent on resources and options and opportunities that are so far outside of your control.

Bell: And when it comes to these kinds of innovations, what is really challenging for the library right now is that we need to keep a foot in the past, and part of ourselves in the present, and thinking ahead to the future. Everybody who’s here now thinks the building is for them. And that’s true to a certain extent. But the buildings are also for students three generations from now. This building is going to be here 75 or 100 years from now.

So if you built the kind of infrastructure that people want right now, it’s probably not going to work very well for people in the future. For example, a lot of students are coming in and saying, “Where are the desktop computers?” There’s no computer lab in this building. We’re going with a total laptop share system that’s like a bike share for laptop computers and portable batteries.

We’ll have kiosks in most of the academic buildings on campus, plus the library. So the idea is you don’t have to bring your laptop to campus—although many students do—but you can borrow one at any kiosk, and return it to any kiosk on campus. The library is the first [place] at Temple to implement this type of system. If we had to spend enormous amounts of money to put in the data jacks and electrical wiring for hardwire desktop computers, do we really think that students 20 or 30 years from now are going to be using them?

[Audience question] Many university college students are experiencing significant amounts of anxiety. Do you see libraries as having an important role in designing spaces for cultivating and enhancing student wellness? Examples would be low- or no-tech study areas, mindfulness spaces, et cetera.

Bell: We do know that many of our students are suffering from mental-health issues, anxiety and stress. [I see that someone in the chat] is mentioning having therapy, petting zoos, stress relief sessions, special spaces for mindfulness. I see plenty of examples across the academic library world where we’re doing that.

At Temple, we have wellness centers, a crisis team and all those sort of things. But maybe this is something that we want to try. But if we do, it’s a trade-off: we can’t hire a librarian, or there might be other things we can’t do. That’s always a tough call, but maybe we should experiment.

Drabinski: Having space where people can sit and do their work is important and useful. But what’s causing that anxiety? Are there other broader-scale [policy] interventions that we could be participating in that would reduce some of that anxiety? [Perhaps we could also focus on] things like working for fully-funded higher education, working for full-time, not [adjunct] faculty, so that students are able to reach their professors.

This is an excerpt of the full discussion, which also explores open-education resources, what to do about students who don’t want to go to a library and other related topics. You can listen to the entire conversation here.


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