Libraries as Place: A Response to Changing Needs


Published: October 31, 2016 by Michael Stephens

We have explored the foundations of socio-technological change and what the library as learning laboratory looks like.  Just as the availability of new ways of learning are possible, so have libraries begun to use networked capabilities to change their approach to satisfying the learning needs of the people in their communities. The library profession has also made strides in describing and typifying the learning needs of those they serve. Information literacy skills have long been taught by librarians across diverse settings in various institutions. Recent years have brought other designations to describe the impact of technology on such skills, such as transliteracy, metaliteracy, and digital literacies. Jenkins (2009) utilized  the term trans-media navigation as a descriptor for the new skills required for the new media landscape, including moving through multiple channels of media to learn about current and past events or experience stories. It could be argued, however, with ubiquitous access to networked communication technologies, these skills are now simply life literacies or how we make sense of the world. Simply, general human interaction with information. 

Evolving Space

What does this emerging environment mean for libraries, librarians, and library services?  Long before there were iPhones or social networking platforms of all size and stripe,  Buckland (1992) noted that delivering services to the end user – wherever they happen to be – was an important affordance of technology. Buckland essentially forecasted the onslaught of mobile and handheld devices that now offer always and anywhere access: “There is much greater opportunity to bring service to wherever potential users of library service happen to be.” (p, 65) With information services moving to networked delivery and accessibility by mobile devices, what becomes of the library as place? As lbrarians develop apps, seek to be embedded in their communities or with their constituencies, we note a shift in focus from primarily building collections to providing experiences and learning in the physical space.

This landscape is evident in recent studies such as the 2015 Horizon Report for Higher Education. One of the salient “Key Trends Accelerating Technology Adoption in Higher Education” that will drive technology adoption in higher education for the next one to two years is “Redesigning Learning Spaces.” The report states that “academic libraries across the globe are seeing a flurry of activity as their informal learning spaces are being reimagined to take advantage of the emerging maker movement,” and “the physical layout of university libraries is currently being redrawn so that row upon row of stacks containing books that have not been touched in decades can be archived to make room for more productive use of floor space” (p.18). The Ithaka S+R Library survey for 2013 also supports these findings: “There is ample evidence that library directors’ opinions about print collections are changing over time; a large majority of respondents agreed with the idea that building local physical collections is less important than it used to be” (p. 40). As library spaces move from warehouses of printed material, the utilization for space for collaborative, technology-driven learning is possible.

A multi-year study of University of Queensland students supports this idea of space for “networking.” Webster (2010) reported Queensland students “value the library as a place—somewhere that offers an academic ambience for their work, a forum for engagement with others, and a flexible space that meets their shifting needs during the cycle of the semester ”. As noted above, as collections shift to electronic media, libraries with prime real estate on college campuses may find student and faculty use of collaboration space, assisted by various technologies, to be a path forward to a re-imagined space enabling “hands on” learning. Understanding the design successful and useful services built on hands on learning could be a future challenge for administrators.

In the public library sector, there is a shift from warehousing materials to the teaching and learning function as well. The Digital Inclusion Survey longitudinal study from the American Library Association indicates this shift from an emphasis on collections to an emphasis on experience. A brief focused on digital literacies from the study (2015) noted that almost 90% of public libraries offer basic digital literacy training, and a significant majority support training related to new technology devices (62%), safe online practices (57%) and social media use (56%).  The trend of makerspaces and digital creation labs in libraries is also indicative of the evolving library space, focused on experience, creation and learning (Fontichiaro 2015).

DIY Learning

An emphasis on creativity and expression pervades recent publications with a socio-technical focus. In Cognitive Surplus (2010), Shirky argues that the Web and other technologies offer a means to easily share creative endeavors. Digital tools make audio, video, and other multimedia creations possible. With the advent of makerspaces and 3D printing, the concept of creation has taken on on a new dimension: machines now allow us to conceive, design and “print” a tangible object. Libraries and other information environments are exploring offerings that assist and instruct users on how to create a variety of objects and virtual materials. Doctorow (2013) argued that “[p]ublic libraries have always been places where skilled information professionals assisted the general public with the eternal quest to understand the world,” and maker spaces are a logical extension of that mission.

Examples of this concept are found in digital labs and creation and maker spaces available in all types of libraries. For instance, Penn State’s One Button Studio (2014) allow students to easily record and use video for course projects, while3 D printing of a prosthetic hand made national news at the Johnson County Public Library in Overland Park, Kansas (Williams 2014). These and other initiatives support the elements of the creative classroom model (2012): learn by creating, learn by exploring and learn by playing.


American Library Association (2015), Digital Inclusion Survey, Available from: http://

Buckland, M. (1992), Redesigning library services: A manifesto. American Library Association. Available from

Doctorow, C. (2013), Libraries, hackspaces and e-waste: How libraries can be the hub of a young  maker revolution. Raincoast Books. Available at:…

Fontichiaro, Kristin (2015), “Creation Culture and Makerspaces.” in Information Services Today,   ed. Sandra Hirsh. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 192 – 198.

Innovating Teaching and Learning Practices: Key Elements for Developing Creative Classrooms  in Europe (2012), Available from:

Jenkins, H. (2009), Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.

Long, M. P., & Schonfeld, R. C. (2014), Ithaka S+R US library survey 2013. Available from:…

(2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin Texas, New Media  Consortium.

One Button Studio, 2014, Available from:

Shirky, C. (2010), Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York, Penguin Press.

Webster, K. (2010), The library as learning space, Available from:

Williams, MR (2014), Kansas teen uses 3-D printer to make hand for boy. Available from:…


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