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Library Responds to Students' Changing Needs

People don’t learn the way they used to. Students these days seek more interactive approaches to studying, research, problem-solving and analysis. They incorporate numerous forms of media into their learning and presentation, using computer-generated graphics, DVDs, PowerPoint software and the Internet.

These new methods require common learning spaces and technology to accommodate their needs.

Those in Neilson Library have answered those needs with the construction of a new network of spaces they refer to as the Information Commons. It includes several rooms on the first floor, which have been refurbished. The Mair Reference Room, for example, has had a facelift with the removal of its wall-to-wall bookshelves and addition of new, more comfortable furniture. On any given day, natural light streams in through its windows and reflects off the blond wood desks and kiosks.

Perhaps most importantly, the reference room has been equipped with a computer at every kiosk, each connected to the Internet—only accessible with a Smith account—as well as multimedia machinery, such as DVD players and digital recorders.

“This room is being used in a way it wasn’t being used two years ago,” notes Christopher Loring, director of libraries, who has overseen the transformation in Neilson. “It’s a nicer space now with more light, newer furniture. And it’s only open to people in the college community. People like to be in a space that feels nice.”

The reference room also includes several tables at which students can collaborate. “One of the things we know is that students need to work together,” says Loring. “They also like to be together.”

Toward that end, several spaces to accommodate group work have been sectioned off amid the stacks on the first floor. These spaces are supplied with white boards, large plasma projection screens and media machinery.

“There’s a real lack of group space for study on campus,” says Loring. “Now, in these new spaces, people can work together.”

Engineering students Natalie Flores ’08 and Joyce Cheung ’09 recently took advantage of the library’s collaborative spaces to work together on thermal dynamics equations.

“I like the fact that this space is located here in the library,” said Flores. “It’s convenient, and it’s always available.”

“If you’re here with a group, you can all study together,” said Cheung. “We can use more spaces like this [on campus].”

The library’s Information Commons is the result of a strategic review conducted in 2002-03 by library administrators and the Committee on Education and Technology. The commons also includes changes to the second-floor periodicals room, and the addition of the Quantitative Learning Center on the second floor.

The changes in Neilson Library reflect a trend nationally to create similar centers to accommodate multiple methods of learning, Loring says. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst recently completed its own Learning Commons.

“Libraries will always be about the book and we don’t want that to change,” says Loring. “But we’re creating resources that respond to the changing needs of students and the way they learn.”

9/14/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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