UMass/Amherst, Du Bois Library Learning Commons

Project Information


  • Informal Learning
  • Library
  • Study Carrel

People who walk into the new Learning Commons at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) all have the same reaction: "I've never seen a library like this!"

And that's exactly what the school was after. Granted, their main library still offers plenty of quiet spaces. But the lower level Learning Commons is the place to be for lively group discussions, interaction, collaboration, team studying, and lots of synergy—all the things today's students crave.

As Provost Charlena Seymour put it, "A campus library is the soul of an academic institution, and we want our students to spend quality time there exploring ideas and sharing insights with one another as they blur the lines between studying and socializing."

In the process of planning a renovation of the library, the school conducted a survey asking students how they felt about the current building. Their responses, such as "too uncomfortable," "not conducive to studying," and "too dark," were a real eye-opener.

"Our goal always is to help students be successful," says Terry Warner, assistant director for administrative services for the library. "So we knew we needed to make some big changes."

Working with several other campus departments and visiting two other universities with collaborative learning spaces gave the administrators some good ideas about what they wanted: tables and chairs that could easily be moved around, laptop ports, e-mail kiosks, two- to ten-person workstations, and lots of group study rooms.

The question was, Where do we start? The answer: with OFI Contract Interiors, their longtime Herman Miller dealer. "I contacted our rep, Jay Brady, and their designer, Stephanie Makowski, and said, 'We have the potential to do something really great here, but we don't know if it's possible. What can you suggest?'" recalls Warner.

Makowski and Brady put their heads together and came up with six different configurations, including glass-enclosed Ethospace study rooms and peninsula tables, Resolve workstations, Meridian storage, Caper chairs that easily scoot wherever needed, and lots of whiteboards.

The idea was to experiment with several different setups and see which ones the students liked best. It turns out, they love them all. The Learning Commons was so popular, in fact, that students began using it even before the installers were finished putting in the furniture. "They'd just walk around the barricades, sit down, and start working," says Ms. Warner.

Indeed, since the opening in September 2005, the number of students using the library has increased significantly: Usage was up 17 percent in October; 31 percent in November; and 44 percent by December. "All of our numbers are up," says Ms. Warner. "Our gate counts have increased about 20,000 per month over last year's figures."

The library has even decided to add hours to keep up with demand; it's now open 24/5. And talk about comfortable—some students actually brought along their PJs to change into! (Which was okay with library staff provided the students kept shoes on their feet.)

The Learning Commons is so impressive that it is now the first stop on the tour for potential or new students visiting the campus. And, on top of that, Microsoft recently named UMass Amherst its first "Information Technology Showcase School," calling it a "true pacesetter in higher education."

Ms. Warner says their "experiment" has been a huge success. "The response from the students has been just incredible. We get e-mails about it all the time. And the minute we add something new, they're right there, moving things around, and settling in. It's just as we envisioned it, and we couldn't be happier."

Photos courtesy of UMass/Amherst.