Infinite Information, One Location
After Seattle University took the books out of its failing library, usage skyrocketed. Now its brand-new, multimillion-dollar “Learning Commons” is recognized around the world as a new type of library—an access point rather than a warehouse.
Back in 2001, Seattle University found itself in need of a facelift. With a good number of its buildings of 1960s vintage, the campus lacked the cutting-edge pizzazz that had transformed so much of the city around it. The school’s library was particularly dated, inside and out, and was no longer seeing much use from Seattle U students. Built in 1966, Lemieux Library looked—to put it charitably—tired.
Moreover, the library was under attack: In the center of campus, it sat on real estate coveted by just about every other campus entity. “People needed space,” says university librarian John Popko, “and the library, five stories of underused space, was an easy target.” Popko figured raising a few million dollars for an update was an easy enough idea to sell—anyone could see at a glance that the need was there. But when he took his request to university administration, he was met with a challenge instead of a check.
“We need a big idea that potential donors can get excited about,” the provost at the time, John Eshelman, said. “Bring me a big idea!”
And so Popko thought big. He realized he wasn’t going to raise the money he needed if the current library were simply improved. Instead, what it needed was a wholesale change of identity. After all, the sad truth of the matter was that about the only feature in the library getting use anymore was its restroom. (The number one question asked of SU’s reference librarians at the time was “Where’s the restroom?”)
The more he thought about it, the more Popko understood that the library’s problem lay not in how it looked, but rather in what it was: a collection of printed and bound books for use by a student body that did all of its research on digital devices.
For millennia, from Alexandria to Timbuktu, libraries have been cemented in the collective imagination as the center of learning and literacy. The library is a sacrosanct institution; the idea that collections of books be replaced by anything else is almost unthinkable. Virtually every reading American has memories of browsing library stacks, discovering unexpected treasures.
On college campuses, the library is almost always the most prominent and central building on the university grounds. Public libraries are similarly revered. The current debate raging in New York over its public library, which may call for moving most of the research library’s core collection to an off-site storage facility to make room for computer terminals and other modern amenities, is very much wrapped up in nostalgic visions. Seattle in particular prides itself on its public library system, with its central library as much a civic icon as the Space Needle, and its branch library system one of the most well-appointed in the nation.
But while we’ve been nurturing those fond memories, a funny thing happened to the library: people stopped using it. In recent years, university librarians doing statistical studies of their collections have found some shocking numbers: From 1998 to 2008, circulation of books in college and university libraries has declined by 38 percent, and the decline is accelerating; requests for information directed to reference librarians have declined by 50 percent at undergraduate schools and by 71 percent at research universities. Cornell University discovered in 2010 that 55 percent of the books it purchased since 1990 had never circulated.
It gets worse (if you can imagine anything worse than “never”). When asked where they go first in search of information, only 4 percent of college and university faculty answered “the library building.” And exactly zero percent of students start researching a paper by going to the library or its website.
You could make the argument that even a little use is ample reason for preserving a revered cultural institution. But it’s hard to get around that big, fat zero. In the age of the iBook, iPad, and iPhone, the library is fast becoming irrelevant.
Response at colleges around the country has ranged from denial to frustrated attempts at progress. Some schools have tried freeing up precious space by moving unused books in their collections to off-site storage facilities, from which they can be fetched on request. At Stanford, such plans were shelved in the face of faculty protests; at other schools, they’ve been scaled back. Typically—the University of Virginia being an example of the emerging norm—libraries have tacked a coffee shop/study space to the front, with the books sort of hidden in the back. Other schools have managed in the face of nostalgia-driven protest to move unused books to dense storage facilities, as exemplified by the State of Minnesota’s MLAC facility and WEST, a consortium of Western United States colleges and universities.
