Uncommon Learning in the Information Commons

On Friday, August 12, I attended the Ohio Private Academic Libraries (OPAL) 2011 Annual Conference.  The theme was “Uncommon Learning in the Information Commons.”  This was my second time I’ve been invited to the OPAL conference, and I had a great time.  I found the sessions useful, and I enjoy learning from others about how they do things.  My notes for the conference are below.


Design and Construction of an Information Commons —  Jack Hedge from the Design Group, Columbus, OH
Jack was the principal designer of our Learning Commons at Alden Library.  Jack went through a lot of reasons for changing our facilities to meet the needs of our users, and demonstrated through pictures and comment how he has put theory into action.  While he was talking, I was taking notes for our next session, where Jack and I led a discussion about Learning Commons issues.  My talking points and comments are in the next section.

Breakout Session 1

Information Commons Discussion — Chad Boeninger, Ohio University Libraries, and Jack Hedge, Design Group
Jack opened the session with a few slides depicting what the second floor used to look like before the Learning Commons renovation.  He showed how the Learning Commons fit into the Library Master plan and inside the “Zone of Immersion”  (floors 2-4 in Alden Library).  It would be nice if we had all the money in the world so that the plan could be fully realized.  I’m not retiring any time soon, so I guess we’ll see.   After his talk, I gave a brief run-through of Wanda’s 2009 “Day in the Life of the Learning Commons” study, which shows a one-day snapshot of how the floor is being used.  I followed that up with some comments based on Jack’s presentations:
  • Building/Designing around a culture :  Our desk, when built in 2004, was designed to have a Library Services (Reference) side of the desk, and a Technology Services (OIT) side of the desk.  Both services are now manged by the library, but we still have the huge, separate, bunker-like (Jack’s words) desk.  I wish we had a little more foresight to make our service desk more flexible.
  • Information Commons is not just about the building.  With the changing of the library environment, student expectations of service will change.  Patrons do not simply just ask librarians to find stuff anymore, but rather ask them Word and PowerPoint formatting questions, how to scan, and much more.
  • Jack mentioned that the Learning Commons is the place for students to see and be seen in a social, academic environment.  Likewise, it is a place for us as librarians to be seen as well.  In December 2010 we started wearing nametags to indicate that we were library employees (as opposed to faculty, janitorial services, etc).  Anecdotally, we have a lot more people stop to ask us questions now that they know we are “official”.  Sometimes it makes getting to the restroom a bit challenging.
  • Someone asked Jack about the noise level in Learning Commons environments.  I remarked that I find it noisier during the quieter times of the year.  That is, voices carry more when there are less people on the floor, so it seems noisier.  When the floor is packed with people, all of the voices together make a nice “hum” that drowns out individual voices pretty well.
  • What’s in a name?  When we first moved to the floor, we always answered the phone “Alden Library Learning Commons, this is (state your name) can I help you?”  However, we know that students do not call the floor “Learning Commons”;  they call it “The Library”.  As a result, we have changed how we answer the phone back to just “Alden Library”.  A lot of Learning Commons environments are created with donor money, so be careful how you call the space so you don’t get so stuck with a name that doesn’t mean anything to your users.
  • Patterns of users:  As I walk through our space on a daily basis, it is interesting to see certain patterns of use by individuals.  Sometimes the Learning Commons is just like church on Sunday in that people stake out a place and sit there religiously.  It’s these folks, our regular users, who I am more inclined to say “hi” to.
  • Food Policy:  We no longer have a food policy. Long story short, if you don’t have a food policy to enforce, then you can’t get in trouble with custodial services for not enforcing your food policy.  We got rid of ours and now spend our energies encouraging folks to clean up after themselves instead of simply saying “no”.
  • I voiced my concern that Learning Commons are still being designed around the desktop computing environment.  It is hard to tell where technology will go in the next 5-10 years, but I can guarantee it will get smaller, lighter, and more mobile.  We have to be looking for different ways to use the space, because the time will come when students won’t come to a Learning Commons simply for the computers.  How will we enhance our services?  What will we change that students will still find useful?

Breakout Session 2

Hiring and Training Student Workers:  Learners, Teachers, Innovators — Audra Hammond, Access Services Coordinator and Circulation Supervisor for Blufton College
Audra described her hiring and training process for student workers.  She is lucky in that she can bring her students in the week before school starts, so she can do training without the other distractions of the first week of school.  Audra gives each student and employment guide (in writing) and goes over this with each student.  The student then signs a legal document that says that the student went over the Employment Guide with the supervisor, and the student understands it.   I’d like to do something like this.  Our staff would need to be familiar with the Employment Guide as well, as that would allow all staff members to be more consistent in holding students accountable.  Audra also mentioned that she has a training dinner for all of the students.  That could be fun for our Reference/Technology students to all get together a couple of times a year.

Breakout Session 3

Using Site Scripter to Assess Circulation Student Worker Siklls —  Collette Knight, Circulation Coordinator for Defiance College
Collette demonstrated how she used Google Forms (not Site Scripter, as she was looking for “free”) to collect information about how students answered questions.  She uses the questions to understand more about her students, who needs to develop, how many times they are referring questions, etc.  She is using the data for develop interpersonal skills and problem-solving training for her students.  The form is very similar to Libstats, but it does ask additional information such as who did they refer the question to, how hard was the question, and more.  While she was presenting, I thought of a couple of ideas.
1.  What if we required students to ask at least one other person if they are unsure of an answer.  They should not be allowed to say “I don’t know”
2.  Collette showed a YouTube clip that was created with Xtranormal.  We could use Xtranormal to script movies depicting positive and negative customer service experiences.

4 thoughts on “Uncommon Learning in the Information Commons

  1. I like that idea about requiring student employees to ask at least one person if they are unsure. You should bring that up at the Customer Service meeting this week when we talk about student employees!

  2. i totally agree with Kelly, I think asking someone BEFORE they get to “I don’t know” would be great.

  3. Thanks for sharing your notes from this conference. It’s great to hear about what was discussed, since we can’t all attend everything! 🙂

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