Gathering research for today's college students is less of an ordeal than it was for their parents. Instead of trudging across campus to the school library, riffling through card catalogs and unearthing volumes from dusty stacks, a student can find a wealth of information in online databases that they can plug into from the comfort of their residence halls via a local area network (LAN) or the Internet.

But just because they may not have to go to the library does not mean that they have stopped going. Whether they come to take part in group-study sessions, socialize with friends, or just to find a roommate-free studying environment, college students still flock to the library. And when they're there, they want to have spaces where they can do their work comfortably.

“Visually, a library looks about the same as it did years ago,” says Denise Beard, senior project manager for facilities planning and development at Ohio State University in Columbus. “We want students who are using the library to be comfortable.”

Getting wired

One of the major changes in recent years at college libraries, as well as in society at large, is the pervasiveness of technology. Students may come to the library to check their e-mail, use a word-processing program to write a term paper, or connect to the Internet to research a topic. They want to have access to desktop computing stations, as well as electrical outlets and data ports to connect laptop machines to the Internet.

“Each visitor is different and will want to do many things,” says Charles Forrest, director of library facilities planning and construction at Emory University in Atlanta.

At the entrance of Emory's main library are computer stations without chairs where students hurrying to and from classes can check e-mail quickly. Elsewhere in the building are computer stations with task chairs where students can spend all day writing, researching or surfing the Internet. Often, a student might decide to get more comfortable by pulling over a soft-cushion chair from a nearby lounge area.

“We don't set them up that way, but the students will pull them over,” says Forrest. “They reconfigure things. Some of them can be comfortable sitting sideways in a soft seat.”

At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the campus has “a pretty robust” wireless Internet setup, says Mike Mogelinski, the university's director of library facilities. But when it has too many users, it can become frustratingly slow.

“We still have a lot of faculty and students who really like a hard connection to the Internet,” say Mogelinski. “So a small percentage of our new carrels and tables have a hardwire connection to the campus network backbone.”

For patrons with laptops, another problem is finding enough electrical connections — especially ones able to accommodate the often-cumbersome transformer plugs that come with a laptop unit.

“Wires were going everywhere,” says Mogelinski. “So we have begun to equip all of our study carrels and tables with popup electrical units. It isn't the most aesthetically pleasing, but it can accommodate any size transformer.”

UCSD also has installed raceways with electrical plugs every 18 inches along the bottoms of window frames or in long rows of study carrels to give students more places to plug in.

Students also want to be able to plug in their computers in lounge areas near the entrance to libraries.

“They like to socialize near the front doors,” says Mogelinski. “That's where they tell their friends to meet them. So we have a lot of requests to install power in the lounge chairs. That's still cost-prohibitive, but it's still a new phenomenon.”

Specialized areas

Large universities often have many specialized libraries, but the furniture needs frequently are the same despite the different uses.

“There isn't a whole lot of difference,” says Beard. “They all have a large reading area, small conference rooms, individual spaces.”

Mogelinski says the furniture differences in specialized libraries are subtle and often hard to detect.

“In an art library, they really like to spread out art books,” he says. “The work surfaces in there are bigger. We have 4-by-10-foot study tables and usually have only one or two students at them. Our biomedical library needs fairly large work surfaces for carrels — 3 feet deep and 4 feet wide — to accommodate newer technology. And in our Pacific Studies library, smaller units — 2-by-3-foot carrels — suit them just fine.”

Squeezing space

Despite the fact that libraries have been able to convert much of their material to a digital format and place it online, colleges and universities are seeing the demand for additional materials claiming available space. Many of them have run out of room.

“Libraries tend to be in the center of campuses,” says Forrest. “They don't offer much additional opportunity for expansion. So if you can't expand, you can compress what you have and squeeze it in somehow.”

Many libraries have converted some of their shelving to compact or movable storage, which allows facilities to boost their shelf capacity without enlarging the building. Some are operated mechanically, and other systems are motorized.

Students are adept at figuring out how to use the compact shelves, but in some cases, faculty members have been slow to accept the change.

“Is there a learning curve?” asks Mogelinski. “Yes. Is it a big learning curve? No.”

At Emory, some faculty members initially balked at the compact storage systems, but were persuaded it was the best option.

“We framed it as a choice between having compact shelves or moving the material to offsite storage,” says Forrest. “Most of the faculty want the materials onsite and browsable.”

Durable and affordable

With the constant traffic in college libraries, durability is a critical element for furniture.

“Any university will have to deal with an abuse factor with their furniture,” says Beard.

Mogelinski says that at UCSD, vandalism has been a problem with the furniture in group-study rooms, which often are secluded from the general areas of the library.

“We tend to put our older furniture in the group-study rooms so that the cost of the vandalism is minimized,” says Mogelinski.

As with furniture selection for other educational spaces, library officials have to decide on the importance of durability, aesthetics and cost.

“You have to make tradeoffs,” says Forrest. “There are three parts — quantity, quality and price. You get to pick two. I would say to buy the best furniture you can afford. It's going to be around a long time.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@primediabusiness.com.

NOTABLE

  • 525,070

    Mean number of volumes in college and research libraries, 2003.

  • 140,314

    Median number of volumes in college and research libraries, 2003.

  • 12,779

    Mean number of volumes added to a college and research library in 2003.

  • 3,374

    Median number of volumes added to a college and research library in 2003.

Source: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2003 Statistical Summaries

Crash tests

It may look good, feel comfortable and have the right price. But college and university officials can't always tell just by looking whether a desk or chair will be able to withstand the day-to-day abuse it will receive in a library.

So before making a large furniture purchase for the libraries at the University of California, San Diego, many staff members head to a loading dock with hammers and knives to inflict some punishment on the furnishings under consideration.

“For our large furniture bids, we ask all the vendors to supply a sample that we will test to destruction,” says Mike Mogelinski, the university's director of library facilities.

Staff members whack away on the desks and tables and try to gouge the upholstery on the chairs in an effort to predict what might happen over time in a library. They also use the loading dock as a launching pad to see if furniture can survive a toss down to the concrete.

Aside from the benefits of letting staff members release their pent-up aggressions, the testing can provide persuasive evidence of a product's durability, says Mogelinski.

“We had four chairs from four manufacturers,” he says. “We threw the chairs about 10 feet out from the dock, about 5 or 6 feet down to the cement. The first one broke into pieces as soon as it hit the ground. The second one cracked and it became all wobbly. The third one broke into pieces. The fourth one bounced around and rolled over. It had no damage except for scratches from the cement.

“It took 12 tosses before the chair even cracked,” says Mogelinski. “That's a significant difference in the construction of the chair.”