by Jody Caldwell, Head of Reference & Research Services

library1College students—both undergraduate and graduate—are an evolving species. Thirty years ago, students commonly produced term papers, based on painstakingly (and sometimes not so painstakingly) compiled print sources, written in solitary splendor in individual rooms. Now, students write more often and more reflectively, they use technology creatively, both for social and academic purposes, they do research in ways never dreamed of, they work together and generally enjoy collaboration with their peers and their faculty. The work of the Library has changed as a result, and must continue to change. And we’re now presented with a raft of new possibilities in the Vivian A. Bull Academic Commons.

Several years ago, Gamin Bartle, the director of instructional technology and user services, and I began to think about how the Library and University Technology could better support students in their academic work. We looked at the ways in which students produce their work, often needing in quick succession help with research, with technology, with organizing their thoughts, with evaluating their sources, with polishing their writing. Not surprisingly, we came to the same conclusion many have come to before us: an integrated space for support of all those functions will not only be much more convenient for students, but it will also encourage them to think more seamlessly about the process of producing new knowledge. And it would foster much closer collaboration among those who were offering those services.

We started incrementally with a technology student assistant working at the Reference Desk, space for University Writing Fellows, and some collaborative programming. Then, in January 2014, driven by a need to reconfigure space to accommodate the new INTO New York at Drew program (which aids in the recruitment, transition, and integration of international students), the university gave the go-ahead to a much larger project, and the Vivian A. Bull Academic Commons was on its way.

The Academic Commons as it stands now includes four major organizational units:

  • The Library, with its wealth of print and digital material, and its ability to provide both individualized and group instruction and assistance in finding and evaluating information.
  • The University Technology Instructional and User Services, which helps students with hardware issues, and assists them in exploring the use of various software and tools for teaching and learning.
  • The Center for Academic Excellence, incorporating the Center for Writing Excellence, the Peer Tutor program, and the Math and Science Resource Center, all of which support students in their coursework, and help them to succeed in their assignments.
  • The INTO New York at Drew Learning Resource Center, providing English-language instruction and materials for international students

library2To accommodate all these services, the main floor of the Library has undergone a significant portion of a major renovation. We’ve created offices and dedicated space for the Instructional Technology Center, the University Technology Helpdesk, and the Center for Academic Excellence. But the main point of all this activity is the students, and we asked them what changes they would like to see. Consequently, the wireless has been significantly upgraded to enhance connectivity throughout the floor, new chairs (no small thing!) were chosen in consultation with students, and we planned more consolidated services. In addition, we now have:

  • The Instructional Technology Center (a combination of the Faculty and Staff Lab, and the Student Technology Education Lab), neighboring the offices for the ITUS staff, so that help is always available.
  • A new classroom for INTO/NY in the center of the floor, which will facilitate integration of our new international students into the Drew community.
  • A Center for Academic Excellence, close to the research and technology resources.
  • An instruction space that ITUS and the Library can share, with workstations, whiteboard walls, and interactive smart board.
  • A Research Help Desk, replacing the old (rather intimidating) Reference Counter, facing the entrance and heightening our visibility, where students can get both assistance with technology and help with their research.
  • Two group study areas with central counter-height tables and stools, and a monitor that enables students to project from their own devices.
  • Later this semester, the University Technology Helpdesk will relocate to the Academic Commons as well.

In the future, we’re planning  a large laptop bar for the central area, additional comfortable seating dotted throughout the floor, improved task seating (recommended by students), shelves for a portion of highly-used reference books, and flexible wiring so that tables can be moved and still provide power. Still on our “wish list” are an avenue directly to the popular Kean Reading Room and a coffee bar where students can recharge without leaving the Library.

What do we hope for from this new arrangement? I know that, as the colleague of those in the Center for Academic Excellence, the Instructional Technology User Services, and INTO/NY, I want a deeper collaboration among us, going well beyond the occasional program. The Library—and I—have a lot to learn from our new neighbors, and perhaps we have something to offer them. It will be easier in future to plant seeds and grow new projects and relationships, simply because of our proximity. But it’s this fundamental similarity in ethos and vision that really  brings all these specific units together in a shared space: We all care deeply and concretely about the academic lives of Drew students.

For the students, I hope the Vivian A. Bull Academic Commons will be a place for exploring all the ways technology can help us learn and create new knowledge, where they can interact with other students and faculty, where some of the questions they’re learning to ask in the classroom can be explored through new information sources, and where they can organize their thoughts and effectively communicate them. On a more pragmatic note, a national study was done last year of what employers want from their new hires. They found that recent graduates were hired for their technological skill, but that employers also wanted search skills that could go beyond the first set of Google results, and the ability to work collaboratively with more experienced colleagues (Head, et al.). We hope that by furnishing a variety of attractive space for work, both singly and in groups, and by providing a supportive environment with readily available assistance of all types, we can help to prepare our students for exciting futures.

This story was originally published in Visions, issue 36.

Head, Alison J., et al. “What Information Competencies Matter in Today’s Workplace?” Library and Information Research 37.114 (2013): 75-104. Print

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