The New Intellectual Commons

By Joely Johnson Mork, MS, SGS ’08

Shea Learning Center_0002

In discussions about the role of libraries in the digital age, two points of view speak the loudest. Critics say that libraries are “becoming obsolete;” budget cuts to many public libraries underline this opinion. Supporters, however, remind us that not every experience can be had via a screen and sing out about the birth of the new “intellectual commons.” Luckily, while today’s students do trend toward the electronic, they also clearly feel that libraries are as relevant as ever.

According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, young Americans expect a mix of traditional and technological services from their libraries. People age 16 to 29 are certainly our nation’s heaviest users of technology, and they turn to the Internet both at home and in the library. Young people, however, are also still readers who like to be able to borrow books—in fact, 75 percent of people under 30 said they had read a printed book in the past year compared to 64 percent of adults 30 and older. The key to transforming physical library spaces into potential intellectual commons, then, is to find a way to offer a hybrid blend of resources.

For Sage, this changing face of libraries is quite literal. Library buildings on both campuses have received generous alumnae bequests—Albany in 2009 and Troy in 2013—leading to extensive renovations. The changes include physical makeovers of the spaces, but also incorporate new ideas about how libraries can match the evolving needs of their users. Turns out, when libraries change, students win.

Bequests Benefit Libraries

Russell Sage College Campus

Lucile Rosenfeld Shea’s gift of more than $12 million is the largest bequest Sage has realized to date. Shea attended RSC in 1937 and 1938. She did not complete a degree before leaving the college and went on to marry, but had no children. At the time of her death in 2011, Shea lived in a retirement community in North Carolina; she was 92 years old. Few other details are known about her personal life. She requested that her gift be specifically used for the RSC library. In addition to the building renovation, the bequest will fund educational programs, lecture series, new media and software, professional development, continuing education opportunities, and special collections.

One change to the Troy campus library — now known as the Shea Learning Center — that is visible as soon as you step inside is a completely new entrance, including an elevator that is accessible from the front of the building. “Our handicapped access is now the same as nonhandicapped access,” said Brainard. “Students who require an elevator no longer need to enter the building by a side door.”

The first floor of the building has been completely opened up, allowing daylight as well as patrons to move easily through the space. The ground floor also features a “Knowledge Bar,” where library and IT staff will collaborate to answer students’ questions and troubleshoot technological problems. Behind the bar, a café, named “Lucile’s,” houses a new popular collection, including novels, DVDs, magazines, and newspapers. “Our stacks are full of literature, of course, but we did not typically buy popular reading for our collection,” said Brainard. “We felt the café was a great place to encourage students to use the Shea Learning Center for more than just academic pursuits.”

The phenomenon of the library-based café, an idea likely originating at large bookstores such as Barnes and Noble where coffee encourages browsing (and shopping), has supporters as well as detractors (after all, cafés mean food and drink, which can be damaging to books and other materials). But ultimately, the consensus among library professionals is positive. “Anything you can do to encourage people to use the resources you have on offer is great—that is what libraries are all about,” said Christine Ward RSC ’71, New York State archivist and chief executive officer of the Archives Partnership Trust in Albany. “The library, whether public or academic, is becoming much more of a community center than a sacrosanct place where you cannot speak above a whisper. Libraries now are about providing space for people to work together.” Asked about the café trend, Ward said, “I love the idea!”

The second floor’s group study space consisting of classrooms, seminar rooms, and instructional technology rooms supports Sage’s fundamental shift toward academic group learning and peer mentoring. The library’s Donahue Poetry Collection will also be located on the second floor. The third floor will provide academic support and tutoring, including Academic Services, Career Planning, and Disabilities Services, as well as additional group and individual study spaces.

To foster the kinds of community encounters today’s students want, renovations include 14 group study rooms, with specialized group desks that allow students to connect their laptops and then project a desktop onto a screen. This enables group work like never before, and supports Sage’s priority of student collaboration.

Albany Campus

Hazel Sieber Bode RSC '39 left a bequest of $1.5 million to Sage, which was directed to the Libraries and School of Management. Giving was a life-long trait of Hazel's. While living in the New York City area following her graduation from RSC, Hazel opted to take care of ailing family members rather than start a career. After the death of her husband, Hazel relocated to St. Johnsville, in New York's Mohawk Valley, and threw herself into her community. As an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she was involved with projects including a community scholarship program and a successful effort to put up grave markers for Revolutionary War veterans buried in a local cemetery. She was active on the Friends of the Library Board of the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library & Museum. The other bequests in her will reflect a commitment to her adopted community: church, cemetery, the blind, and the American Cancer & Heart Associations. Hazel died December 5, 2006, at the age of 92.

