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Martha Whitehead, head librarian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. (Lars Hagberg For The Globe and Mail)
Martha Whitehead, head librarian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. (Lars Hagberg For The Globe and Mail)

Canadian University Report 2014: Resources

The university library of the future Add to ...

Enter Hunt Library at North Carolina State University and you’ll find yourself in a white-walled, futuristic grand space dotted with plush, vividly coloured chairs. Slivers of sunlight shine through a dramatic facade designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta (best known for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt) to resemble threads in a loom.

The library, which opened in January, features a gaming lab, “creativity studio” with a floor-to-ceiling projector screen, 3D printers and some 80 group-study rooms where students scribble ideas and formulas all over glass walls and tables.

What you won’t see? Very many books.

Early in the planning process, the university decided that instead of devoting square footage to its collection, it would prioritize collaborative, high-tech learning spaces. Six metres below the first floor, two million volumes are packed into a space one-ninth the size of conventional shelving. Select a book from the electronic catalogue, and a robot will deliver it within five minutes.

Hunt Library is one of the places Martha Whitehead, head librarian at Queen’s University, visited this spring with the architects working on a major, 20-year plan for redevelopment of archives and libraries at the Kingston school.

Hunt Library is an extreme example of how the information revolution has caused the role of the library to evolve. Now that we can access unprecedented amounts of knowledge from phones or tablets anywhere, book-centred university libraries are no longer the singular places on campus to retrieve information. Now, they are becoming as much about collaboration as they are about sombre, silent scholarship.

“It may have had the reputation of a quiet place where you behave properly,” Whitehead says. “Now it feels very vibrant.”

But any suggestion that physical books (or even the library itself) are obsolete is a gross oversimplification.

“If it had ever been simply about housing books,” argues Whitehead, “the great libraries of the world would have been warehouses, not beautiful icons of learning and research.”

The primary function of libraries continues to be finding information; what has changed is the nature of the questions being asked. Students used to come to libraries to find what Whitehead calls “quick facts” (easily looked up now online) but now they come with complex inquiries. They want to know what type of information exists on a topic and how their own work fits into the scholarly literature landscape. This shift reflects how universities have changed teaching to better prepare students for the 21st century, Whitehead says.

“It’s less about the instructor imparting information to the student than about the skill set to be a lifelong learner — how to think, how to inquire and how to learn.”

This shift has changed how libraries and classrooms are designed.

“Buildings are directly linked to how curriculum is delivered,” says Paul Cravit, principal of architecture firm CS&P, which is working on the Queen’s redesign. He points to the windowless schools of the 1970s as an example. “The idea was that students would sit in rows and focus on the person at the front. Other things were diversions.”

As for university libraries of the future, we can expect vibrant spaces where books are important but people are central.

“You can make a building that encourages daydreaming and curiosity because it opens you up to the outside world,” Cravit says. “We’re now seeing buildings have a blurring between what is social space and what is teaching and learning space. Learning doesn’t happen only inside a room. It often happens over a coffee in a very informal way.”

The aim is to create a sense of place that encourages what Cravit calls “intellectual collisions.” Whitehead agrees. She wants the Queen’s libraries to maintain the grandiosity common to great libraries while creating intimate spaces where students can engage with each other and material, be it in book or digital form.

“A student said to me that when she comes into Stauffer Library [at Queen’s] she just feels smarter.

We think that’s a different feeling than other places on campus like the student union or the cafeteria.”

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