Academic libraries continue to shift into the learning commons mode, and some universities are now executing pandemic-delayed plans for renovations to that end. But beneath the learning landings, greenscreen closets, and fab labs, what drives the relationships among libraries, writing centers, and other services within the learning commons model? These are dynamic networks that reveal lots about how administrators think and act when bringing services together. Before digging into those mechanics, here’s a survey of a few such new learning commons projects.
Hammers Down, Pens Up
In early July 2021, renovations began on Grove City College’s Buhl Library in Pennsylvania. Director Barbara Munnell, in an interview with a local news affiliate (WKBN), emphasizes the library’s role in supporting the changing needs of students in terms of new technology and patterns of study. “The renovation will enable the library to improve upon providing the academic support necessary to help students succeed while giving them ample space to work together, to study and to be a community of scholars,” she says. WKBN’s reporting covers the alterations in space and design that could help meet those changing academic behaviors: “The redesigned ground floor will house a large study space, reference room as well as the college’s writing center, academic resource center and registrar’s office.”
Clear across the country, a new learning commons opened last fall at the University of San Diego (USD). It is a “two-story, 36,000-square-foot building [with] nine collaborative study spaces and 13 classrooms. It will host classes, study groups, work teams and solo exploration. It will also be home to USD’s Honors Program and the USD Writing Center.”
Back east, but down south, recent news from the University of Miami showcases the role of peer research consultants in the learning commons at Richter Library. The peer-led program offers “an opportunity for students to be guided by other students through the research process and encourages them to learn from each other.” Because research can range from simple processes to running down specialized data, the learning commons consultants have to “know a wide range of databases and skills. It is particularly important for them to form appropriate questions to deal with a variety of disciplines.” These student consultants are developing skills that could lead to them becoming librarians. This program, “a sister program to the Library Research Scholar Program, which was inaugurated in 2015,” is seen as central to student support in these times of change.
Cooperation Into Integration
Glancing across the globe, we can find similar stories of learning commons in libraries, peer consultants, and other resources. Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates, uses peer assistance leaders, or PALs—and now virtual PALs (V-PALs): “The PALs Program caters [to] first year students to university as well as upper year levels. It was established in recognition of the fact that students like to help each other with their studies. Therefore, establishing a peer-mentoring program has helped [their] area of interest … in a supportive and encouraging relationship. This type of relationship usually involves the characteristics of role modelling, encouragement and positive reinforcement of achievable academic goals.” PALs have made themselves shine in the eyes of Zayed University administrators by reminding them that such programs are key to student retention.
All of these examples follow the pattern of pulling in a range of related academic support services into libraries—and/or moving library services in with other services under new roofs. But as these expensive remodels, renovations, and new buildings for libraries increasingly blend student services and bring a diverse range of support into a shared site, we see that in some ways, academic libraries are following the lead of public libraries.
In the 21st century, public libraries have been much more agile at folding in new services—some of which were (and remain) controversial. They were early adopters of public 3D printing and makerspaces, appeal to teens through games and gaming consoles, and provide on-site tax help, tutoring, and even cake pan and tool lending. Public libraries keep evolving to serve the needs of their communities, which seems to work best when those services carefully and deliberately match up with the specific needs of specific communities (providing what may be needed in a particular neighborhood with branch-specific services).
But academic libraries and writing centers do have a lot in common as sites for student success. They also face similar challenges in how they are sometimes seen—if they are seen—by faculty members and administrators. In his (in)famous essay, “The Idea of a Writing Center” (College English, Vol. 46, No. 5, 1984), Stephen M. North complains that neither colleagues nor administrators understand his work and that what he and his fellow writing center tutors do should be recognized as deeply woven into a student’s academic life. Writing centers are not just point-of-need, and they function much better as facilitators of longer-term conversations with student writers. “They do not understand what does happen, what can happen, in a writing center,” he notes. That might sound familiar to librarians in their own contexts, especially when trying to make the case that libraries are not warehouses for books.
Libraries, too, are often understood to be supplemental and last-minute aids in fixing up student work before the grades are due. Like writing tutors and academic advisors, librarians have been seen as fix-it folks, there to solve the finite problems that impede student success. But remember North, who writes, “If writing centers are going to finally be accepted, surely they must be accepted on their own terms, as places whose primary responsibility, whose only reason for being, is to talk to writers.” I would offer a variation on that, which could be modified to bring any of what are usually seen as supplemental supports into the center of academic life: If libraries are going to finally be accepted as integral to student learning, surely the skills librarians teach must be accepted as vital for the academic community, and libraries must be seen as places where the primary responsibility is to talk to and to develop researchers.
By joining together in a learning commons, it seems that librarians and writing center staffers have new opportunities to help lift each other up, such that those from both sides of the commons are seen as collaborators working with faculty in a mutual, ongoing process to educate students—not at the last minute, at only a point of need, necessarily, but right from the start.
Or will we see trends such that all of our fix-it folks are just stashed in a shared garage to save real estate? It seems we are all well beyond that now. Libraries, and now learning commons, are essential to and central in academia. Moving into the future, we have to think not just of ourselves, our collections, and our information literacy sessions, but now also of other colleagues with other skills, sharing resources with us in learning commons. If we’re going to move our students ahead, we’re going to do it together.