Hazel Sieber Bode RSC ’39 left a bequest of $1.5 million to Sage, which was directed to the Libraries and School of Management. Giving was a life-long trait of Bode’s. While living in the New York City area following her graduation from RSC, she opted to take care of ailing family members rather than start a career. After the death of her husband, she relocated to St. Johnsville, in New York’s Mohawk Valley, and threw herself into her community. As a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she was involved with a community scholarship program and a successful effort to put up grave markers for Revolutionary War veterans buried in a local cemetery. She was active on the Friends of the Library Board of the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library & Museum. The other bequests in her will reflect a commitment to her adopted community: church, cemetery, the blind, and the American Cancer & Heart Associations. Hazel Bode died December 5, 2006, at the age of 92.

Renovations of the Albany campus library building began in May 2009, and again, the work was completed quickly, in time for a return to the building at the start of the academic year in September 2009. “Actually, the books went away [in May], but staff worked in the basement throughout the renovation,” said Brainard. The upgrades included much-needed lighting, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and roofing improvements, new furnishings, a change in floor plans, and a café named, appropriately, “Hazel’s.”

In keeping with the changes in Troy, the Albany library will become known as the SCA Learning Center in the coming year. The new name references the parallel structure in the two buildings—both locations include library staff as well as academic support staff. “We may yet find a way to fit information technology (IT) staff into the Albany building as well,” said Brainard.

Content is King

Despite the fact that more and more information is available online, physical libraries — and, therefore, books—“are not going anywhere,” said David A. Salomon, Ph.D., associate professor of English and director of Sage’s Kathleen Donnelly Center for Undergraduate Research. “There is something about seeing words on a page that is not equivalent digitally. I ask my students how many of them print out something before editing or proofreading, and most of them admit they need a hard copy.”

Professor Salomon is the author of “An Introduction to the Glossa Ordinaria as Medieval Hypertext,” which looks at an important medieval text in the light of contemporary hypertext theory, essentially examining this ancient manuscript as an early form of information that links to other sections via commentary and notes. His years of research proved to him that many materials actually are not available electronically, and probably never will be. “There are volumes of historical manuscripts that have never been printed in modern form, they exist only as the original bound copy,” Salomon said.

In addition, it’s important to consider that without electricity, the Internet becomes useless — but older tools such as microfiche and microfilm are still completely accessible. “Microfilm has always been the go-to format for information preservation. In fact,” he said, “Sage still has a microforms collection, and there are locations in the United States where microfilm copies of great texts are stored, essentially in bunkers.” In the event of a serious global catastrophe, “if the lights go out,” as Salomon put it, “all we would need to read these works is a light source and a magnifying glass.” That’s certainly something to consider before trading in all of your favorite dog-eared copies for ebook versions.

Deeper Changes

As part of the Troy renovations, outside consultants recommended that the collection of library materials be cut in half. This step was difficult for library and academic staff to consider, but in the end, much culling did have to take place. “Many of the items we wound up parting with had not circulated in 10, 15, or even 20 years,” said Brainard. “We were very careful and relied on our subject librarians to make those hard decisions.” For example, old atlases and outdated software manuals were clearly no longer accurate and relatively easy to discard. More books were retained in certain disciplines such as psychology, mathematics, and chemistry because, as Brainard put it, “those books were as good as the day they were written.”

After the collection was trimmed, approximately 80,000 books were stored in the Armory at Sage in Albany, placed on wooden carts made specifically for that purpose. Each time a user requested a book via the library catalog, a slip would be generated and a Sage courier would travel to the Armory and find the book, leaving a paper slip behind so that items could be easily reshelved. “Actually, nothing was easy about this,” said Brainard, “the carts were so packed in the space that finding the right cart with the right book was often a case of pushing carts around or climbing over them! All of this material is now back on the shelves in the new library in Shea Learning Center.”

Other changes to the Troy building impact the very nature of what “library” traditionally means and address the encompassing field of information science. The Shea Learning Center incorporates a number of separate departmental functions, including — but not limited to — reference librarians, IT help desk staff, tutors from academic support, and career planning staff. Integrating these services under one roof makes the new center a “one-stop” destination where students receive a variety of assistance to do what they have always done in a library setting — connect with the information they are seeking.

“Google has not made libraries obsolete, contrary to popular opinion,” said Jennifer Ebklaw Robble, J.D., MLS, SCA ’08, who is an information resources management librarian at Boston University Law School. “We may no longer be needed to find addresses or other basic information. Now librarians are freed up to do the more challenging work of helping patrons successfully navigate a variety of electronic databases and running complex, comprehensive searches.”

 

At the Shea Learning Center, a range of study space options supports individual study and group collaboration.The new center provides the setting for an intellectual commons by inspiring Sage community members to engage in discussions over coffee, catch up on current events with the newspaper, collaborate on academic assignments, enjoy popular DVDs, search the Internet, conduct intricate research projects, or attend educational lectures and workshops.

At the Shea Learning Center, a range of study space options supports individual study and group collaboration.The new center provides the setting for an intellectual commons by inspiring Sage community members to engage in discussions over coffee, catch up on current events with the newspaper, collaborate on academic assignments, enjoy popular DVDs, search the Internet, conduct intricate research projects, or attend educational lectures and workshops.

 

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