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Academic Libraries in the Participatory Age








Alex Cohen and Elaine Cohen

Aaron Cohen Associates



Suppose a librarian were to tell you that the academic libraries built between 1990 and 2000 needed to be redefined for mobile technology, collaboration and participation. Or that all University and College libraries were built under traditional constraints that give them less space to engage with students than would have been the case had the architects and library designers understood what kind of environments students prefer. Or that University administrators who are presently working on new major academic projects are, for the most part, going to miss the potential of project-based learning and collaboration. Or that the flat world where participation occurs globally and electronically is not considered to have an anchor on today’s campus.


            We are in a new era, an era in which the physical library building and its design are more important then ever. It is a place in which students frequently work, study and/or help one another. Indeed, they are expected to collaborate - although collaboration still remains more of a process for business than academe.

            Large companies and small start-ups have long ago adapted certain aspects of their work spaces to enhance teamwork. These are work-friendly participatory environments that enable employees to work together, successfully share information and add to the profit line. Cross-discipline teams regularly collaborate with one another to develop the latest products and services through web technology.

            As for libraries in this age of high expectations and attractions online, demands for higher levels of service and work-friendly participatory environments often are unheeded at colleges and universities because of insufficient funds. Academia’s brand of collaboration, called “project based learning,” although being supported by computer technology, is a challenge to maintain and sustain. Library administrations are not allocated the funds to create updated work/study areas so that students can work together comfortably. As a result, students rearrange the rows of furniture to form areas in which they can jointly create classroom presentations, write papers and/or perform research - and they are chastised for creating a mess.

            While many librarians start to justify the development of adaptive environments, “there is a long history of theoretical claims that children construct their own knowledge through experience (Dewey, 1916; Dewey, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Papert, 1980; Tanner, 1997)[1].” Indeed, the visitor entering an academic library visitor often sees any number of students fielding electronic devices. Students alone or actively working together may also be listening to their Ipods and/or talking on their cell phones. Students multitask, communicate and collaborate with one another in ways unforeseen just a few years ago. They are constructing their own experiences with digital worlds. Adults brought up in quieter times find the cacophony of talking, beeping and ringing disturbing. It is, however, a fact of life that must be understood and accommodated.

            For librarians, a major aspect of accommodation concerns the library building. While the amount of virtual information streaming through the campus network and delivered anywhere is increasing exponentially, the library building is still about offering students more: the human touch, the aid received from other students, the personal help received from library staff and the feedback obtained from others in an active learning environment. According to Jamieson[2], “It follows that a learner-focused pedagogy should require campus libraries to shift from their traditional role as repositories of information and other resources for individual, passive learning to places where learner meet, collaborate, and interact in learning processes that are much more dynamic.” Certainly, Library buildings that shift and offer a variety of quiet and participatory environments will support more diversity, i.e., student-focused preferences.

            In a sense, the library as a participatory environment is an outgrowth of the historic buildings funded by Andrew Carnegie. Some Carnegie library buildings focused on education and health - mind and body - rather than on “in-depth” collections and computers. Even so, helping to build libraries that would facilitate education was an essential Andrew Carnegie idea. A typical Carnegie building contained a meeting room in which a variety of collaborative educational activities were expected to take place. Similarly, older academic libraries are outfitted with at least one classroom. Usually it remains the most popular classroom on an individual campus.

            Even more relevant to today’s academic communities are library buildings that contain at least one classroom and a large meeting room, several large and small group study rooms, a computer laboratory and even a café. These facilities balance library service operations with the needs of their students.

            Unfortunately, the standard guidelines for academic library buildings haven’t changed in recent years. They have not kept pace with shifting demands. Not only do they ignore student collaboration and teamwork needs, they do not take into consideration other major changes sweeping academia. Although they still offer substantial square footage to house large collections of bound periodicals, research books and reference collections, they ignore other important aspects such as the information café, collaborative study areas and cell phone-free workspaces.

            To move into the world of networked information and collaboration, colleges and universities must also view their libraries as important faculty resources, offering courses for faculty as well as students. In fact, a number of universities already offer adjunct professors information literacy and technology support. These institutions have blurred the faculty’s digital divide; the divide that is the barrier to learning the ins and outs of professional learning systems such as Blackboard.

