Long live the library

Today’s libraries not only retain their distinctive flavours of yore, but have now evolved into intellectual hubs offering much more to the academic community,what with technological evolution adding to its considerable treasure trove

For centuries, libraries have been the place to go in search of information. The traditional stereotype brings to mind the high ceiling, Victorian era relics, with beams of sunlight playing through apertures on rows upon rows of neatly stacked books, tables with stu-dents clustered around them and a stern librarian, bun in place, going shhhhhh. Conventionally, libraries have housed huge collections of the written word. But today a library is often home to digital resources, and services. On campus, libraries have undergone a sea change to keep pace with changing technology. Academic libraries these days often house huge collections of print, audio, and visual materials in numer-ous formatsmaps, prints, documents, microform (microfilm/microfiche), CDs, DVDs, e-books, audio-books and other electronic resources.

The revolution on the landscape of learning and teaching may have meant modifications, but the academic library retains its distinctiveness as a place for communal study and research.

You may call it the intellectual living room, as the library retains its power to draw seekers of knowledge under a single roof, encouraging chance interactions crucial to learning outside the formal academic sphere. It remains the only social space where learning happens with a fine balance between the non-academic and academic environment, says Parul Mittal, architect and partner in Gurgaon-based Dada & Partners.

The Information Age has left students spoilt for choiceclassrooms are WiFi or allow access to the internet; labs are often open till late night and theres a plethora of information up for the taking. With technology making it possible to get information at the click of a button (never mind its veracity), has the library received a death sentence?

Mittal feels the library still is the heart of any campus. The internet may be an important tool for research, but cant replace the library for its role as a preserver of credible information and intellectual energy. The internet excludes the critical component of human interaction and its significant role in the exchange of ideas and information.

Contrary to reports on the death of the library, this institution is now bigger and more powerful than ever and has changed with times, responding to the requirement of greater social interaction with a multitude of activities incorporated under one roof, she says.

Dr Ajay Rana, Director, Amity Technical Placement Cell, agrees. In addition to acting as a peaceful, serene place ideal for self-learning and ideating, libraries now act as a common place where diverse social groups of teachers and students can mingle and interact.

Today libraries must make space to facilitate the change driven by the technological and information revolutions. Apart from stacks of books, they must also be home to the electronic media. With a modern academic library covering a range of activities (such as information gathering, individual and group study, research and reference work, discussions and browsing), it is essential that the design is multifunctional.

Access to knowledge and information may be very easy with the emergence and integration of information technology, but the library on any campus is still a contemplative oasis, says architect Sanjay Mohe, who was part of the team that designed the award-winning library at IISc, Bangalore. The library is the only centralised location where emerging information technology can be combined with traditional knowledge resources in a user-focussed environment, he adds.

Clearly, the spread of technology has, instead of undermining the librarys importance, made it an even more significant spot on campusit is one place that allows access to the internet for all. A college libraryoften seen as a symbol of college pridefunctions as a central cultural centre and plays a huge role in community building by mixing serious academic work with fun events.

The Design Challenge

What goes into library design? And how does it differ from other spaces on a campus? According to the Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Standards for College Libraries 2000 Edition, “A library facility should be well planned;it should provide secure and adequate space, conducive to study and research with suitable environmental conditions for its services, personnel, resources, and collections.”

“The evolving role of libraries needs to be kept in mind when designing one. A library is not merely a study space anymore, rather it is a vibrant centre for the meeting of minds and for activities that support and encourage such interactions. It needs to be the heart of our new knowledge campus and, for that, it needs to attract a knowledge seeker through a variety of spaces and activities. It is important to keep in mind the ethos of such a knowledge seeker—the kind of spaces that inspire him/her and promote learning, collaboration and interaction,” Mittal says.

On campuses that serve several faculties, a library must merge knowledge across disciplines to create a sense of academics. Designers must create a space with a positive balance between space and learning. Modern academic libraries must also include flexible shelving arrangements to house growing collections, allow for easy movement and accessibility and accommodate technological tools. Some modern libraries are also implementing wireless communications technologies.

“In the past, expanding collections reduced user space, but now technology has enriched user space. The use of electronic databases, digitised formats, and interactive media, to an extent,has fostered a shift from independent study to interactive learning,” Mohe says.

Amity University houses one central and 49 departmental libraries that work like Integrated Knowledge Resource Centres—they house over 1.25 lakh books, periodicals, references,national and international journals. The library also allows access to more than 17, 000 online journals.

“Libraries act as a breeding ground for innovative ideas and self-learning. It is extremely important to refurbish and revamp libraries in tandem with rapidly changing technology. All our libraries abound with e-books and e-journals that can be used simultaneously by multiple users,” Rana says.

Scott Bennett, Yale University Librarian Emeritus, says a new vision is needed “to realise the potential of the physical library building and to create the library of the future”. In Libraries Designed for Learning, Bennett, who provides library space planning consulting services, questions whether the goal of libraries today might more appropriately be described as “supporting collaborative learning by which students turn information into knowledge and sometimes into wisdom”.

Mittal’s DADA & Partners, a multidisciplinary design firm offering architecture, urban design and planning services,recently proposed the prize-winning master plan for the new 20-acre campus of School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.

