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Thoughts on the Library as Place

SIL is involved in several renovation projects–at the Cooper-Hewitt where the library is moving to new space; at NMNH where the main Natural History is also moving to new space; and at NMAH, where the library has been in the middle of a construction zone for a year and a half.

Consequently, I attended a meeting called "Tomorrow’s Library in Today’s  Space." The most interesting presentation was from Jay Shaffer, Director at the U. of Massachusetts, who created a "Learning Commons." He distinguishes this from an Information Commons, which a number of academic libraries are creating.  The latter, in his view, is just providing computer workstations anle to do searching on the library’s website or the Internet, but no other software.  A "Learning Commons" is staffed by both librarians and computer staff and has workstations with Microsoft Office and other software needed by students to do their work.

These spaces are open 24/7 and the library has also put in a coffee bar or other food service near by.  Places for students to practice presentations are also included.

The operative word here is students, meaning undergrads.  The spaces are set up for individual and group study and to do group projects.  And they need these spaces because that is the kind of assignment undergrads are given.

I saw something similar at Georgia Tech recently.  And hearing about both, my main question is, what relevance does this have for the Smithsonian Libraries?  After all, with some exceptions, our on-site clientèle are largely  "faculty" (scientists, curators, historians)  and grad students (research assistants, fellows, interns).

The universities are thinking of this also.  Jay Shaffer says his next focus is on this community and what kind of spaces they require.  I’ve heard that from others as well, so we should see what kinds of ideas our academic library colleagues come up with.

Meanwhile, let me speculate.  Our new Secretary and other SI leaders have talked about the need for more cross-disciplinary activity within the SI, more collaboration, and thinking that is pan-Institutional.  SIL is a neutral space with a broad view of service to all. We are having the opportunity to renovate some spaces, and in some of our areas! We will be moving parts of the collections to our new housing location at Pennsy Drive.

Perhaps SIL could begin to provide not only study space in a reading room environment, but also collaborative spaces where groups can work together, workstations with larger tablespaces, even small enclosed rooms for meetings.  This certainly bears thinking more about, as we consider how to further support the Institution’s mission.

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