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Learning Commons Service Model
by Jennifer McCabe

Those who follow trends in libraries and academia are likely familiar with the use of the term “commons” to describe spaces on campuses.  Identifying a place or space as a commons implies a shared ownership of and responsibility for the space.  When describing spaces within libraries, “commons” is often paired with “information” or “learning” to distinguish them from traditional library settings where services often are offered isolation from each other.  As we prepare to open a new library building on the east campus, we'd like to explain how we envision the service model for the new East Campus Library.

The labels “Information Commons” and “Learning Commons” are sometimes used interchangeably, although how libraries define those spaces may vary widely.  We have decided to adopt the philosophy of a Learning Commons in the East Campus Library.  We envison a space where our users will receive assistance with all activities related to scholarship under one roof.  Services will be designed to support core information literacy skills and interconnected technology skills.

Architectural drawing of new library
Architect's rendering of East Campus Library main lobby.

The Learning Commons concept has evolved to address the ways students learn today--in environments that are media-rich, content rich, learner-driven, but still requiring mediation from professionals at various points along the continuum.  Inherent in our definition of a Commons is the chance for partners outside of the Libraries & Educational Technologies organization to contribute to the Learning Commons through programming, providing specialized training, and even through their use of the facility.


The decision to make the Learning Commons the foundation of services in the East Campus Library was driven by a confluence of market forces, a “new reference services model,” and the opportunity to build a new library.  The decision to establish a Commons is in itself an acknowledgement of the power of the market in driving what our users expect.  Market factors that influence the services in a Learning Commons include things like users’ preferences for portable devices, wireless computing, and 24/7 access.  Moreover, the University and the library are committed to preparing students to live and work in a world where technology is continually changing the way information is processed, a phenomenon that is driven largely by the market.  These are some of the issues that the Library and the entire JMU community must address if we are to remain relevant and responsive to our students’ needs and expectations.

Architectural drawing of new library interior
Architect's rendering of East Campus Library, second floor.


The “new reference model” includes a recognition of the increasing need on the part of library users not only to locate information but also to manipulate it.  The use of a tool like RefWorks is an example of this need.  RefWorks is a bibliographic management tool the library provides that allows users to download bibliographic citations and use them to create their own collections, create bibliographies, and collaborate with other users.  Another example of this kind of use is the Wharton Research Data Services resource licensed by the library.  At its core, this database consists of little more than collections of raw data; however, with appropriate mediation students and faculty can use data to create new knowledge. 


The third driving factor in the development of the Learning Commons is the once-in-a-generation opportunity we have to build a new library.  Obviously this library will address basic needs for collections growth space, student seating, collaboration space, and technology.  But by creating a Commons we are also affirming our commitment to the free exchange of ideas, the value of face-to-face interactions of all kinds, and the exploration of our shared knowledge.  The Learning Commons is being designed to foster creativity and to support scholarly and social interactions that result in learning.  By embracing the Learning Commons as the philosophical foundation of the East Campus Library, we are intentionally including our community in decisions about how the spaces will be used.  Parts of the building will include easily reconfigurable spaces, movable furniture, collaborative tools like white boards and large wall-mounted monitors, with the hope that the spaces will lend themselves to academic uses we have not anticipated. 


Another key element of the Learning Commons is the potential that will exist for partnerships with other campus departments.  The permanent occupants of the building will be library services, the Center for Instructional Technology, and the Center for Faculty Innovation.  Each of these departments brings a unique set of expertise to the building.  But there will also be spaces that may lend themselves to temporary occupancy by other campus organizations like the Writing Center, Student Success, and Information Technology.  This is another way that demand will help identify the services available in the building.


Perhaps most importantly, the Learning Commons service model depends on a well trained team of librarians, library assistants, professional support staff, and students who are prepared to meet the wide variety of needs students, faculty and scholars have.  Some of the skills our users need today are more complicated than those needed years ago.  Today’s students need to have core technology competencies, intermediate subject specific knowledge and sophisticated information literacy skills in order to work in the contemporary academic milieu.  Likewise faculty needs for resources and services are increasingly varied and technologically complex.  The Learning Commons model attempts to include the entire campus community in decisions about what we need in order to teach and learn.

Students in Carrier Library
COB 300 students working on a project in the Electronic Reference area.

Editor's Note: Our Learning Commons model is evolving from the services we provide and the way students use the Electronic Reference area at Carrier Library.  The public computers there offer access to library online resources, plus an array of Microsoft Office applications, FrontPage, and SPSS.  The main service point, the Public Services Desk, is staffed by librarians, paraprofessional staff, and students trained in assisting users with reference sources and database searching. 

A working group is currently identifying key planning issues which will inform our approach at both the East Campus Library and Carrier Library. A future renovation for Carrier Library will allow us to reach the goal of a Learning Commons service model across both campuses, offering a similar learning environment and a consistent experience for students and faculty regardless of location. Since the East Campus Library will be the first Learning Commons area with a unified service point and new types of technology, our experience there will provide information useful to planning for implementation at Carrier Library. Ultimately, the Learning Commons service model will allow us to meet a larger spectrum of user needs in an increasingly interrelated learning environment.


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