Joining Forces: Constructing a 21st-Century Library
With 82 years to go, there is a lot of learning left to do in the 21st Century, and at St. Lawrence, Owen D. Young Library (ODY) is just the place to get it done. ODY may not qualify as the heart of the campus—some might suggest the historic Richardson Hall, Herring-Cole, Sullivan Student Center, or possibly Appleton Arena—but there could be a very good argument positing ODY as the lungs of the institution, supplying oxygen to the circulatory systems of teaching and learning.
The first reading room was in Richardson Hall built in 1856, followed by the Herring Library (1869) and Cole Reading Room (1902), to ODY (1957), Torrey Wing expansion (1978), and the Launder Science Library (1994). With the addition of digital scholarship laboratories and instructional spaces from 2014 until present, St. Lawrence libraries have reflected the commitment and support of the institution—and many generous patrons—to adapt with every generation.
Treehouses and libraries is a combination that most Laurentians accept without a second thought at St. Lawrence. You might even get a chuckle out of some alumni who would then reveal their preferred nook or cranny of ODY that they colonized as students: the retro room—or not-so-retro for some, the leather chairs that envelope you in the Josephine Young room, or behind the glass wall of Special Collections and Archives.
With recent upgrades and renovations and the strategic relocation of the Information Technology offices into ODY, current students are now adding to that list of both communal and solitary destinations. There is the “glass seminar room,” the newly reorganized yellow-pipe room for quiet study, the collaboration space on the lower level, and the digital scholarship lab—all yet to be labeled with more organic lingo which inevitably comes with each generation who congregate or squirrel away in the stacks.
“From a historical perspective it’s logical for academic libraries to evolve,” says Justin Sipher, vice president for Libraries and Information Technology, who has led the efforts of the latest renovation. St. Lawrence libraries have continually evolved and changed. “For alumni however,” says Sipher, “they should know that we haven’t taken away the treehouses, or the retro room, and we are very committed to protecting the physical collections. When you walk in, it still feels like an academic library.”
Mergers and Acquisitions or Combining Libraries and Info Tech
The latest phase in ODY’s evolution is the integration of the Information Technology offices and combining the technology Help Desk with the Circulation Desk, located front and center at the entrance of the library. The 2017 renovations and relocation of IT office space from Madill Hall to the ground floor of ODY, however, is only one part of the story.
Collaboration between Libraries and Information Technology divisions goes back a few decades and runs parallel with the natural growth in our use of digital technologies in our living and learning environments, and in some ways, is the more relevant aspect of the latest ODY renovations.
“As we think about the library world evolving and scholarship being disseminated and shared both physically and digitally—as well as faculty and students now coming to both librarians and technologists for assistance—the historical lines between the two divisions were blurring and maybe even causing some confusion,” says Sipher. “So the opportunity to think about a more comprehensive division where technologists, librarians and staff comprehensively support teaching and learning caused us to think that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Combining Libraries and IT, now referred to as LIT, is not new, nor is it totally unique, explains Sipher, who was hired in 2012, as vice president for the newly reorganized unit overseeing both. As a small private liberal arts college, Sipher believes St. Lawrence has the advantage with this opportunity.
“Private higher education has some flexibility and agility that might not exist in public institutions or large research universities, and you need that flexibility and agility to execute for the greatest success. Not that this is a predominant design,” Sipher says, “those that are doing this, come largely from the liberal arts base. There is a community in this base that have paved the way over the last few decades.”
Eric Williams-Bergen, director of Digital Initiatives, is a good example of a modern information professional who crossed the historical boundary between librarian and technologist which is critical in supporting students and faculty in their scholarly endeavors.
“A good portion of my work crosses what has traditionally been two different groups. I work as much and as closely with the systems administrators or web developers as I do my colleagues in special collections and archives,” says Williams-Bergen. “So, my position is arguably one of the bridging positions between different departments and groups. When I’m working with faculty and students, it’s always with scholarly resources, but often in the digital realm. It means I have to be technically capable and also traditionally able.”
Scholarship and Pedagogy in the Digital Age
For faculty such as Judith DeGroat, associate professor of history, this translates into exciting partnerships for scholarship and pedagogy: taking full advantage of the additional instructional spaces, the proximity to resources, and the expertise now centralized in ODY.
