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From the Design Quarterly: Incubating campus cool

May 08, 2018

By Patrick Calhoun

The library becomes a hub for campus fellowship

When Lee Van Orsdel, dean of libraries, and the administration at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Allendale, Michigan, looked for a way to enhance the student experience on campus, they started by acknowledging that they had to look beyond the classroom—to see how students work best today. 

The primary goal for Grand Valley was to answer the question, if we know only a small part of learning occurs in the classroom, how does the university continue to support students when class is over? There is only one place on campus that fosters academic fellowship, that crosses all disciplines, that has the resources, support, and the ability to help guide students. The library.

Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.

So, this highly collaborative project was really about finding out what can we do to provide the place, the people, the setting, the resources, to extend learning beyond the content, to set students up for the needs of the modern workforce.

The idea was to redefine the library as a hub or living room on campus where students could collaborate with their peers and make spaces their own and do what they need to do on their own time. We wanted to create, ultimately, a better student for employers to hire.

Looking for the magic of the third place

Lee Van Orsdel had a vision for the new campus building inspired by the bustling European train stations, magnetic places with purpose and the buzz of human activity.

Our design team was inspired by the concept of “the third place,” an attractive casual environment (between classroom and home in this case) that allows for concentrated work, collaboration, and chance encounters. Drawing upon inspiration from university student centers, the Apple store and Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shops we searched for the elements that make would make this third place compelling. We toured beautiful highly touted libraries, but found often underneath a new shell, the actual experience hadn’t been changed. This was not the solution.

Looking at workplace and retail where the third-place concept has flourished helped to inform our ideas about encouraging individual or small group work in a setting that kept people motivated. A multi-day research project with Steelcase helped us understand the daily routine of the library, what kind of activities occur at which time of day (solo mornings, quick visits mid-day, group collaboration after classes) and which kinds of furniture we could do without.

The solution? We created environments at different scales that could allow students to work alone in a crowd or collaborate in small groups. The dean, cognizant of the social aspect of study, wanted space for focused work that still had the ability to see other people engaging in similar activities and be inspired. Our solution meant designing varied spaces for focus, varied spaces for small group collaboration, and varied spaces for academic fellowship—the social side of learning.

The ambitious vision for this project was consistently inspiring. The goal, from its inception, was to build a library that was much more than a knowledge resource, but to create a library that would transform the college experience and student life on campus.

In Part 1 of this series, Stantec's Patrick Calhoun and Don Hensley share the changing role of the modern academic library.

Social by design

The traditional face-the-blank-wall study carol really doesn’t exist in the building. At GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library and Information Commons, even working solo, you always have the ability—if you sit up, lean back, or move a little—to see people engaged in activity. Students move through the space and have chance encounters throughout the day from bus stops en route to the student center or classroom. Like that European train station, it’s not just a place to study but a place where students can shop, get coffee, and meet people.

Space belongs to students

Busy spaces are designed with one rule in mind. No one was to put the furniture back where it was supposed to be. The staff only resets the building once a semester. Students are encouraged to move things, collect things, adopt white boards and set up camp. It’s implied that this is your space.

Book retrieval system

Traditionally, vast amounts of space in libraries are devoted to stacks and stacks of books. To dedicate more space to social interaction, we needed a different solution for book access. We arrived on the automated storage and retrieval system, (ASRS) that enabled us to put 600,000 volumes on only 3,500 square feet of floor space, four stories tall—using a fraction of the space of traditional stacks. With this system, any resource can be delivered in less than two minutes from when a student places a request. The compromise was that we left 150,000 volumes (high priority books requested by the humanities) out on the floor.

The automated storage and retrieval system at Mary Idema Pew Library stores 600,000 volumes on only 3,500 square feet of floor space.

Quiet spaces

We located the open stacks on three upper floors of the building, and they define the “quiet” part of the library. We surrounded these stacks on three sides with quiet study rooms, study tables, non-movable furniture. The presence of books, the type of seating and the books sound absorbing qualities, suggests that this is where quiet study exists. In this area, quiet is very self-policing. Once a floor feels quiet, people treat it that way.

One desk

There is no circulation desk or reference desk, there’s one place to ask any question you have and its staffed with students. Students are the first point of contact. It was an intentional move to lower the threshold. It’s very much a peer-to-peer environment.

The Knowledge Market

Students can go up to the Knowledge Market and ask for research, reference, writing and presentation support from highly-trained peer consultants. The café and its lively noises are adjacent to the Market, so students don’t have to worry about others hearing them ask questions. Accessing help is made as easy and non-intimidating as possible.


HVAC, ductwork, and power systems distribution are all underfloor to maximize flexibility and arrangement of book stacks, space partitions and furniture. The majority of spaces can be changed on-the-fly and to suit purpose.

Daylight and green

We all know that access—visual and physical—to nature and daylight provide crucial inspiration for humans. The building, with interiors bathed in natural light, gives students two opportunities to go outside—a green roof with a view of Grand Rapids and a courtyard dug out in the center of the building.

A campus transformed, a culture defined

Students truly own this space. It’s their home away from home, but it’s not quite 24-7, so staff often have to ask users to leave at 2 a.m. But as we hoped, groups of students will camp out, take over white boards for days at a time. It’s popular. The previous library building had a gate count of 440,000 per year. At Mary Idema Pew, the gate count was over 1 million. Most telling and inspiring for us is the noise. In the old building, it was quiet all-day long. The new building is like a living organism, as its use shifts around the time classes end, the Pew pulses with activity and sound.

When we reflect on the primary driver for the project, “enhance student experience on campus,” the Mary Idema Pew Learning Commons delivers. It expands the student’s horizons and gives them access to the tools, people and places they need to succeed. To put it more simply, a student we observed entering the new library on opening day said, “Wow, learning just got cool.”

In Part 2 of our series, we share the process of designing a new or transforming an old library—the stakeholders, the considerations, and how to set up an institution for success today and for the future.

  • Patrick Calhoun

    Patrick’s 26 years of experience has given him insight into designing and planning for educational institutions of all types and sizes.

    Contact Patrick
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