Jan 09 2018

Libraries Find New Ways to Flourish in the Digital Age

Modern learners seek flexible spaces and guidance on digital literacy.

In many respects, today’s campus library bears little resemblance to the quiet, book-filled building of years past. But that doesn’t mean libraries — and their custodians of knowledge — are on the margins when it comes to educating students. Many institutions are finding new tools and new strategies to help libraries stay relevant in the digital landscape.

In higher education, 21st-century librarians are seeing a redefinition of their roles, moving from stewards of physical information to educators on digital literacy. Institutions are also taking a new look at library buildings, which are becoming less about offering a refuge for quiet, independent study and more about creating opportunities for creativity and collaboration.

But whether their purpose is to host a makerspace or old-fashioned book stacks, one thing is clear: University libraries are here to stay.

Libraries Meet Their Missions, Digitally

On most campuses, librarians are still the caretakers of academic information. It’s simply that the format of that information is moving increasingly toward digital. To support modern research, the New Media Consortium (NMC) finds that libraries will need to offer students access to the digital versions of scholarly research, much of which now includes complex data sets and visualization.

Libraries also need to increase students’ ability to access digital resources. Ringling College of Art and Design set out to create a library that would better provide its students with the services they actually need. One must-have feature, for example, was a 24-hour computer lab.

Flexible Workspaces Foster Collaboration

Changing study habits also give libraries an opportunity to transform their physical spaces. When it comes to renovations, researchers have found that 50 percent of librarians favor spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate the needs and preferences of individual users. Most commonly, institutions are redesigning libraries to make them suitable for collaboration — meaning open, social spaces where small and large groups can gather, interact and share materials.

For example, Norwich University in Vermont sought to create more high-tech collaboration spaces in its library by designing 11 group study rooms that have movable furniture and shared monitors that are compatible with a variety of devices.

Modern Librarians Need Digitally Savvy Librarians

The emphasis on digital data and collaborative space also frees up librarians to focus on one of their most traditional responsibilities: helping to increase student literacy.

In today’s campus culture, NMC finds that librarians are integral to ensuring students have a solid understanding of the digital resources they are using for academic work. For example, librarians can help students get better at identifying credible resources and thinking critically about the information they find, two skills that many young scholars need to develop, according to another NMC report.

These and other changes are also influencing the way that institutions teach the next generation of library professionals, with the aim of better training them for the new demands of modern libraries. At the University of Michigan, a new library science program will create education models that define the library as a research lab and help future librarians navigate the complex tasks of supporting researchers.

Digital Tools Give Libraries Staying Power

Despite naysayers who predicted that the millennial generation would spell the demise of printed books, university libraries are here to stay. By embracing digital tools and flexible spaces, libraries will continue to be relevant to college campuses. In fact, digital tools have made it even easier for libraries — and their caretakers of knowledge — to serve patrons in their quests for knowledge and understanding.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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