Information Commons updates library experience

Author: Gail Hinchion Mancini


On the first floor of Notre Dames Hesburgh Library, theres a new venue with a very un-library-like vibe.

Students huddle in groups on adjacent couches, their feet on tables so they can prop up their laptops as they reach toward the finish line of a major project. At another grouping of comfy chairs, two students huddle over a paper, discussing its argument and grammar.

Is this a Starbucks? Wheres the latte?

Actually, it is an experiment in creating an Information Commons, a vision for how college libraries should serve students as research is increasingly conducted on the Internet. While a team of professionals helps students through various research questions and presentation projects, this carpeted environment with movable desks and chairs also encourages collaboration and teamwork.

The Information Commons is closing its inaugural year in time to inform deeper thinking about changes in the library. As part of a multi-year library renovation, the first floor is the next to undergo an update. And if this is to be the model, its likely to attract a lot of satisfied customers.

The happiest will be faculty and librarians, all who are aware that the Internet has instant access to a lot of poor material. For librarian Cheri Smith, who works the reference desk in the commons during the day, her goal is to help studentsdistinguish between scholarly sources and ‘other stuff.Her nighttime counterpart, Leslie Morgan, a reference librarian specifically assigned to first-year students, espouses the motto:Youre a scholar in the making. Theres a process for getting the appropriate information.

Managing electronic information is a key part of the curriculum of the First Year of Studies composition classes taught by the University Writing Program. Each student does a research paper. Learning how to appropriately cite information from the Internet is itself a problem in what Writing Program associate director Connie Mick callsa cut-and-paste society.

Learning to develop an idea into a research paper also should be seen as a social process, she says.

If youre not testing your ideas on a real audience, you may miss the mark,she says.

To encourage the discussion part of the process, first-year students make at least one visit to the Writing Center in the Coleman-Morse Center, which works with any undergraduate or graduate student on any writing project at any stage in the writing process.

Mick arranged to assign a Writing Program tutor Sunday through Thursday evenings in the Information Commons on a drop-in basis. Its a perfect format for quick questions. But for longer discussions, the upholstered couch the tutor occupies just suggestsLets talk.If a student sharpens his or her concept but has trouble starting the research, the reference librarian is only a few feet away, ready to offer assistance.

The Office of Information Technology manages the Universitys computer clusters, of which the Information Commons is one. An OIT student helper is on hand, offering to help students solve software puzzles involving PowerPoint, Excel and sophisticated graphics programs. Brian Burchett, one of several OIT staff members who helped launch the Information Commons, has noted that student workers are absorbing tips about Internet research work just by their proximity to the reference librarian. If they began to assist in research help, all the better, Burchett says.

By watching student use of the Information Commons evolve, OIT has itself learned that students use technology in different ways in different settings. Looking toward a renovation of the LaFortune Student Center cluster, Burchett has greatly increased pre-design student input, even involving architecture students.

Sherri Jones, head of reference and instructional services, is very committed to the vision of the Information Commons to help students learn to find good information. But glancing around the now-popular setting, she muses: When the first floor is renovated, the location might be even more popular if they leave a little space for that latte shop.

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