DeGroat points to the glass seminar room, a room constructed in 2015 surrounded on three sides with glass and equipped with access to virtual collaboration spaces as well as digital display and audio capabilities for presentations, just opposite the newly renovated digital scholarship lab as the site for her senior research seminar.
“For the final research project, students composed a traditional paper: 25 pages of primary and secondary sources using written texts, images, audio, and maps,” DeGroat explains, “and then transformed the work into digital narratives.” DeGroat enlisted the expertise of Williams-Bergen and Public Service Librarian Rhonda Courtney to instruct the students on best practices for research and accessing and converting resources to strengthen their scholarship.
“It’s this nexus,” says DeGroat which she believes provides space for a powerful exchange.
“There are reasons why I have classes here and there are reasons why I teach in other spaces. The draw in ODY is that we are coming from all over campus, and the work of the University is going on right here. We are in the classroom, but we also see the students studying. We see them laughing and gathering here. We see the books and we see the computer screens. We can connect to things, we can disconnect from things, and concentrate on each specific task.”
A 21st Century Three-Legged Stool
All of what DeGroat describes is what Sipher considers a 21st century library, or using Sipher’s preferred metaphor, “a three-legged stool”: resources, services, and place.
Resources include the physical books, photographs, illustrations, papers, letters, documentation, and special collections and archives, while the digital resources include databases, licensed-access to scholarly information, subscriptions, and online journals. Combined, these materials are the nutrients that students rely on for their learning and faculty rely on to nourish their scholarship.
Independent of all those resources, people come to a library for instruction, assistance in research and the “how to” for navigating the physical and digital resources which constitute the services leg of the stool. According to Sipher, the service leg of the stool has and will always evolve to meet the needs of the community.
“It has changed from ‘how do I find something?’ to now ‘how do I know if what I found is good?’” says Sipher. “We are in this age of ‘fake news’ and overwhelming amounts of information online and in print. We are now asking young adults to do an academic paper and make sure that they are citing sources that are reputable. Simply having resources is not a solution, services such as instruction, research support, inter-library loan, copyright guidance, and teaching academic integrity are critically important.”
The third leg of the stool according to Sipher is the library as place.
“People come here for hours or days occasionally without the expectation of looking at a resource, without the expectation of using services, but they are coming to get away from the dorm room,” he says. “They want a quiet space to work alone, or they want to come to a room where they and their classmates can work together to be successful.”
Integrating the Front Lines
Steve Millington ’07, manager of the ODY Service Desk, can attest to that.
“When I used to come here as a student, just setting foot in the door made me feel more productive,” says Millington. “I think what people remember most about this building, or think of fondly is that ODY was their trenches. This is where they came when they needed to get something done.”
Spearheading the integration of the Help Desk services with the Circulation Desk, Millington has a lot to consider and even though the two services were officially combined in January 2017, the beta testing of thinking differently about how we offer our services stems back to 2011 and the integration process moving forward will be implemented in stages.
“In 2011-2012, we opened a satellite technology help desk in the library,” explains Millington. “Over time it has become the norm to have the technology component in the academic setting. We started to think about how and where we are delivering our services. With the library being the primary academic space for students and faculty, we decided that being here, front and center, is where we can better support them.”
As a 10-year IT professional, Millington understands the technological demands in education.
“We’re using technology to do everything that we do,” Millington says. “These students have grown up with technology in their lives from the minute they were born. It’s something that they expect to have, but also expect it to work, and if it is not working, they expect someone to fix it, and to fix it quickly.”
However, Millington also echoes the need for the bridging our historical ways of supporting the technological and library services provided. “Our community can have vastly different needs from us. We see some who call upon us more for access to scholarly resources and others who need us regularly for technical support. Both these are equally important for their success and it is their success we care about the most. Our new service desk is where you can see the digital and the physical worlds existing side-by-side” says Millington.
With this understanding, Millington’s integration approach to the technology Help Desk/Circulation Desk, now called the ODY Service Desk, is nuanced.
“I’m hesitant to use the term ‘concierge’ but when people just need help, they want to go to someone and just get help,” says Millington. “What we are spending a lot of time doing this semester is evaluating what makes sense for cross-training, what still makes sense for specialization and how those things fit together. We hope in the future to gain some efficiencies and expand our service offerings. The primary objective is to maintain our level of excellence while being side-by-side before we embark on integration so nothing falls through the cracks.”
