A "Commons" Experience: Five Benefits of the Information Commons

By Michael Stephens |

In "The Comedy of the Commons," Dr. Carol M. Rose describes the commons as a place where each person adds more value. In our LIS701 course here at Dominican, we use Rose to illustrate the potential and usefulness of common spaces in relation to different types of libraries and what they might mean to their users. According to Rose,  "The more who join and use the commons, the greater the enjoyment of each participant."

This was entirely evident in the series of field trips I made this year to visit library spaces that had integrated the idea of the commons. Reflecting on those visits, I see the common threads that connect them: space, technology,  and a culture of collaboration and innovation. I also see the benefits, especially after visiting the spaces and viewing photos of them in use.

I just blogged about "Seven Ways to Think About Information Literacy" at TTW this week. Liz Wilkinson's points from her presentation include:

1. Literacy beyond text
2. Student centered, not library centered
3. Outside experts
4. Involve students
5. Use students’ environments
6. Learning by doing
7. Make students feel at home

These ideas also apply to understanding importance of the Commons space. Reflecting further and with inspiration from Wilkinson, I'd offer these five benefits of creating such a space in your academic library:

The Commons puts students at the center. The idea of student-centered innovation was a theme woven throughout the commons field trips. The commons did not make it any easier for the librarians or to enforce library policies. In fact, Stacey Greenwell of the University was happy to tell me that they made it easier for students to use their cell phones in "the Hub." "Yes, that’s right—at the Hub we actually installed infrastructure to make it easier for students to use cell phones. We actually encourage cell phone use. Truly the Hub is a No Shushing Zone."

The Commons is built with student involvement. Stacey Greenwell of "the Hub" told me that along with the innovations the librarians wanted at UK,  "we sought student input throughout the planning process"Bob Seal highlighted the ways his librarians discovered students needed: space, access to technology, and ease of use.

The Commons is a welcoming, useful gathering place. The folks at Indiana University South Bend started with a specific goal: to be a welcoming center on campus. Michele Russo detailed this idea when it came to the desk: "The new service desk was also designed to send a welcoming message.  It allows space for librarians, IT consultants, and multimedia specialists to work at one of two levels." The Zones at Georgia Tech included flexible "anything and everything" spaces. Faculty might give a lecture in the morning, folowed by a DDR tournament in the afternoon and video creation in the evening.

The Commons makes connections. These connections might be between students, betweeen students and library staff, or between students and the various faculty and staff that may use the space as well. Dean of Library Services Michele Russo at IUSB said: "We envisioned making the Library a true teaching-learning-research center by creating an Information Commons where content, technology, and services provided by reference librarians, technology assistants, and multimedia specialists were available to students and faculty in one place."

The Commons is a relevant, required space on campus. At Georgia Tech, we ooh'ed and ahh'ed all over Zones 1, 2 and 3 as though on a tour at Disneyland, but Associate Director Bob Fox's message was loud and clear: "We don't build walls here." The spaces, created by innovative library staff and student focus groups, are that central, all purpose place (with access to needed resources and technology) that Rose addressed in her article. The larger the investment of planning, input and participants, the higher the return on use and support. How could spaces like those in my 2008 Information/Learning Commons Field trips not be considered required and relevant spaces for the university setting?

And before I go, you know, I could never end without noting these concepts could easily translate to all types of libraries. Couldn't the public library offer a Commons as well to the community? Just this month David Loertscher calls for the creation of the school library learning commons in our schools in SLJ. Much to think about. How could we build a common space in any type of library following these principles?

The posts:

University of Kentucky

Georgia Tech

Indiana University South Bend

Loyola University