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Skeen Library Evolving with Changing Needs of Students

By Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M. – The Joe Skeen Library at New Mexico Tech smoothly made the transition to the Digital Age, but the evolution isn’t complete.

Library Director Owen Ellard and his staff are constantly rethinking library concepts – and the results are astounding. The gate count increased 16.8 percent from September 2007 to September 2008 – from 15,136 visitors to 17,691.

Ellard said the trend is visible in every month and every day of the week. He attributes the increased patronage to a long list of profound changes.

“The predominant view of a library was the service warehouse model,” Ellard said. “Libraries went out and got stuff – books and journals. We cataloged it, housed it and helped people find it. The physical space was a warehouse. That has radically changed in the last 10 years.”

The biggest change in the academic sense is the move towards digital journals. Just six years ago, New Mexico Tech subscribed to 800 journals – all in hard copy form. Now, the library holds subscriptions to more than 30,000 journals – with only 300 in print. Faculty and students can access these journals from their office, from home or from any location with Internet connection. In coming years, libraries will see more books delivered digitally as well.

“The need to come to the library to find a journal is all but gone,” he said. “That begs the question: ‘What happens to the library as a place?’ Our gate count is up. Why? That’s the central question. I think it’s the design of the library as a learning space. We are providing space for collaborative learning, for technology and for people to come together— A place to meet, plan, research, and produce academic work.”

That significant change has certainly improved the Skeen Library’s service; however, Ellard attributes much of the change to a change in philosophy.

He has spearheaded a concerted effort to transform the Tech library from the stereotypical quiet zone to a more interactive area.

“It’s a shift from warehouse to learning environment,” Ellard said. “There’s a social aspect to a library. Students meet at the library. Even if they are studying alone, there’s a sense of being in a community.”

The library staff has made an effort to establish multiple styles of learning spaces within the library. The traditional carrels are available for solitary study behind the stacks on all floors. Tables are available for group interaction in central areas.

“We have a diversity of environments,” Ellard said. “Students can pick and choose. The cubicles are still popular, but it’s not the sole type of environment.”
Open spaces with easy chairs are also available. A subtle shift in library operations is that the staff doesn’t re-arrange the furniture. If a group of students pull a group of easy chairs together, the staff typically leaves it be.

“We don’t arrange the rooms; we just put the tools there,” he said. “We have collaborative learning areas in the library with movable chairs, movable white board and plasma screens. In the past, one of the jobs for student workers was to put chairs back in their places. That sends a message that isn’t acceptable anymore.”

The front lobby features – in addition to a coffee shop –three computer pods, each of which can accommodate at least three seats quite easily.

“It’s not just the book, or the computer or the space or the research assistance or the coffee; it’s a more holistic approach to the learning experience.”

On the second floor, the Skeen Library features a computer lab, a conference room and a collaborative learning room, which features computers with oversized monitors designed for group projects.

The library has expanded its offerings in non-academic and non-traditional areas. Students can now check out digital cameras, graphing calculators and video cameras. The library also offers a wide range of movies on DVD and Blu-Ray, graphic novels (don’t call them comic books) and novels from the New York Times bestseller list.

“You are witnessing a shift in libraries,” Ellard said. “If we are contemplating change, we always ask students their opinion. Before, libraries thought they knew what people needed. We’ve seen a huge shift away from that to a participatory design.”

– NMT –