How Coffeehouse Culture Changed Your Library

July 09, 2018

Danielle CordaroBy: Dr. Danielle Cordaro, associate professor of English, director of the Digital, Written, and Oral Communication Studio, and chair of the Learning Commons Subcommittee

These days, everything we do seems more social. It all began in the 1990s, when coffee shops began springing up in suburbs and cities. Shows like NBC’s Friends popularized the coffee shop as a “third space”— a place between work and home to hang out with cool people, read, and work on your latest creative project. 

Today, organizations like businesses, schools, and public services, like libraries, are trying to leverage the decidedly social turn life has taken to provide workers, students, and citizens with socially informed third spaces in which to work, study, and create. 

People who don’t spend a lot of time in libraries are sometimes surprised by what they see when they step into their local branch. As books, journals, and other bibliographic materials have become available and more popular in digital formats, many libraries are purging outdated print materials to make room for creative social spaces like coffee shops, makerspaces, business incubators, tech labs, and sound studios. For example, my hometown library, the Akron Public Library, has a makerspace that includes access to creative tools that would ordinarily be out of reach for most people, like 3D printers and a studio with professional sound recording equipment. The library also recently added cake pans, a seed catalogue, and even a high-end sewing machine to its impressive array of creative resources. 

At Mount Union, the library is also undergoing a host of changes that reflect this larger movement. In the early 2000s, University librarians discovered that the needs of their student patrons were changing. Students were demanding workspaces in libraries that were like coffee shops — places where they could grab some light food and drink and meet for work dates — with the resources of librarians and bibliographic material close at hand. These early spaces were called information commons.

Later, learning commons took the idea of the information commons further by providing students with all of their study, research, and academic needs in academic libraries. Writing centers were some of the first academic support units to be included in these re-imagined spaces, quickly joined by tutoring centers and math labs. Other services, like tech support, became elements of many learning commons as student life became inextricably bounded to technology. Today, creative elements like makerspaces and business incubators have become fixtures in learning commons.

For a private university of its size, Mount Union’s Kolenbrander-Harter Information Center (KHIC) boasts an impressive learning commons. A large space that formerly housed print periodicals is now home to the KHIC Café and Commons. The café menu includes hot and cold wraps and sandwiches, deli items, and of course, coffee, and is open at times of high traffic in the library. 

DWOC

The attached KHIC Commons is an ideal space to consume those caffeinated beverages in the company of other students; it emphasizes collaboration and includes three conference rooms and several open spaces equipped with whiteboard tables, movable glassboards, media:scape carrels, and other resources that support social engagement in academic and creative work. The IT Helpdesk, located in the same space, received a makeover with a sleek new service area that allows for easier engagement with students and faculty. 

Recently, Mount Union librarians, in collaboration with professors and the Regula Center for Public Service and Civic Engagement, have added a Civic Corner engagement kiosk to the KHIC Commons, where students can learn about issues like redistricting and register to vote.

Another denizen of the Learning Commons, the former Writing Center, has transformed into the Digital, Written, and Oral Communication Studio in an effort to meet the needs of 21st century communicators. As it always has, it provides students with consultations on their writing, but now it offers similar resources for public speaking, as well as a multimedia production lab equipped with digital design software and consultants trained to help students think through the affordances of different modes, mediums, and technologies. Hardware, like video cameras and professional sound recording equipment, is also available for checkout through the Library Circulation Desk. 

As always, reference librarians are available to help with research projects, with an improved service area that makes it easier for them to interact with patrons. 

What does the future hold for Mount Union’s library? This year, the Learning Commons Subcommittee has been hard at work conducting focus groups with students to inform the design of quiet study space in the library. The quiet study space, like the social KHIC Commons, will provide open and enclosed spaces, but will be equipped with furnishings designed to encourage quiet individual and group study. Future additions may include an academic tutoring center and a business incubator that would integrate a large plotter printer and possibly 3D printers, as well as other resources typically available in makerspaces. These spaces will help provide areas to assist students with innovations that transcend traditional learning.

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