Print Page   |   Sign In   |   Register
TL v61n2: The Learning Commons : Build It...and They Will Come
Share |


Tennessee Libraries

Volume 61 Number 2



The Learning Commons: Build It...and They Will Come


Dr. Pam Dennis, Learning Commons Coordinator

Ned McWherter Library

University of Memphis


Current Issue | Archives | Call for Papers | Contributor Guidelines | Contact Us


First of all, what is a learning commons?  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), a commons refers to the common people or a community.  It is “the body of free citizens, bearing common burdens, and exercising common rights.”  A commons also includes “provisions provided for a community or company in common; the common expense of such provisions; also the share to which each member of the company is entitled.”

In the 1980s, administrators talked about the library in the past tense.  In 20-year plans, the library building was noticeably missing since there would not be a need for a bricks-and-mortar library by the 21st century (or so they believed). The introduction of the World Wide Web in 1993 brought information faster and more conveniently, and we all know that everything we could possibly need is on the Internet, right?   Why would we need libraries?

Librarians embraced this challenge and recognized that the library’s role was changing.  The library is now viewed as a “place,” not just a building where books are protected and patrons stare at each other in forced silence (Beagle, 2006, p. 3).

To meet the new technological age, librarians placed rows of computers in the middle of the floor and pushed the books aside, either through massive weeding projects or off-site storage facilities.   They added staffed service centers such as media services, academic computing services, and centers for instructional technology.  They changed their names to Information Commons to incorporate both books and technology.  New buildings were erected and there was massive renovation since libraries were not originally built to accommodate computers and their accompanying wiring needs.  Between 1992 and 2001, colleges and universities spent an average of $449 million annually on library construction, and approximately 2,874,000 gross square feet of space were renovated or built annually (Bennett, 2003, p. 3). 

But the sterile title, Information Commons, suggested that, though information was readily provided, learning may or may not take place.  Scott Bennett (2003), Yale University librarian and author of Libraries Designed for Learning, recognized the problem when he stated that “as long as the accommodation of reader needs is narrowly conceived and secondary to provisions for library service operations, the full value of higher education’s invest¬ments in library space will go unrealized” (p. 6).  With the overwhelming glut of information on the Internet and through the media, students found themselves overwhelmed.  It is not that they could not find information; they found too much information! 

In the meantime, students decided that they did not need to go to the library since they could access databases and other online resources from their dorms and apartments.  They could go to bookstores and drink coffee while reading.  They did not appreciate all the service areas that librarians so carefully created, because they did not know what services they needed.

So, what were libraries to do?  Bennett (2003) conducted extensive surveys that determined that students preferred to study in groups and that faculty should redesign their curricula to accommodate creative and critical problem solving.  Students needed more, and thus was born the concept of the Learning Commons (pp. 3-5).

Susan McMullen (2008), Roger Williams University, takes it one step further and describes the Learning Commons as a “dynamic place that encourages learning through inquiry, collaboration, discussion and consultation” (p. 1). It combines functions and activities (writing centers, advising, tutoring, instruction, etc.) and provides a “more seamless integration of services through collaborative partnerships throughout the entire building” (McMullen, 2007, p. 23).

Based on her definition, the Learning Commons is not just a place to receive information but requires the user to participate actively in that receipt for, after all, the word “learn” is a verb.  According to Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown (2010) in their book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, by becoming involved in the process everyone has ownership and everyone is then accountable for its success (pp. 22-23).

Eventually, many libraries combined service points to a central collaborative desk--a triage area for one-stop shopping--to provide reference assistance, technology advice, and referral to specialists.  Some areas that might be included in a Learning Commons environment include the following:  research/reference help (including online tutorials), IT assistance, computer workstations with various software, collaborative learning spaces, presentation support centers, instructional classrooms, writing/math centers, tutoring, cafés, and spaces for meetings, seminars, and programs.

The present McWherter Library at The University of Memphis includes many of these features.  Built in 1994, it is equipped with several classrooms (one particularly designed for hands-on instruction accommodating 35 students at computers), numerous large and small group study areas, and spaces for programming, including a large, inviting Rotunda.  Service points were combined and a Research and Information Services (RIS) desk was created.  The students no longer visit a Government Publications, periodicals, or microform desk for information but are served at the RIS desk, where knowledgeable staff use each other’s strengths to answer all types of questions.  While change was difficult at first because of new job roles and expectations, the combined expertise provides more centralized service to the students.

The Learning Commons at U of M was an idea conceived by the Information Technology Division (ITD).  Always meant to be two separate areas, ITD and the University Libraries administration sought a way to combine strengths.  A university-wide committee chaired by the Provost made suggestions for the first-floor physical arrangement.  After visiting Learning Commons at Emory University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Georgia, the Libraries committee (under the Dean of the Libraries) made the final decisions on how best to use the space. 

Adding databases, such as Web of Science, paved the way for discontinuing or moving many indexes to make way for more computers.  The 24-hour lab, adjacent to the front entrance and managed by ITD, became part of the Learning Commons, some computers being placed on the first floor, others on two upper floors.  Scanners and equipment accommodating students with disabilities were added.  In this way, computers became functional but spatially integrated into the building’s overall design.

Einstein’s Brothers Bagels moved into the former computer lab space, providing a welcomed feature that did not disrupt the first-floor research area.  Photocopy rooms on upper floors became User Assistance rooms where student workers provide point-of-contact service.  The Learning Commons truly has become a blend of expertise from all areas. 