            Today, instruction carried out by librarians at certain institutions is transforming from brief, one-time supplemental sessions for students and faculty into required classes. And, in turn, the buildings must be transformed. Work zones, gaming areas and classrooms should be located throughout the building and be under the library’s control. Further, as computer technology continues to become even more mobile than it is today and as the number of online courses offered by colleges and universities continues to grow, the demand for library space in which to work will increase.

            Here, please note that sixty million American adults use search engines on a typical day. Their use was outlined in the “Pew Internet and American Life”[3] report and in data from comScore Media Metrix’s[4] consumer panels.[5] The survey also revealed how adept American teenagers have become at using the Internet's interactive capabilities, engaging in such activities as creating and sharing media and downloading podcasts’ files, etc. They set up blogs and Webpages, post original artwork, photography, my space inserts, stories or videos online, and remix online content into their own creations. In this manner, fifty-seven percent of teen Internet users can now be considered content creators.

            The implications of these activities are enormous for academia and for academic libraries. New libraries must be multipurpose. Library facilities must promote rather than restrict interaction; they must encourage user collaboration and project-based learning. While an online search service can provide a model in terms of authenticating and searching remotely, it cannot replace the library facility as a destination for participative collaborative exchange. Online sharing and ubiquitous technology must be supported for enhanced communication. Anchored as it is on the college or university campus, a library that contains participative environments will enhance its institution’s evolving culture. Although the entry level of an academic library may seem unruly to some, it may be quite comfortable to the millennial generation as described by Rich Sweeney[6], university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who says they thrive in the constant chatter and multipurpose communication.

            Unfortunately, library building guidelines and accreditation standards are obsolete; they need to accept that circulation services have changed. Academic libraries are supposed to support the curriculum and research. That involves providing not only collections, computers and study seating, but other environments that foster collaboration. More broadly, college and university administrations must understand that, for libraries to have renewed relevance, they must be part of a flat campus in a flat world, one in which formal learning can take place anywhere, whether in the library café or in a quiet study zone.

            According to Thomas Friedman in his book The World is Flat,,[7] globalization is changing the socioeconomics of the planet. The confluence of global information – especially major advancements in the coherence, speed and relevance of information technologies – allows complex work to be broken into small parts and then sent to distant teams. As the world “flattens,” library managers have come to realize that the design of their buildings requires improvement. In this regard, many librarians believe that they must run faster to stay in place. Some managers anticipate that the lure of access can create “great intellectual and cultural centers,” according to Michael Gorman[8], Dean of Library Services at California State University at Fresno and past President of the American Library Association. Unfortunately, without focusing on the design elements, i.e., collections, seating and staff work areas, library services cannot be responsive to the needs of the campus.


            Perhaps the future lies in both traditional participation and digital connections such as peer-to-peer networking, chatting, blogging, and interactive Web pages. The latter is important because an increasing number of young people rely on connectivity for relationships, homework and hobbies. Connectivity in this respect refers to continually developing services such as reference and homework help, aid in gathering in-depth information, advice on programs and events. For these activities, space for meetings and group study can facilitate physical connectivity. Other aspects concern the attraction of a library’s physical facilities, including the location of its building, the ambiance of its campus neighborhood and the aesthetics of its interior. In addition, they concern the viability of wired and wireless networks, the availability and adequacy of public computers, the variety and relevance of search tools and application software and the comfort of the places to sit when browsing, researching, studying, working alone or in collaboration with others. Indeed, to remain relevant, librarians must aggressively design for all the activities that take place in their facilities. In this participatory era, libraries must let the public know that they are centers of communication, education and culture for the colleges and universities that they serve. Promoting libraries’ actualities and possibilities are essential tasks in the present competitive environment.


[1] Colella, Vanessa, “Participatory Simulations: Building Collaborative Understanding through Immersive Dynamic Modeling”, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9(4), 471-500.

[2] Jamieson, Peter, “Positioning the University Library in the New Learning Environment,” The Journal for the Society for College and University Planning, Vol. 34, # 1, September – November 2005

[3] Pew Research Center The Internet Goes to College

[4] comScore Networks, Inc.



[6] Sweeney, Rich, “Higher Education for Multi-Taskers,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 10.5.05


[7] Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002

[8] Gorman, Michael, Thoughtful Design Keeps New Libraries Relevant, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/30/05