Speaking about the library being planned at the new SPA campus, Mittal says the campus is geared towards a knowledge and design-centric economy. The new-age media library commonswill be the hub of the campus, promoting easy flow and assimilation of information, and encouraging the concept of working where you are—be it the e-cafe or WiFi student centre lobby. “The library is open to light, landscape and the city. While the section with its staggered floor plates is open and fluid, the plan is compact and efficient. There are low, quiet spaces forindividual study, and high, open areas for more casual reading and group work. The library is planned to be one of the iconic buildings on the campus,” she says

The SPA library is strategically located at the seam between the lower and upper campus zones (the traditional campus core) so as to make it more accessible. The building sits at the crossroads of two important learning armatures that define the structure of the campus master plan thereby allowing maximum flow of students and faculty. “The proximity of the library to the gallery spaces, workshop and the campus commons makes for a high-energy environment that promotes learning through interaction and collaboration,” Mittal says.

The JRD Tata Digital Library, IISc, has an introverted character that protects it from outside disturbances and creates a tranquil environment. Beyond the registration point, the library is a huge open space—inviting students to study and ideate where they like: in the courtyards, on the steps or under the trees. A water pond at the lowest point of the site adds to the quietude.

“It is important to create a meditative environment to advance the learning experience. Glare-free light, a distant view of the landscape outside (to avoid visual fatigue), a dust and moisture free environment, accessibility of books, proper classification, ease of maintenance, sound control, and security also need to be kept in mind,” Mohe says. Clearly, library design of the future calls for collaboration among all parties involved—the faculty, librarians, architects and the students. An analysis of how students learn, how faculty members teach, what students do in a library, the kind of spaces they need, and how teaching and learning patterns evolve, is essential to create a vibrant cultural centre that provides spaces for contemplation and selfstudy along with group discussions and debates.

With these challenges in mind, Duke University and Dartmouth College created library task forces when expanding their libraries. “The key functions of such task forces are to ensure the broadest possible participation in library planning, so that planning does not become self-referential and concerned more with services than learning; and to establish a vision of the future of the library that is grounded less in traditional services and more in institutional mission,” Bennett says.

Evolution in Progress

In present times, the library is seeing a complete de-institutionalisation in its programming. On top of the priority list is the need for appropriate spaces that suit evolving library activities. These activities range from traditional research and education to the need for libraries to serve a social function on campus.“Much learning, and almost certainly the most effective learning, is socially situated learning. Library design has begun to respond to this fact,” Bennett says.

On many college campuses, libraries have taken on a social mantle—they provide opportunities for socialising even as students go about the business of academics. With a range of activities now being catered to—cafes to grab a bite and a cup of coffee, cultural events (such as debates, quizzes, poetry readings,discussions and lectures), fun evenings, and art and nature exhibits, a college library functions as an academic community centre.

In What’s Happening in the College Library, an essay for the Council on Library and Information Resources, Sam Demas writes that the Gould Library in Athenaeum, an elegant reading room and a cultural venue open to all, hosts about 65 events, involving about 2,300 participants, each year.

“When the library acts as a welcoming and lively host, engaging the community in discourse and in enjoyment of the life of the mind, the community perception of the role of the library on campus begins to change,” he writes.

“In addition to stacks of books, libraries today have formal and informal reading areas, gallery spaces, public assembly areas, multipurpose meeting rooms, after-class study (individual and group) rooms, media rooms, hot desks and cafes to name a few evolving activities. Many libraries also provide lookouts and spillout spaces that look to encourage reflection and contemplation,” Mittal says.

Jeffrey T Gayton, in his report, Academic Libraries: Social or Communal? The Nature and Future of Academic Libraries, states that research (by Harold Shill and Shawn Tonner between 1995 and 2002) shows a major increase in the addition of nonlibrary facilities on campuses in the United States. These include multimedia production centres (26.6%), cafés (24.9%), educational technology centres (15.6%), art galleries (15.1%) and bookstores (2.8%).

At Amity, the students and faculty suggested that the libraries be equipped with small conference rooms (with a seating capacity of five to 10). “These syndicate rooms will provide the perfect setting to acquire team skills through brainstorming sessions and group discussions,” Rana says.

“The trend of libraries acting as social platforms is catching on fast in India. Students from various disciplines are often part of clubs and societies (theatre, dramatics, dance, etc.) and are seen sitting, ideating, discussing and brainstorming with their groups,” he adds.

John Dolan, who headed library policy at Museums Libraries and Archives Council, UK, and was assistant director learning at Birmingham City Council, famously said that libraries should no longer be seen as “places of function”, but viewed as “places of free and shared exploration and learning via all media, a democratic space wherein to free your mind”. Social functions notwithstanding, it is essential to remember that students often value the communal aspect of libraries and the conducive environment they provide for research and study. The need to strike a balance—considering the wide range of activities that take place in a library these days—is of paramount importance. A successful library is one that is thought through every aspect—consultation, design, construction, interiors,usage and expansion.

Bennett sums it up: “If a library does not enhance the learning experience of students, it should be shut down.”

 

 


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