Blog Post

Learning Commons: What’s in the Name?

In a recent tour of a new university library billing itself as a prototypical library of the future, I noticed that on the photocopied floorplan handed out for our walking tour, one area of an upper floor wore the label “Learning Commons.” This was no surprise; I routinely enter newly-built libraries wondering where I will find the Information Commons, Learning Commons, or Research Commons. What did surpise me was that the term Learning Commons was prominently placed within  quotation marks. No other room labels or area designations on that handout were punctuated by quotes. I have toured innumerable libraries with Information Commons and Learning Commons, and I cannot remember another example of an academic library that felt inclined (or obliged?) to mysteriously qualify any of its departmental labels by the singular use of quotation marks. Media Lab? Check. MakerSpace? Check. “Learning Commons?” Well, maybe that is what this space might be, the floorplan seemed to indicate, depending on whatever those quotation marks are meant to imply.


To me, a possible implication of this use of quotes was that at least a few of my colleagues are still not sure about the semantic (or social?) legitimacy of this term. And I find that surprising, given that some of the most prestigious research university libraries on the planet have not only enthusiastically embraced the term, but elevated it to the point of using it as a high-profile, high-prestige naming opportunity. To give just two examples: The David C. Weigle Information Commons at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Brody Learning Commons at Johns Hopkins University.


I found myself wondering if the makers and namers of this particular library, in subtly qualifying their use of the term Learning Commons, were dissenting from a direct acknowledgement of the term’s legitimacy. More likely, I suspect, this oddly singularized use of quotes marked a form of peer-subgroup psychology that has persisted in a few odd corners of the library community over the two decades that the Learning Commons movement has steadily gathered momentum across the United States and around the world.


One example will suffice: Brian Mathews, who blogs on occasion for the Chronicle (“The Ubiquitous Librarian”) posted these coments on September 7, 2011 (headlined: “Just Don’t Call it a Commons.”): “I’ve always appreciated the concept of the commons but never the terminology. To me it dilutes the power and symbolism of the library. You don’t need librarians to run a commons. In fact, you don’t even need a library. I’ve seen commons scattered throughout various places on campuses. From a stakeholder point of view a commons is a computer lab and study/work space, and that doesn’t require a library. Politically I fear the word commons might have long-term damage to our reputation.”


But the first problem with Brian’s apprehension is that it was assumption-based, not evidence-based. Even by 2011, an impressive stack of formal Learning Commons assessments had begun to pile up, yet Mathews offered no single example where any of those assessments revealed a shred of tangible evidence that having a Learning Commons (or naming it a Learning Commons), had devalued the library. To the contrary, as was emphasized by Robert Seal (Dean of Libraries at Loyola University / Chicago) in his 2012 presentation at the University of Beijing,: “…In fact, the resurgence in the popularity of academic libraries in general in the past decade, especially among the so-called Millennials, is a direct result of the appearance of information commons in its variety of forms.” ( see: < http://bit.ly/1lrcugE >. Certainly, the model is fair game for criticism, and a good blogger often takes on the role of provocateur to stimulate discussion and reflection. Brian Mathews is clearly a good blogger, so I do not begrudge him that role. But it is unfortunate that any library manager would use a platform as highly visible as a blog in the Chronicle to essentially promote assumption-based management over evidence-based management. And as to his claim that anyone on campus outside the library could create a Learning Commons-- I most strenuously disagree.


Certainly there is still a need for clarification and consensus about the best possible definitions and descriptions of the Information Commons and Learning Commons models in today’s academic libraries. I hope to further that ongoing discussion in a future post to this HASTAC blog.

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2 comments

Thanks for commenting. Your assertion that "Librarians were critical in an era before...[etc.] but that's no longer the case..." and that a "'...commons' can be anything...[etc.] where learners can learn from 'data'..." are reasonably accurate only in a limited generic sense of the term "commons," and only if one accepts a rather antiquated view of what librarians know and how they employ their skills. The current and ongoing real-world assessments of university library Learning Commons I am describing do indeed include "affect of service" evaluations such as "...client flow, queries, and a host of data other than checking out books." (Although book check-outs are still being measured as well). So my point is not that there is any lack of evidence. To the contrary, we are seeing the accumulation of a very, very large body of assessment evidence. And that evidence, I would argue, definitively supports the continuing vitality of academic libraries and the continuing importance of librarians. But it does NOT support Brian Mathews' assumption that hosting a Learning Commons within the library will in any way devalue that library. Lastly, however, I do agree with your spot-on characterization of "coach" as an increasingly vital part of a librarian's role. But I don't agree with your implication that any person in any occupational niche (janitor, yardman, etc.)is equally well-positioned to play that role. The skillsets acquired by librarians, and the toolsets deployed by librarians, are uniquely well-suited to help students cope with still-expanding knowledge explosion. And the evidence is mounting that the technology-intensive spaces within libraries called "Learning Commons" provide highly effective environments for the employment of those skills and the deployment of those tools.

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Librarians were critical in an era before you could search for any word in any book, or create a google search to find the book in the first place. Cataloging, categories, and storage methods were all critical skills, as was Information and Referral, linking learners to materials produced by credible authorities.

But that's no longer the case.

Now the role of a "librarian" is as coach to students, teachers, neighbors, and others to access a far larger body of knowledge than librarians ever anticipated. And it's not just in the building. A "commons" can be anything from a cafeteria to prison cell. Ideally it would be a place where learners can learn from "data" (books, magazines, kindles, movies, television, powerpoints, etc., etc.) and from each other how to use, access, and exploit such data in transforming it into "useful" information. THERE is your "evidence," but it's global not micro, it's better measured in attention, client flow, queries, and a host of data other than checking out books.

Learning Commons no longer demand libraries as places, depositories, or sites, but they do demand this new kind of "librarian" who may be a teacher, a peer, a janitor, or a yardman.

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