Tech on deck: An update on the Library Commons

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Tech on deck: An update on the Library Commons

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Committee members detail Pius’s future paper-digital convergence

As The University News reported in February, a committee of faculty and staff is developing an Academic Technology Commons that will occupy 14,000 square feet of Pius Library’s main floor and beyond. This endeavor follows a $2 million project, completed three years ago, that encompassed new carpeting, grounded electrical outlets, light fixtures and furniture.

“It really was not a renovation as much as a refresh,” said Martha Allen, a research librarian and Chair of Research and Instruction Services at Pius, of the previous project. “This really is the next step, and the renovation was always step one of the process to re-envision the space to meet the users’ needs.”

She revealed that renovating sharply increased the number of library users, from 500,000 “gate counts” per year to 650,000. “The library has always been a space for community,” she said. “This is a natural fit to bring in tech, because this is where so many people are.” She called the Commons a marriage of the physical and virtual library.

According to Vice President, CIO and Chief Innovation Officer David Hakanson, the Commons will be “an exciting space to engage our faculty and students with the latest advancements in technology, and with the tools to support innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Kyle Collins, the director of ITS Enterprise Resources who spearheads the project, said it will establish a “true collaboration” between ITS and the library.

“I believe it’s the future of libraries,” said Mikael Kriz, another research librarian. “Why shouldn’t the library still be the place you go if you have to do a video instead of a paper, or you need to create a digital artifact? So, this just kind of brings everything full circle, so that students—no matter what project they’re working on—will come to the library. The library has the content, subject expertise and then now we’ll have the IT expertise to help people navigate that environment.”

The committee chose the architecture firm Ratio Design, led by Kevin Huse, who specializes in libraries. Representatives came on-site for two days and conducted visioning sessions, which provided student and faculty input, which became key to the design.

“It really has been driven from that perspective,” said Collins. “This wasn’t [Allen, Kriz and me] just sitting down, cooking up an idea of what would we like to do next. It was really engaging with our community, saying, ‘What is it you need, what’s your vision, what would be exciting in this space that would really drive innovation, drive new ideas, drive adoption?’ ”

This design includes an innovation studio equipped with cutting edge technology, such as 3D printers and hologram projectors; a printing service; work stations; two recording studios; and 20 small-group collaboration and study rooms (there are currently four on the main level). Students will also have three-walled rooms fitted with floor-to-ceiling whiteboards and interactive technology, like Smart Boards.

Mobility figures heavily in the Commons’ concept: furniture and the walls will let the technology move around as needs and opportunities evolve. “The space is intentionally going to be fluid,” said Allen, “enough that it’s going to respond to needs of end users as they change, as they ultimately will. And they’re changing at an alarmingly fast rate. The ability to reconfigure walls and meet the needs of the users is very important.”

The Commons will also extend outside, transforming Pius’s sheltered perimeter into small rooms with appropriate seating and electrical outlets, so students can work outdoors and take advantage of nice weather.

“Our goal is not to take over other technology spaces,” said Collins, citing the Parks Tinker Lab and other specialized pockets of technology. “We want to meet the widest variety of needs possible, but we also want to bring students and faculty together in cross-disciplinary ways.”

In Allen’s view, “It’s really a convergence of talents and expertise that separately work well, but together as partners have the potential of just totally supporting the user needs.” She identified a core network of content, service, and information technologists who provide tools to create new things with the content, and librarians, who together “create a brand new model for service and teaching.”

Collins, Kriz and Allen stressed the pioneering nature of the Commons. “There isn’t anything like this anywhere, not in an academic setting,” said Kriz. Committee members visited other university libraries for inspiration, but according to Collins, “While they’re great libraries, they don’t have something like this,” in which librarian staff, faculty and IT staff work in collaboration.

He continued: “Our architects are already talking to other universities about this. They’re using this as a model, like this is where things need to go. We haven’t even built it yet and they’re already talking about using our collaboration as a model for other universities.”

All three attested that President Pestello and the provost were “very enthusiastic” about the Commons, as was Dave Cassens, Dean of Libraries. “That really speaks volumes of where our leadership is, where they put the university,” said Collins.

While the committee is still working on the project’s timeline, they hope to have it finished before SLU’s bicentennial. “Our ultimate date is going to be driven in large part on getting the right donors and support,” said Collins. “We’re not going to walk in on finals week and start knocking down walls.”

Until the plan’s physical implementation, the committee is keeping fiscal responsibility in mind, buoyed by “extremely enthusiastic” students and “encouragement from every sector,” according to Kriz.