Today's academic library is not only a place of formal learning, but also a hub for the informal learning that increasingly is taking place outside classrooms. On many campuses, the library even is replacing the traditional student union as a campus center and a student magnet. Emblematic of an institution's aspirations and values, the library is a major asset for attracting high-caliber faculty and students, as well as a focus of alumni and donor support. And, at the same time that today's library must be designed for a seamless integration of print and digital media, the unprecedented pace of technological change demands that it possess flexibility to meet future needs.

Given the magnitude and multi-faceted nature of these challenges, many institutions planning a new or expanded library project seek to involve a broad spectrum of stakeholders with diverse perspectives and expertise. To manage such a process from vision to reality, an institution can benefit by collaborating with a design firm versed in an open process, as well as in library program and design.

Feasibility study phase

A typical building project undergoes four phases: schematic design, design development, construction documentation and construction administration. On occasion, a feasibility study phase precedes the schematic design phase. For a complex library project, the feasibility study phase often is the most critical step. During this period, key issues pertaining to the library and the campus are explored, and the team sets a direction for the course of the project. At this point, it is helpful to reach out to stakeholders, as well as the larger campus community. In order to create a consensus-based decisionmaking framework, a school or university should bring together a cross-section of the community, help them gain a deeper understanding of issues, and then empower them to make smart choices.

An architect team begins by “designing the process,” customized to fit each institution's unique culture. A schedule that outlines a series of campus events is developed as the work plan for the phase. The pace is deliberately aggressive to generate excitement and maintain momentum. The work plan should be flexible and anticipate ongoing adjustments and refinements. What remains constant is a focus on three central themes in project feasibility:

  • Master plan: Understanding the opportunities and parameters inherent in a site and exploring the appropriate architectural response.

  • Town hall meetings

  • Program: Determining the nature and size of various library functions within the building.

  • Budget: Managing the institution's financial resources to ensure that the project culminates into the best possible library for the money.

When an architect is selected for a library project, a library program usually is in place. The new program, however, frequently represents a re-creation of the existing library program and facility, albeit with more generous sizes and improvements. A significant library project — a new construction or a renovation — represents a unique opportunity to aspire to the best library possible, within the confines of the institution's physical, time and budget parameters.

To get the feasibility study phase jump-started, a school or university may decide to hold a couple of town hall meetings. This is the ideal way to hear from a large number of stakeholder groups. In a large institution, an online questionnaire before the first town hall meeting can reach many constituents. It serves to advertise the upcoming event and to engage the larger segment of the campus population who may not attend.

For example, the agenda for an initial town hall meeting might reflect the following: