When we hear the word library, any number of things might come to mind (depending on our age, our experience, and so on). Perhaps we think of row upon row of bookshelves, or of enforced silence (!), or of a comfortable chair to sit in while we read a newspaper or magazine. Or overdue fines we wish we didn’t have to pay. Or the experience of discovery. Or the exhilaration of finding a topic that seizes our imagination, and having all the resources at hand to pursue that topic as far as we desire. Or the sense of empowerment that comes from being able to search full-text databases and find top quality resources quickly and conveniently.
Still there truly is no single word that accurately captures all that a library does, or what a library is. This is one reason why other words are sometimes put forward as substitutes. Think of it this way: if the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of library is “a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for people to read, borrow, or refer to”, it shouldn’t surprise anyone when people decide that “library” just isn’t a roomy enough word to encompass all that libraries do.
There was a time (I think in the 1970s and 80s) when many an academic library was renamed a “learning resource center”, or “LRC”. For what it’s worth, when that term was in vogue many people still called these places “libraries” anyway, perhaps out of habit, or perhaps because “LRC” didn’t seem to offer any real improvement over the earlier designation. Or (now I’m just speculating) because “”LRC” lacked the academic or historical cachet of “library”. (I doubt whether anyone at The University of Oxford ever proposed rebranding the library “The Bodleian Learning Resource Center”). A less frequent variant of “LRC” is simply “learning center”, which is even less satisfactory: a golf course close to my home has a sign on its property that reads “Driving Range and Learning Center”, and I’d be surprised if that facility includes anything that resembling a library.
To be fair, these alternate designations are aimed not so much at what the sign on the building(s) should say as what the services, resources, and activities are, answering the question of “what is the unique function of the library?” Which is well worth being curious about, because libraries are much more fluid, integrative, and multi-faceted places than they used to be.
Meanwhile, here at Bethel, there’s similar room for discussion, potential confusion, and (we hope) useful clarification. Bethel has several libraries, and they are differ in their functions, collections, or services. As they should differ. Within the Bethel University Library’s current space there is an “Information Commons”: a shared service point between the library’s Reference Services, and Teaching and Learning Technology, and Information Technology Services. Here is a brilliant example of effective collaboration which, while housed in the library, is not identical to the library, nor is it owned by the library, nor does it represent all that the library does. And it is heavily used by various members of the community, few of whom know (or need to know) what the difference is between “the library” and “the Information Commons” (“IC”), or for that matter between the different groups who staff the IC.
This intriguing matrix of functions and labels and collaborative ventures has surfaced again, though in a different way, with the recent Campus Master Plan 2 (CMP2) events around campus. Bethel’s recent purchase of a 200,000 square foot office complex nearby has, for excellent reasons, prompted a review of the original 2012 Campus Master Plan. And we are intrigued by the ways that Bethel’s diverse, ongoing needs for quality research sources and services are being revisited as part of important discussion. In the CMP2 conceptualizations, the concept of a “Learning Commons” (not to be confused with “Information Commons,” or “Learning Center,” or “Learning Resource Center”!) has surfaced again and again. Since the CMP2 Task Force is being asked to come up with recommendations (based on extensive discussions within the entire Bethel Community), we may as well know what we are talking about.
I had a few questions on this (“what does Learning Commons mean?”) for Dean Rodeheaver (Senior Campus Planner with Credo Higher Education), and he said that “we typically distinguish at a global level a Library (access to print collections with other sources of information also available), an Information Commons (access to digital, print, and other forms of information but organization around accessing and using information in all forms), and a Learning Commons ([which] can include all the elements of an information commons but is organized around helping students and faculty learn and teach, so includes elements like academic support).”
Confused yet? Think of it this way: the notion of “library” centers mostly around resources (whether print or electronic or media) and the spaces in which they are accessed; the notion of information commons steps beyond what libraries have traditionally excelled at, to bring in further collaborations and create new synergy in as integrated a fashion as possible; in our case, for the purposes of making the most of the CMP2 process for our community, learning commons means asking ourselves what additional partnerships can be brought into play.
It’s been good for me to have to think this through in the context of new campus-wide discussions. I hope you’ll feel free to ask me any questions you might have, as the conversation continues. Just so, when we say “library”, the word will mean what we think it means.