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Research and benchmarking: Revisiting a 21st century library a decade after design

November 20, 2019

By Patrick Calhoun

Libraries have evolved tremendously in the last two decades. Here’s what we’ve learned from researching and benchmarking.

The design industry is constantly changing and evolving. To be truly successful, we must be lifelong learners. As members of the Research + Benchmarking (R+B) program at Stantec, we are continually investigating areas where we see opportunities to increase our collective knowledge, study a trend, evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of our designs, and share what we’ve learned.

Libraries are one of the areas in which we’ve seen major changes in design over the last two decades.  

The focus has been shifting from storing books to providing space for people, and a focus on providing increased services—both on-site and digitally—have continued to occur. Because we’re committed to continually learning and enhancing our services and expertise, we recently revisited the award-winning Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Mary Idema Pew Library and Learning Commons—a project we designed in 2009 that opened to students in 2013. The new library was designed to be the intellectual heart of the Allendale, Michigan, campus. The vision was to promote student success and advance intellectual growth and discovery well into the future.

The Knowledge Market at GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library and Learning Commons serves as a destination and platform for 100% peer-led academic support and exploration, designed to address immediate needs and connect students to other support services.

So, 10 years after this vision was developed—through the design and construction process, 6 years of occupancy, and a change in library leadership—how well has the building stayed true to its goal to stand the test of time? We sat down with Annie Belanger, GVSU’s new Dean of Libraries, and User Experience Librarian Kristen Meyer to get their feedback.

What went into the original design

At the onset of the project, our team was heavily engaged with the University’s leadership, library team members, campus facilities, and GVSU’s students to develop a vision for a library of the 21st century. We designed GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library and Learning Commons to meet the institution’s student-centered focus and liberal arts education tradition.

Lee Van Orsdel, the Dean of Libraries at the time of the project, had a powerful vision for creating a new kind of library, alive with palpable energy and engagement found in a shopping mall. She and the team envisioned a space that encouraged discussion, collaboration, connectedness, and for learning to be visibly on display. Learning was truly at the core of every design decision we made.

The data suggests that perhaps the greatest design success has been the flexibility designed into the spaces.

The University’s enrollment demographic includes 40% first-generation college students, 40% from low-income households, and 16% minority students. We designed every element of the building to impact and improve learning for all students—from the spaces to the services offered—and transform the overall learning experience.

Our design came to life in a 150,000-square-foot, five-story building with more than 1,500 public-user seats to service the University’s 25,000 students. Consolidating 300,000 of the collections’ volumes into an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) allowed for student space and service resources throughout the building, as well as for 150,000 of the University’s most frequently accessed volumes to remain browsable. The building’s lower levels are more vibrant with activity, while the upper levels graduate to more reflective, quiet, and independent study spaces.

When Dean Van Orsdel left Grand Valley, Dean Belanger replaced her, bringing her own perspective and goals to build off the strong foundation established during Van Orsdel’s tenure. Dean Belanger placed an even greater emphasis on an inclusionary experience. She expressed the desire for the library to be the space where students can “learn to belong” and be both “quiet enough to hear yourself become who you will be and loud enough to know you are not alone in that journey.”

The library has begun to offer sensory tools to augment the library experience—items such as fidget toys, white-noise machines, tinted reading tools, and noise-canceling headphones—to add to the inclusivity of who can benefit from the space. Even the 1,600 art pieces displayed throughout the building are shifting to showcase diverse and inclusive themes.

Left: GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library and Learning Commons is a 150,000-square-foot, five-story building. The building’s lower levels are more vibrant with activity, while the upper levels graduate to more independent study spaces. Right: An automated storage and retrieval system stores the library’s collections for easy accessibility, while not wasting valuable floor space on the storage of books.

Successes and adjustments after the building opened

One of the key pieces of our design is the Knowledge Market—prominently located across from the main service desk—which has been an essential piece of the library’s programming both at its conception and now. It serves as a destination and platform for 100% peer led academic support and exploration, designed to address immediate needs and connect students to other support services. It was never intended to be a tutoring service and remains as such, though the popularity and success of the Knowledge Market has led to Tutoring opening a satellite location nearby in the building. The outstanding success of the Knowledge Market has led to a doubling of services offered over the last two years, and the original space has been flexible enough to adapt to accommodate.