Finding An Extra 6,000 Square Feet, Sustainably
Ironically, the physical relocation of the IT offices was the result of a completely unrelated request following a recommendation in the 2015 Diversity Commission Report to invest in and upgrade the collection of student services that were limited by, and had outgrown the Whitman Annex location. Master planners met with Whitman Annex leadership and honed-in on Madill Hall as an ideal location: close to academic departments, the student center, many of the residence complexes, and on the pathway to athletics. Currently under construction the new Center for Student Achievement will be a 21st Century reimagining of academic and career advising and services, centralize offices such as the First-Year Program, HEOP, McNair and CSTEP programs and other services overlapping to inform student success at every stage of their career.
For Sipher, this presented its own challenges: moving IT operations out of Madill.
“We were in a time that we needed to find a new and permanent home for IT, but yet,
we were not in a position that we wanted either financially or environmentally expand our carbon footprint,” says Sipher, who acknowledges that the impetus was not the creation of LIT, but admits, “we used this synergy to do something better. It was purely opportunistic.”
Sipher, Chief Facilities Officer Dan Seaman, and former Vice President for Academic Affairs Val Lehr huddled together with the master planners and architects to brainstorm out the problem. They began to realize that ODY could not only work, it could benefit the entire campus in multiple ways.
Was there pushback? According to Sipher, the answer was yes.
“First of all, we were introducing a fair bit of change,” says Sipher. “The operation on the first floor of Madill Hall is roughly 6,000 square feet. So, really we were asked if we could find 6,000 square feet of unused space in the library to move into, and the answer was ‘no’ from there being unused space, but the answer was ‘yes’ if we were going to think differently about some of our resources and what we do.” A shared-space philosophy developed into what Sipher believes became a “win-win scenario.”
The group was forced to really think about the value St. Lawrence places on student study space, instructional space, physical resources that, in some cases, may no longer be needed because intellectual property distribution and access has evolved. They were able to modify the space while not decreasing the student seating, which according to Sipher, was sacred. The redesign also focused on preserving physical resources that are critical to the library meeting the academic mission. “We figured out a way to make it work,” says Sipher.
For St. Lawrence the adoption of LIT as a combined unit, consolidated in ODY is logical and fits with the campus culture.
“As we work with students, faculty and community members, it is very rare for them to engage with the library’s collections and resources and not have it involve technology in some manner,” says Williams-Bergen, who also recognized that there are also the core library experiences that probably have not changed for decades: it is a place to go when you are trying to be productive and focus on your work. At St. Lawrence Williams-Bergen also notes that means it is a place where people just come to be together.
“I’ve been to a few libraries where it really looks like everyone is trying to find their own, very separate location to study and research. Some libraries have a quiet, shrine-like feel. That is not the culture here,” says Williams-Bergen. “We really do welcome people interacting with each other, while also respecting people’s need to actually get work done.”
This may also be true for the diverse collection of professionals now working side-by-side at ODY. Williams-Bergen points out: “Change is often difficult for people, and it can be disruptive, but I think we are already seeing library staff see the advantages of the proximity to IT, and I think we are going to thrive.”
“I am confident that fast-forward a couple of years, people will grow to appreciate the changes we’ve made,” Sipher says. “I don’t discount the challenge of change. We have to stay focused on how are we being both a good institutional citizen as far as accommodating current needs, and yet doing due diligence to protect what’s important for the University’s long-term success.”
For Millington, there is more personal connection: “It is hard for me sometimes to separate my feelings of being an alumnus from being a staff member. This place is very near and dear to me,” he says. “Students are very different now than when I was a student and although the nuances are different, fundamentally it is a very Laurentian experience here. I know what it’s like to be a Laurentian. I know what it’s like get here for the first time and feel overwhelmed by everything around you and then to slowly figure it all out and to feel supported.”
Learning Spaces A Critical Investment in the Future of St. Lawrence
This is the right moment to start planning strategically for new spaces that will help us be better at the thing we care about most. Check out this virtual tour of academic learning spaces to see how support can make a difference.