In the Hub - The Information Commons at University of Kentucky

By Michael Stephens |

During the past few months, I've explored various in carnations of the student-centered learning and technology commons. I'm pleased to see this trend in academic libraries gaining more and more ground. We visited the IU South Bend Commons last time, an example of a smaller university library thinking big and applying the same concepts and strategies for student space and making it work. On a wind swept, rainy day last April, I toured the inviting Information Commons at Loyola University, where community, collaboration and connectivity guided the student- centered space. And this summer while in Georgia, we visited the Georgia Tech Library Learning Commons that features spaces and technologies to enable all types of student, faculty and staff interaction.

There's one more stop - and sadly, I haven't visited this outstanding example of student  space in person but via the photos shared on Flickr. So I emailed Stacey Greenwell, Head of the Information Commons (The Hub) at the University of Kentucky to find out more about the incredible spaces and help desk I'd seen on Flickr. She obliged with this detailed interview:


MS: What was the genesis of the Hub?

SG: In fall 2005, University of Kentucky Libraries Dean Carol Pitts Diedrichs assembled a group of interested parties from across campus to discuss the possibility of an information commons. The timing was right, with an increased focus on undergraduate education on campus and the desire to improve student success and increase the overall retention rate. While the William T Young Library is a very impressive building that opened in 1997, the basement was largely underutilized except for two large computer labs and the audio visual services desk. The key players in this potential information commons collaboration (IT and the Teaching and Academic Support Center, along with Libraries) were intrigued with the opportunity to redesign the basement of the library to create a high-energy, student-focused atmosphere that could serve as a one-stop shop for undergraduate information needs.

The group wrote a whitepaper further exploring the topic, and by December 2005, the group had secured instructional infrastructure improvement funding to begin the project. I was extremely interested in the project from the beginning, and at this point I became directly involved by serving as a member of the working group to plan the information commons. The group included library staff, IT staff, an IT librarian (myself), as well as an architect and an interior designer. We spent an entire year planning the project—researching the concept, conducting site visits, and soliciting opinions from students and others on campus. I was appointed on an interim basis to become the director (and ultimately accepted the permanent position earlier this year). We opened the UK Information Commons—the Hub—in March 2007.

MS: What were some of the key features you wanted to include and how did you come to those decisions?

SG: While we sought student input throughout the planning process, we were already aware of several features we knew we needed in the Hub. Since the Young Library opened in 1997, staff had been frequently asked about the lack of a Mac lab in the building, as well as the need for in-depth help with computer accounts, laptops, and software. Early in our planning process, we all agreed that IT offerings needed to be expanded in the Hub. IT already had an excellent Windows lab in the basement which included over 200 computers equipped with nearly every software application that students would need. IT created a Mac lab in an adjacent lab space, and the 24” iMacs in the new lab were extremely popular with students from day one. IT also supported staffing the Hub’s central help desk with an IT customer service center staff member.

When the Hub opened in March 2007, IT staffed the central help desk 20 hours per week. The staff member could create accounts, reset passwords, answer general queries about software/campus systems, and assist with laptop problems, among other things. We kept careful statistics on what type of IT help was needed and when, and after our first year, we were able to show that IT support needed to be expanded. I’m delighted that we opened the fall 2008 semester with IT staffing Sun-Thu 1-10 pm and Fridays 1-5 pm. This effectively doubles the number of hours IT help is available in the Hub. In general, I feel that emphasizing the partnership aspect of the project was critical in getting the support and buy-in we needed to make the Hub the success it has become. A good portion of what was needed for the Hub had to be provided by IT, so it was essential that they become a key stakeholder in the project from the earliest planning stages. In addition to the Mac lab and the help desk staffing, we also needed a wireless internet upgrade and an upgrade which would allow cell phones to work in the basement. (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 key features of the Hub involve more than just technology, too.

MS: I'm looking at the photos you've shared - the shots of the library help desk are great - and I've used them in my talk "The Hyperlinked Library" for some time.

We wanted to create a library help desk in the center of the space, using a very non-traditional style of service desk to hopefully make students more comfortable approaching us. We also knew we had to get away from heavy, wooden, difficult-to-move furniture. It is beautiful furniture that truly makes our upstairs reading rooms grand, but it is not very conducive to collaborative, energetic, all-night study sessions. We also wanted to bring food into the library—while one of the nicest restaurants on campus is housed in the Young Library, patrons must go outside to visit the restaurant. This isn’t feasible for late-night study sessions (or in bad weather!) so that’s how Grub @ the Hub was born.

MS: What do you think is the next step for student-centered library space on college campuses? Where do we go from "The Hub?"

I keep coming back to this, but conversation and collaboration are essential for continued success.  What do students and faculty need from library spaces--we have to keep asking questions and keep the conversation going with our clientele.  We also have to continue building partnerships with other essential student services on campus, particularly IT.  We're going to have to address students' increasing use of mobile devices and cloud-based applications, and with IT develop ways to meet these changing needs and provide support. One of the things we've just started looking at is virtualizing our labs-- basically students could come to our space with a mobile device and get temporary access on their device to the software they need.  It is truly an exciting time to continue expanding the information commons!