Keeping the Library Relevant: A Tour of the Georgia Tech Library Learning Commons

By Michael Stephens |

While in Atlanta in May for SOLINET, Michael Casey and I had the opportunity to tour the Georgia Tech Library Learning Commons. I've followed the blogging of Brian Mathews for some time at The Ubiquitous Librarian, and am always happy to read about some new innovation or way of thinking about academic libraries at his institution. Joining us for the afternoon was Laura Savastinuk, Michael's co-author for Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service, and Elissa Checov,  Gwinnett Technical College Library Director.

Brian wasn't there the day we visited but we were very lucky to be guided around the library by Bob Fox. Bob is the Associate Director for Public and Administrative Services and has been leading the changes at Georgia Tech's library. To open, he said he had received a charge from the Dean for the GA library:

  • Create campus partnerships
  • Keep students using the library
  • Keep the library relevant in changing times

Bob and his staff met the challenges head on. The first step was partnering with the OIT at GA Tech to staff student help desks and computing areas for 24 hours a day. Two IT staff work in the library full time as "bridge positions" tying the two campus divisions together, along with the student assistants. I like this idea. I've written before about the perception that in many university settings, the library is one silo and IT is another, sometimes behind a locked door. 

Bob also outlined some organizational changes--staff across the library were "repurposed" as 8 service points were reduced to 3.

Fox, Mathews and the other folks at Tech took the important step of convening a focus group to ask students what they wanted in the library. The list Bob shared was fascinating:

  • Students want a comfortable, attractive space
  • Students want refreshments
  • Students want access to all types of  information technology in library space
  • Students want flexible space for use in the library
  • Want to feel ownership of the library

These results lead to the creation of spaces in the Learning Commons East and West that were inspiring, useful and flexible. We talked about creating an experience for students, making the library a memorable place. Bob said one goal would always be to "engage students from the beginning." I was reminded of the Welcome event Brian write about: poker, DDR, speed dating and more welcomed freshman to the library!

One thing Bob kept emphasizing: 

"We don't build walls here."

Spaces in East included a HUGE computing area with multiple workstations and staffed help desk and aPresentation Rehearsal Studio for working on those oh so important group presentations. An adjascentMultimedia Lab "kicked it up a notch" with access to high end Macintoshes, video editing software and suites of content creation apps.  

Via email Brian had arranged the tour with Bob for us and signed off with: "Don't miss Zone 3." In the West Commons, the library staff had developed some prototypical spaces according to the student focus groups: Zones 1, 2 and 3. Michael, Laur, Elissa and I were a aflutter about exploring these spaces with Bob as we moved through the connector to the newer side of the library. 

Zone 1 is a presentation space, just off the student cafe and vending area. Bob told us that the space could be configured and re-configured for presentations, faculty lectures, mixers, etc in minutes. Furniture on wheels, ingenious power outlets in the ceiling and a media projector were all part of the mix. Bob noted the space can be changed in just minutes from one set up to the next.

Zone 2 is a collaborative computing space, with more work stations, scanners and other technologies.

Zone 3 is a flexible space - it could be anything! The furniture was carefully chosen for its comfort and ease of movement so students could configure any type of space they'd like. Movable screens create nooks and "pods" for student users as well. Although the space was quiet, it was easy to imagine it busy and vibrant with students once Fall semester begins.

Georgia Tech Library's Charlie Bennett joined us for the tour of the Zones and added a lot to the information shared. 

Looking toward the future, Bob noted that he sees the library having more and more flexible spaces for students and faculty to interact with information, each other and the world. Thanks to everyone who guided us and informed us on this remarkable visit.


See my Flickr set here: and Michael Casey's set here: