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Metamorphosing Into the Digital Age

U.S. college libraries have become spaces for digital research and collaborative learning. 

In the past two decades, U.S. college libraries have undergone a series of major transformations. These changes have happened at all levels of higher education, ranging from community colleges to Ivy League schools, and all across the United States. As libraries increasingly began subscribing to e-material, including e-versions of newspapers and journals, and later to e-books as well, more and more printed books were moved to storage spaces away from the universities. The leap toward digital material has created room for new ideas and possibilities within university libraries, opening up their spaces to various outlets that meet the changing needs of students and faculty. Traditional book lending facilities catering to individual research projects are beginning to morph into student hangouts, high-tech studios and maker rooms or makerspaces.

Remember signs asking you to speak in a low voice, or declaring that food or beverages are not allowed in the library? These indicators of silence and individual study are largely a thing of the past. Many libraries have been transformed to welcome students to get together, often allowing food and beverages, in an effort to encourage socializing, knowledge sharing and collaborative learning. This is aimed to make students comfortable, providing them with a space to spend productive time when not in classes, while having access to online and physical scholarship, interactive learning and collaborative projects.

While students across the United States have welcomed this change, especially undergraduate students, some graduate students and faculty are concerned about the changing identity of university libraries. Where are libraries heading? Is turning libraries into veritable cafés with books and computers for scholarly ambience really the right way to go?

The answer is that libraries are not abandoning scholarship. Traditional, individual work is still very much fostered and available. But, at the same time, libraries are meeting the needs of emerging forms of scholarly activity. Rising demand for technology and digital humanities, as an integral part of scholarship, has called for library spaces that cater to digital research, where people across fields can meet and work collaboratively on projects like data visualization, mapping and robotics.

The Butler Library Studio at Columbia University in New York City exemplifies this development. The studio was opened in 2013 in order to provide space for students and faculty to engage individually and collaboratively on digital projects. It is a collaboration between scholars, educators, librarians and technologists.

There have been a variety of workshops, talks and experimental method groups in humanities at the Butler Library Studio. Dennis Tenen, an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, is co-founder of the university’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities, which uses the Butler Library Studio frequently. “Faculty working on digital humanities projects were constrained by space. The new studio allows for cooperative research and scholarship,” says Tenen. “In the studio, at the same time, you have a historian, an English professor and an architect working on a digital project, which allows for interactive, interdisciplinary approaches toward subjects, whether it is data visualization, mapping, textual analysis or other digital projects.”

Another creative outlet, which is becoming increasingly popular at U.S. colleges, are makerspaces. Libraries are being converted into spaces with 3D printers, laser cutters, industrial sewing machines, tools for woodworking, welding and so on. At Columbia University, one such makerspace is located at the Seeley W. Mudd Building. It is open to all Columbia-affiliated individuals, including students, staff, faculty and post-doctorate fellows.

“Facilities like the makerspace allow students to express their creativity and work on their engineering and artistic skills,” says Ioannis (John) Kymissis, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Columbia Engineering. “Students don’t always have access to certain tools or equipment that they might otherwise want to try out, either for creative or practical reasons. They might want to monogram a jacket, fix their bike or build a sculpture using laser-cut plastic pieces. The makerspace lets them learn how to do this from their peers and provides the resources required to get projects done.”

Makerspaces give students an opportunity to work with tools and materials that are integral to their studies, and to gain practical experience while in college. They also allow them to work openly and collaboratively with others. In this way, libraries are moving simultaneously in various important, related directions, all of which share the common aim of fostering collaborative learning that inspires scholarship.

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.