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January 12, 2017

At the Earl Center for Learning and Innovation, a branch of Wheelock College’s library, “flexibility” is the key word, says the center’s Assistant Director, Mare Parker O’Toole. (Lydia Emmanouilidou/WGBH)

Inside the Earl Center for Learning and Innovation, a branch of Wheelock College’s library, three glass walls separate a bright space about the size of three classrooms.

“It’s incredibly flexible.... The walls can disappear in about ten minutes flat into the wall,” said Earl Center Assistant Director Mare Parker O’Toole. “Everything folds up. Everything is on wheels.”

Over the past few years, this branch of the library has undergone a major transformation.

“This originally was a space in another building, in a basement, and it was sort of gloomy and much, much smaller,” O’Toole said.

College libraries throughout the country are undergoing similar transformations -- upgrading their facilities and creating more comfortable, flexible spaces where students can work alone or in groups.

But the Earl Center represents the future of where college libraries are heading in more ways than one.

“The whole place is a Makerspace, which is the term that they’re using now for a place you come and invent and make stuff. We’re the space where the students come to actually make the things they’re learning about,” O’Toole said.

Students who visit the Earl Center can use tools like 3D printers and 3D scanners. There’s a sink, floors that are designed to get wet, and cabinets full of art supplies.

At the Early Center for Learning and Innovation, a branch of Wheelock College’s library, shelves are filled with art supplies and other materials students can use to “create the things that they’re learning about,” says the center’s Assistant Director, Mare Parker O’Toole . (Lydia Emmanouilidou/WGBH)

“I think that what we’re seeing in the transformation of the library is mirrored in the transformation of classroom space,” said Scott Cohen, Associate Professor of twentieth-century British and postcolonial literatures at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.

Stonehill recently upgraded its facilities and is looking into designing a Makerspace of its own. Cohen says he and his colleagues welcome these changes, because they encourage the sort of collaboration many professors now expect in their classrooms.

“We’re going towards something much more active and focused on students becoming agents of their own learning and building things and creating things with the guidance of a faculty member, rather than the guidance of a sage in front of a classroom,” Cohen said.

To make room for these collaborative spaces, librarians are making very conscious choices about how to use the precious library real estate.

“The space crunch is real,” said Chris Bourg, Director of MIT’s Libraries, adding that librarians are beginning to consider cutting back on their physical book and periodical collections. 

“College libraries used to think about their collections as being inspiring just by sheer size and now we’ve been forced, I think in a good way, to think about… the content and... how do we make sure that the content that takes up this precious campus real estate really resonated with our communities,” Bourg said. 

This might mean that more libraries will begin specializing in areas that make sense for their campus communities. 

"One school might decide to collect really heavily in manuscripts and scholarship coming out of Spain, and another might say 'We’ve got a very active German studies program so we’re gonna collect heavily there.' There’s no need for every library to collect all of that,” Bourg said.

As they begin to reimagine their physical collections, librarians are also thinking about how to make their digital collections richer and more accessible.

Chris Bourg is Director of MIT's Libraries. (Wayne Vanderkull)

In 2015, Bourg was tasked with convening a task force to study this precise issue. 

In its preliminary report released in October, 2016, the taskforce concluded that MIT’s libraries “must operate as an open, trusted, durable, interdisciplinary, interoperable content platform that provides a foundation for the entire life cycle of information for collaborative global research and education.”

“The current scholarly communications system is full of roadblocks and friction,” Bourg said.

Making the online experience as frictionless and seamless as possible for the campus community and beyond is no easy task. When compared to physical collections, digital ones are often more expensive and laborious to build and maintain.

“You can leave a book on a shelf in the right conditions -- the right environmental conditions -- for a long, long time and never touch is and pretty darn sure that it’s still gonna be there and in good shape 100 years from now. You can’t do that with a digital file,” Bourg said. "To capture the content in a book or manuscript really well at the right resolution, to make sure that the content is in a format that is searchable and discoverable and it’s in some kind of online environment that is safe and reliable and trusted both short term, immediate access but also long-term [is challenging and expensive],” Bourg said.

And, according to librarians, succeeding in creating a rich and accessible online environment is a double-edged sword.

"As more and more information goes online there is a sense among some segments of the public that – so much is online, do we really need libraries anymore?," Bourg said. "A couple of answers to that: not everything is online, and I think libraries have a big responsibility to help the public learn what they’re missing if they’re not accessing things that are not readily available through a Google search."

When students are accessing information through a Google search, Bourg says librarians are now more needed than ever to help them distinguish between what’s fake and what’s real. According to a recent Stanford University study, students – even at the college level -- do not possess that skill.

Still, Bourg says, despite all these changes, some things will remain the same: Libraries -- especially ones with valuable collections and manuscripts (think Harvard’s Widener library) -- will still have books, far into the future. 

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