By most definitions, a library is the heart of a campus. Students gather there to research information and study quietly. The library is not just a repository of books; it symbolizes the very treasure house of knowledge, history and wisdom that defines the institution and the value of education.

But times have changed, and so have the perceptions of the library and its relevance. Most campus librarians report a significant decline in circulation figures, but a tremendous increase in demand for online media. Many campuses have responded by removing bookshelves and providing as many computer stations as possible. But how is this affecting meaningful learning and quality research? Is the book simply an old-fashioned “container” of information, easily replaced by the more efficient Internet?

The essence of the debate calls into question the evolving mission of the academic library. Once an institution that acquired and organized information, a library now frequently is viewed as an access point to a much greater selection of media and information that resides electronically and not physically. Most students embrace this understanding, but many faculty members are unsure of the ramifications of so radical a shift.

“College libraries can no longer be simply a repository of books and journals, nor can librarians serve only as information managers and clerks,” says Michael Bell, dean of faculty at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. “But increased information without interpretation produces more noise than knowledge, and librarians who merely manage the information flow are likely to foster more ignorance than insight.”

A balancing act

School administrators and facility planners are searching for the proper balance of technology and tradition. Making library facilities more attentive to student expectations is essential. But schools also must consider the need for high-quality scholarship and guideposts to lifelong learning. These needs must be mutually supportive.

To lure students back to the library, school planners and architects are exploring creative ways to redesign, renovate or build new library structures that meet the changing academic and social needs of its student body and faculty.

Many school administrators are embracing similar design goals as they consider modern library facilities:

  • Technology and information literacy

    Providing more computers without meaningful guidance improves neither student scholarship nor teaching effectiveness. The real differentiator seems to be harnessing new media to teach critical-thinking skills.

    Several schools are providing information-literacy labs as core spaces in their new facilities. These teaching spaces allow librarians to help students develop organization and information-assessment skills. This formal guidance nurtures a student's ability to discover, sort and integrate information, and evaluate it critically. Students use the library most effectively when they understand how to navigate through the storm of information.

    Some schools are enclosing these classrooms in glass so people can view the technology-enhanced instruction space and have uninterrupted views throughout the library without compromising acoustic containment.

    Many students use laptop computers to research, write and communicate with their peers and professors. A new or remodeled library facility should incorporate a robust network environment “painted” with wireless access to the campus network and Internet. A fiber-optic backbone connecting the library to the world is seen as the best “future-proofing” strategy for these evolving technologies.

  • Librarians as research collaborators

    As the mission of the academic library is re-examined, so is the role of the librarian. If information literacy training is essential to the success of a student's experience and lifelong learning habits, the library staff must assume primary responsibility to provide this training.

    Librarians are moving from their traditional role as information managers to become teachers of critical-learning skills, research collaborators and technology leaders.

    Librarians no longer work behind reference counters; they try to form research partnerships with students. They teach research techniques as they help find and evaluate information.

    New library interiors often incorporate workstations configured in a collaborative setting. This allows students to work individually with a librarian or in small groups.

  • Reconfiguring collections

    Library collections are expanding rapidly. Librarians have been integrating non-print formats — video, DVD and sound recordings — into their collections for years while removing hard-copy materials that are available electronically. But the interest in electronic media and declining enthusiasm for print material have driven books off the main levels of many libraries. Stacks frequently are relegated to lower levels, and in some cases, are situated in a remote part of the campus, with a system in place to retrieve requested volumes.

    But most librarians agree that the book will not become extinct. Despite the proliferation of electronic media, much information is available only in print. Training students to mine this source of knowledge and not only online data is part of the mission.

  • Social and academic center

    For a library to regain its role as the center of a college's intellectual community, it must provide venues that attract students.

    Spaces that incorporate both quiet reading and discussion can become alternative hangouts for students to relax and build friendships. Many libraries create private rooms for study groups to discuss assignments or prepare class presentations.

    One of the more conspicuous departures from the traditional library paradigm is having a cafe or snack area inside the library. These limited-menu coffee bars become between-class gathering spots. They frequently serve as a cyber cafe with desktop and wireless laptop capabilities.

  • Looking to the future

    Most academics believe that the library still is significant and should not be discarded prematurely. In fact, many campuses are attempting to restore the vitality once common in these buildings.

The core issue is not books vs. computers, but rather the nature of learning and the quality of human discourse.

Designing a modern library environment to enhance a student's experience may involve an array of initiatives that address both academic and social issues. But the question of what form this venerable institution will take in the future is still evolving.

The most enduring vestige from the past may be that comfortable armchair in the corner, perfect for curling up with a good book.

Havens is senior vice president and director of design for Wight & Company, Downers Grove, Ill., a design-build firm specializing in education and public facilities.

A new vision

Size doesn't matter when renovating a campus library — it's how you use the space you're given. Take for example the vision of Michael Bell, dean of faculty at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. He envisioned a library that would meet the intellectual needs of students and faculty in today's changing information environment. Yet, he saw a library that maintained its traditional responsibility to teach the critical research skills central to intellectual life.

In 2002, this liberal-arts college welcomed its 2,800 students to an expanded and reconfigured library. The $1.4 million expansion at Buehler Library added an information-literacy laboratory and a cyber cafe, complete with food and beverages and TVs for students to catch up on the day's news. The reconfiguration of the library moved books from the first level to the basement; new layouts and furniture complemented the increased role librarians would have in collaborating with students.

Elmhurst College uses the information-literacy classroom and computer lab to conduct more than 200 instructional sessions per year for students and faculty, turning the librarians into an integral part of the teaching staff.

Since the library's renovation, library traffic has increased significantly. Elmhurst College's students are embracing the concept of a library that caters to their desire for study, socialization and information literacy.