But the writing’s on the wall: No matter what libraries do, the future of reading and research will be almost exclusively digital. The technical barriers to digitizing civilization’s entire cultural record have been surmounted; all that stands in the way now are copyright issues and publishers’ fears, both of which will eventually give way to the inevitable. Google, which intends to scan all 130 million books printed to date, has scanned 20 million volumes so far, all of which could be accessed digitally by anyone anywhere in the world were it not for the legalities of copyright. (It’s worth noting that Google began as a 1994 Stanford University grant application to the National Science Foundation for an “Integrated Digital Library Project.”) The academic consortium HathiTrust has 5.5 million digitized books in its collection, and intends to make them all freely available someday. The Digital Public Library of America plans to provide free access to digitized copies of every cultural artifact stored in the world’s library collections.
The Seattle University library has been steadily moving in a digital direction as well. Over the last 15 years, an increasing percentage of acquisitions each year has been digital; last year, it was 67 percent. Like most libraries, Seattle U redirected toward providing access to information rather than storing a collection of books, licensing sources rather than purchasing new materials.
Confronted with this vision, it’s small wonder that librarians have taken to referring to their stacks as “canyons,” evoking the sensation of vast, deserted, empty spaces. And small wonder that Popko decided not simply to remodel but to entirely reinvent SU’s library.
Accordingly, he and his team devised a plan to transform their library into a “learning commons,” with the accent on services and curation of information rather than on storage and retrieval of physical information objects. The intent was to deliver services and content to digital-age students while also offering them a place worth physically visiting in an era when information is accessible virtually from everywhere. Put another way, Popko hoped to turn the library from a deserted space into a destination space.
The result, the Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons, came on line in 2010. A year later, it was cited in the academic library report Redefining the Academic Library as a leading national example of the library reborn as a service and information center. It’s replete with collaborative study spaces, tutoring services for math and writing, reference services, a computer lab full of workstations and moveable furniture facilitating cooperative study, video editing facilities, terminals for multimedia production, group study rooms with touch-screen reservation systems at their doors, and a “Byte Café,” serving food and drink late into the evening. Gone is the traditional library reference desk, replaced by an iDesk, called by Popko a “triage station,” as it’s “most often used in emergencies.” Not until reaching the third floor does one encounter the traditional “library”—the first of three subsequent stories of catalogued printed books arranged in stacks. And even there, the stacks are surrounded by modern touches: multimedia collections, group study rooms, reading rooms, more computer terminals.
The new facility, ingeniously melded with the old library, is a bit of a hybrid, with the learning commons built essentially in front of the preexisting library, the top two stories of which peek out over the roof of the three-story commons. (You can see in that upper, half-hidden façade the almost comically dated ’60s look of dear old Lemieux.) The new architecture is a LEED Gold building, with a largely glass façade, around which is arranged brick, steel, and unfinished concrete, and beneath which are swales and gardens for absorbing (rather than draining away) rainwater. It is an undeniably beautiful, modern, and understated architectural spectacle. (In other words, very Seattle.)
Inside, profound differences from library tradition abound. Spaces where visitors were formerly expected to remain quiet are relatively few, isolated and labeled as such. Lemiuex/McGoldrick is light, spacious, airy—making not only for a welcoming atmosphere, but one that invites conversation and collaboration as well. On my visits I was struck by how many students had set up shop there and settled in for hours. Intentionally or not, Seattle U has developed a prototype for the postmodern college library.
Since the library opened on September 30, 2010, Popko has hosted more than one tour a month for visitors from colleges around the country who are confronting the need to upgrade their libraries. And after one full year of operation, he’s collected some interesting numbers demonstrating the wisdom of Seattle U’s upgrade: In 2008-09, the last academic year before closing the library for its reinvention, 271,000 students came through the library doors. In 2010-11, the first year of operation for the new library/learning commons, 450,000 came through. And they weren’t there checking out printed books: that number declined from 67,000 for the academic year to 59,000.
Popko was particularly gratified by the reaction of one of the first students to see the new facility. It was during an orientation tour for Seattle University’s Resident Advisors, the upperclassmen and -women who supervise the dormitories and help acquaint new students with the campus. He looked up at the second-floor lobby to see one of the students doing cartwheels across the space—the first payoff on a 55-million-dollar bet.
Artwork by Jeffrey Meyer.