Halfway along the road from library to learning commons
As the new students at Bishop’s University settle into their first full week of classes and start to get to know their surroundings, some of them are no doubt taking the first of many future trips that standby of academic life: the school library. This year, however, the library is not looking the way people familiar with the school might expect.
Identified as the next big priority in the school’s ongoing battle with crumbling infrastructure, the John Bassett Memorial Library is in the middle of a massive transformation that began last year and is expected to continue through next summer. By the time the work is finished, the building will have changed from an often crowded and sometimes inefficient library with a tendency to show its age into a polished, modern “learning commons,” at a cost of roughly $17 million, if all goes according to plan. So what is a learning commons? According to James Crooks, Eliza Mcknight, and Lorraine Smith, the members of the project’s communications committee, it is essentially still a library, but one reorganized and re-imagined with the needs of a 21st century university in mind. Although the purpose of the building will still be to house the school’s 250,000 part collection of educational resources, the space has been designed with the intent to bring students together and foster opportunities to learn.
“It’s going to look very different: beautiful, modernized, bright, but it will still be a library,” Smith said. “The design is way more open, and they’re trying as much as possible to take advantage of the natural light and surroundings of the library,” the librarian added, noting that the new layout leaves nearly twice as much space for students as the old library.
“The abstract notion feeding the design was the tree of knowledge,” explained Crooks, the project director. “You have a central trunk running through the building that branches off into various services and areas of the library. The way they brought that to life was to make a big agora at the back of the building with a big set of steps, very wide, that you could use as a theatre or a lecture space or a study space,” he said, smiling as he added, “you can also go up from the first floor to the second floor; it’s beautiful.”
The plan also includes a café, more seating space and electrical outlets, and a concentration of student services behind one unified counter, all coming out of what Crooks described as an “integrative design process” in which a wide range of library users were consulted on what should go into the new building.
According to the project director, the renovation is currently on schedule with the focus at the moment being on getting as much work done on the exterior of the building as possible before the winter. If all continues as planned, then the building should be complete by the summer of 2018. Construction, however, is only one part of making the new learning commons ready for the start of the next school year.
“Organizing the move of this stuff is like the biggest project in the history of the university,” Crooks said. “It’s unbelievable.”
While the metamorphosis takes place, the services and much of the dayto-day collection of the library have moved across campus into a temporary structure on top of the school’s tennis courts. Although things are running smoothly now, Crooks pointed out that moving a library is not as simple as stuffing books in boxes and walking them across campus.
“Somebody has to know what they all are, where they all are, what boxes they are in, what order they go in,” he said. “Then you think, well, you did it once, so all you have to do is reverse the process, but no; the whole building is completely different. Moving back is going to be even more complicated”
Each of the committee members was extremely appreciative of the work of Sarah Heath, who coordinated the move into the current space, as well as the ongoing efforts of Daniel Bromby, who will be heading up the move back into the new space.
“We’ve measured (the collection), and we’ll measure it again one more time, probably two more times,” Mcknight said, pointing out that new shelving in new configurations means having to be extra certain of just how much space is needed. “Librarians are details people, we want to get it right.”
Although a great deal of work remains to be done, it is clear that those closes to the project are already excited about the potential of the end result.
Crooks pointed out that with the project on schedule right now, the incoming class of 2018 will be able to begin the year with a bright, brand new learning space.
“They’ll love it,” he said.
An artist's rendering of what the main staircase of Bishop's University's learning commons will look like once completed.
Right now the library is carefully compressed into a series of temporary trailers next to the university's sports complex.