Providing opportunities for more student-focused spaces like the Knowledge Market was a driving factor in including an ASRS system in the building. It was designed to have the library’s collections conveniently located and still quickly accessible, while not wasting valuable floor space on the storage of books. Retrieval time and anticipated retrievals per day were actively considered in selecting a system. However, actual measured retrievals per day have been much lower than anticipated, reinforcing the validity of the team’s decision to remove those volumes from the library floor. While the collection is actively managed, the ASRS is only currently at half its capacity, providing space for future growth or other storage needs identified by the University.

The staff team and their work are invaluable to the success of the library. While we initially designed the building with relatively spacious staff spaces, the success and expansiveness of the library’s services resulted in the library team growing to nearly 70 individuals. While the amount of space allocated for staff has remained adequate, the offices have received modifications to improve consultation and meetings spaces at its new, higher density.

We’ve found that even the smallest of moves can have a positive impact on the library environment as one of development and growth. For example, GVSU relabeled student employees as “student colleagues” and helps them develop career plans. These student colleagues on the University’s team play an integral role in improving the library experience and collecting data to record that use.

The library utilizes walkabouts throughout the facility to monitor use, collect observations, and to provide various forms of assistance. Perhaps contrary to intuition, the library team has found a need to increase the frequency of these walkabouts during the slowest and busiest times. Student colleagues increase walkabout frequency during the quietest times to promote a sense of safety for library users. And during the busiest times, their support is needed to collect more accurate data on seating availability.

While 1,500 public seats are provided, the sprawl of students’ personal items and study materials means that there is a more realistic capacity of approximately 1,200 seated. Once the building reaches about half of that, around 700 students, finding appropriate seating can become frustrating without the students on staff to provide support. These fluctuations are documented through heat mapping to better understand the changes in space use over time. For example, during the evening, conversation levels increase, and groups are more actively collaborating. Building exit surveys also capture information on length of stay, services engaged, and activities performed during any given visit to the building. We’ve found that this data has confirmed that the library is utilized differently throughout different times of the day.

Dean Belanger and her team are working to develop space-vision documents and service best practices across all GVSU Library Spaces—both on and off the Allendale campus—to reinforce the notion of the library as a part of a larger, cohesive system. These documents and the leadership of Dean Belanger are indicative of the importance of defining the culture of the library system at GVSU.

GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library and Learning Commons has more than 1,500 public-user seats to service the University’s 25,000 students.

Lessons learned

Our team is thankful to have had such a wonderful client and partner in GVSU, who came to the table during design with such a strong vision and has remained diligent about monitoring and adapting as necessary to continue to make the Mary Idema Pew Library successful. Within the building’s first three years after opening, it welcomed over 3.2 million visitors through its doors.

The diligence and cooperation of GVSU has allowed us to take away critical lessons learned and adapt our own design ideologies to stay relevant to the emerging trends in library environments. The open layout, which was intentionally created so that students could be seen modeling the academic process for others, has arguable been one of the most successful aspects of the project—one student even commented that the library gave him the “space to think big thoughts.”

The success of the library has influenced other student-centered spaces on campus, including the student union, social justice center, and downtown campus. The data suggests that perhaps the greatest design success has been the flexibility designed into the spaces. The ability to modify environments to meet individual needs or accommodate preferential changes over time has been invaluable and will continue to demonstrate itself as such as the building continues to adapt as the 21st century library it was envisioned to be.

Designing for flexibility of space now and into the future has proven to be key and should be a priority of any team looking to develop their own 21st century library. Technology is rapidly changing, and a library should be able to adapt with those changes. A strong vision for the outcome is immeasurable to the development of any design. Ultimately, using accessibility of services as a primary guiding principle first can refocus the discussion from the book to the person. Rethinking how books are stored, who needs to access them, and how frequently they need that access can provide opportunities for space-saving techniques, opening more space to serve more people.

  • 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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