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The “Open-Ended Library: Hampshire College Library Circles Back

April 6, 2017
Barbara Opar and Lucy Campbell, column editors
Column by Rachel Beckwith, Access and Arts Librarian, Hampshire College


From the editors: Many schools of architecture are currently addressing library design and renovation. One college library is looking to its past for ways to move forward.

Established in 1970, Hampshire College was modeled on delivery of educational through non-traditional structures. It is experience-based, learner-centered, and inquiry-driven. Against this backdrop, the fledgling College Library was envisioned in 1969, as Mt. Holyoke, Amherst College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst were planning to become the Five College consortium.

In the 1969 report, “The Extended and Experimenting College Library: Configurations and Functions of the Academic Library in Transition,” Hampshire librarian Robert Taylor reported “a library can no longer be a sophisticated warehouse storing and dispensing knowledge to students who happen to come through the door.” Instead, it “must be the center for the creation, use, and distribution of knowledge in a variety of media, communications-oriented rather than book oriented.” This vision was rather prescient, given that today, almost 50 years later, many are re-envisioning and re-imagining libraries technology is altering the learning landscape.



Many ideas brought forth in Taylor’s forward-thinking report have since become established trends in academic libraries. In fact Hampshire College Library Director, Jennifer King was able to return to this founding document, unearthed in our Archives, and consider its significance in her paper, “Extended and experimenting: library learning commons service strategy and sustainability” published in the journal, Library Management, in 2016.

Hampshire Library was initially designed with innovative and experimental ideas. However in recent years, the library became increasingly conventional. When we hired Jennifer King in 2012, the search committee, myself included, wanted someone who would be “transformative” while returning our library to its experimental roots. The advantageous timing of a simultaneous new President and Vice President for Academic Affairs allowed Jennifer to propose a plan bringing together academic support services (such as the Writing Center, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Transformative Speaking Program, the Quantitative Resource Center, and Disability & Learning Support from the Office of Accessibility Resources and Services) into the library building.

Hampshire began a comprehensive planning process overseen by a Knowledge Commons Steering Committee. Through a process of surveys, focus groups, and interviews, and with guidance from Brightspot, an “experience design consultancy,” the committee collected feedback from constituents across campus. We knew from this feedback that better access, visual branding, wayfinding, and publicity were on our list of needed improvements.

In May 2015 the Library Knowledge Commons Service Strategy Report was finalized. In December 2015 the library received a generous $1.2 million dollar grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for implementation of a Learning Commons 3.O. The charge to “reinvent” our library officially began! I was on a “consolidated service point” task force last winter that helped merge components of our access services, media services, and IT departments. A combined circulation point for print and digital resources would allow quick access to information, resources, and collections. Equipment lending would also be brought to the combined service point. There is still work to be done in this area as the Hampshire College library has a growing game library (both analog and digital games) as well as a seed lending library (yes, we circulate packets of seeds that have a barcode on them that you can check out!). Because of our ever-changing curriculum, we have circulated everything from a metal detector to a trash can over the years, so designing a flexible, “open-ended” circulation point remains a design challenge.

Successes over the past two years include the Writing Center. Alumni fellows are hired to work evening hours offering writing help in the library. The library is a more centrally located on our campus than the Writing Center, resulting in increased use of this service. The Transformative speaking program hired and trained student peer mentors, who work with the Director out of a reserved room in the library. The program and has met lots of success integrating speaking programs into courses and helping students individually prepare for public speaking and presentations. The Office of Accessibility Resources and Services has also expanded and connected with the library through their Alumni Fellow. The grant included funding for several alumni fellows. We have so far hired a Library Research Alumni Fellow, an Instructional Technology Alumni Fellow, a Student Success Alumni Fellow, and a Center for Teaching and Learning Alumni Fellow. Next we will be hiring a Media Alumni Fellow to help students find the right equipment and offer guidance with tools and technology to create scholarly and creative work. Our Media Labs include facilities for digital photography and filmmaking; animation; music; audio; print; and video.

As we have just passed one year since the grant, we are reflecting back and looking forward. We now plan to divvy up responsibilities for the Knowledge Commons among the research librarians,, in order to create a sustainable model for partner services going forward. One of my colleagues will supervise all of the current the alumni fellows, developing infrastructure (training, project management tools) for team-based work, and leading a summer training institute in addition to maintaining her identity as a vital member of our research instruction team. Our current science librarian will add needs assessment and analysis for the Knowledge Commons, service assessment, and budget support and management to her job. She will also develop numerical/ visualization data to help advocate for funding. In addition to my current responsibilities as Access and Arts Librarian, I will be working on project management, space assessment and planning, renovation, marketing, self-help options for booking appointments and rooms in the library, as well as facilitating communication and coordination across library staff.

We have also begun to prototype new spaces, including a renovation of our 24/7 study space affectionately dubbed “The Airport Lounge.” We will be renovating a space in our Media Services department that we are calling “The Inquiry Center” which will have a flexible classroom space and several consultation spaces for the expanded academic services. Here, alumni fellows, as well as librarians, writing center fellows, transformative speaking mentors, and media staff with expertise can meet with students in one centralized location. These renovations have just begun.

While still very much in progress, our Knowledge Commons vision brings Hampshire full circle back to its original, innovative library design, while also looking to the future. We are combining our carefully curated print with collaborative partners, returning the library to Robert Taylor’s vision of the “nerve center” of the College, and continuing to explore and develop an active role for the library in the teaching and learning process. In these turbulent times, the library’s role offering free resources and services to ALL people becomes even more critical. The library must, indeed, remain “open-ended.”
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