Check it out: Library’s new Learning Commons a place to study and create

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When you first walked into Schaffer Library, there was little distinctive about the space to the right: a bank of computers and microfilm machines, a sprinkling of study carrels and stacks of new release books.
It was, College Librarian Frances Maloy said, a “closed space.”

Thanks to significant renovations over the summer, that pedestrian space has been transformed into the Learning Commons, an engaging, open, student-focused area to support independent and collaborative research for today’s tech-savvy generation.

“You take the best parts of the library, the best parts of a computing lab, put them together and that’s the Learning Commons,” Maloy said. “It’s a space where students can go to research and write their paper, print it, create a Powerpoint or make a video, whatever they need to do to complete an assignment. And they can do this all in one spot.”

The 2,500-square foot space includes 13 new Macs and 10 Windows PCs loaded with the latest software, four flatbed scanners and color and black and white printers. Two whiteboards are on the way.

Featuring some of the most comfortable seating on campus, including café booths with oversized tables for students in a group project, the Learning Commons can accommodate more than 50 students.

It’s also an inviting space, with walls and pillars splashed with earthy tones such as Macadamia, Quiver tan, Superior Bronze and Antiquarian Tan.

“It’s an inspirational setting, an academic setting, a library setting, a place where when students walk in, they gravitate to it,” Maloy said. “The students seem to love it.”

Maloy is familiar with a Learning Commons. Emory University, where she worked before joining Union, was among the first schools in the country to design a Learning Commons in 1998. Since then, other colleges and universities have followed suit as more and more content becomes available electronically.

While the shift to a Learning Commons allows libraries to cater to technology, Maloy stressed that print books remain relevant. The shelves of new releases once kept near the library’s entrance have been moved to another space on the first floor. Microfilm machines are now in the basement.

“Books are still very important,” said Maloy. “But you need to devote more space for students to engage with virtual content.”

The library has also seen other changes since last term. An electronic classroom on the second floor was updated into a Learning Lab, which is used primarily to teach research study skills. And a new digital lab for faculty and staff, including a production studio and two videoconferencing/audio recording rooms, is nearly complete.

But it’s the Learning Commons that’s grabbing most of the attention in the early days of the fall term. Maloy credited the efforts of Information Technology Services with helping to make it work.

“To create an effective Learning Commons, you need good collaboration between a library and the IT folks,” she said. “We have that at Union.”
While the new space is generating positive student feedback, Maloy acknowledged the challenge is making sure it accomplishes its primary goal: to encourage collaboration.

“That’s not happening quite yet,” Maloy said. “Students here think of the library as a place you go to study. I see students sitting together, but studying alone, each with their own laptops and headphones. Hopefully that will change over time.”