The original plan called for a 24-hour Learning Commons.  However, though the students would still like that to be the case, staffing was an issue.  Statistics showed that there were few questions asked after midnight, the students primarily wanting the space for study.  A computer lab facility was built in the new University Center shortly afterward, providing 24-hour access.  To avoid costs in providing security at both locations, hours in the library were reduced to closing at midnight with 24-hour schedules reserved for exam times.

Today’s students want personalized services.  They want help where they are without having to hunt for assistance.  They might not think to search databases nor the online catalog nor look for electronic books on the library’s webpage.  They do know they can query Google and find information quickly.  Roving librarians in many libraries are now armed with iPads, cell phones, and pagers in order to provide more in-depth service.  Self-checkout screens and library catalogs that are designed for mobile technology enable students to get information quickly rather than having to stand in line at circulation counters and at OPACs.  Libraries had to adjust by introducing federated searching and becoming more visible through social networking since that is where the students “live” on a daily basis (Cox, 2008, p. 3-11). 

Students want social space as well as quiet space, surfaces for their stuff, technology everywhere, collaborative group work space, access to experts, and comfortable environments so they do not have to leave the building (e.g. food and drink).  They also need electrical wiring for laptops and access to USB ports or network drives (McMullen, 2008, p. 2).  It is not enough that microform machines now print; they must accommodate removable storage devices.  Computers must not only download pictures and music but must be capable to creating videos in a few keystrokes.

“The only thing that is constant is change” (McMullen, 2007, p. 24).  And that is what happens in the Learning Commons.  Change continually takes place to accommodate students’ needs.  Librarians at Florida State University believe that “Our space, services, staffing will all be shaped by what users tell us—not by what we assume or by what we want to give users.  In this way, we will never be finished building this space; it will be a dynamic, (r)evolutionary space” (Stuart, 2009, p. 14).

We are no longer dealing with the traditional library.  Table 1 demonstrates how the traditional library and the Learning Commons differ:

Traditional Library

Learning Commons


Hard copy and physical artifact 

Electronic and digital information

Materials either on-site or unavailable immediately (interlibrary loan)

Material created and integrated by downloading from multiple sources on demand

Individual carrels and workstations 

Collaborative environments and social settings for work

“Shhhhhhh, no talking!” 

Conversation promoting thinking and learning

 No food

Cybercafe provides food and drink

Accessible only when open

Available 24 x 7 x 365

A place for students to work 

 A place for students and faculty to collaborate

Reference desk

 Help hub (reference, information technology and tutors)


Adapted from The Learning Commons: Leading libraries to be leaders in learning, by M.B. Reiner and B. Thomas, 2007, p. 4.

Table 1: Comparison of the Traditional Library and Learning Commons

There are many ways to evaluate the use of space in the Learning Commons.  In his master’s thesis, Stephen C. Sherman (2008), a student at the University of North Carolina, evaluated the Learning Commons at North Carolina State University.  He used open-ended questions for statistical purposes as well as a library discussion board for comments that provided feedback over a longer period of time.  He found that students particularly liked the lighting and layout, computer access, the relaxed atmosphere with room to spread out, and individual working spaces (pp. 27-61). While some libraries add on to their existing spaces when creating a Learning Commons, the Learning Commons at U of M incorporates areas on every floor of the building.  Students, staff, and faculty were queried through a recent LibQual survey, and modifications are being made to meet stated needs. More surveys will be given to gather additional comments by the university community.

A good staff is vital.  They must have a common vision.  Change should not be seen as a top-down decision but as shared by all.  Thinking must be holistic and not just about one specific area of the library.  In the words of Dan Beagle (2006), it is not so much about service but “how the library reshapes itself around technology and learning” (p. xv).  Bailey and Tierney (2002) describe it as “functional integration” which “requires staff flexibility and adaptability sufficient to support the new patterns of service.” 

People are generally afraid of change, and there are growing pains when reinventing a library. Those staffing the Learning Commons must have good customer service attitudes, be adaptable to change, and continuously learn new skills.  A large amount of time must be spent on staffing and training.  One cannot teach if one has not been taught. It is important to have frequent meetings to discuss innovations, problems, and solutions.  Procedures should be written when new technology is introduced so that everyone is knowledgeable.  Search skills should be reviewed regularly through webinars and workshops to keep instructors sharp.  This type of cross-training and staff development is vital and provides nourishment.  The more one is involved in the decision-making, the more one feels ownership and commitment to the cause.  No one can know everything about everyone’s job, but each person can know enough to be able to answer simple questions and make referrals.  Most of all, learn about each other and the strengths that each person brings to the new situation.

Research shows that student peers can be very effective because of their approachability.  They learn interpersonal skills, increased technology skills, and advanced research skills, all of which are helpful in future employment.  Many times they learn more during the process than those they are tutoring (Gartner and Riessman, 2004, p. 28).  Student assistants need extensive training since they provide front-end assistance.  The training must be multidisciplinary in subject matter as well as in information technology resources.  “Cheat sheets” (whether paper or online) should be available that include websites and books that are common to each discipline.  People do not come back when they have had bad service, and they are quick to tell their friends.  Staff should be in a constant learning mode.  It takes time and patience to iron out all the issues, but it is well worth it.

Creating and maintaining a Learning Commons is a huge job that involves a well-trained staff, state-of-the-art technology and physical resources, and constant input from users.  It requires flexibility, understanding, patience, and a lot of hard work.  And it takes a good deal of humor to laugh at ourselves and enjoy each other as we provide the very best place for learning for our students.  In the words of The University of Memphis motto, we truly must be “Dreamers, Thinkers, Doers.”


Bailey, R., & Tierney, B. (2002). “Information commons redux: Concept, evolution, and transcending the tragedy of the commons.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28,  277+.  Retrieved July 25, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.

Beagle, D. (2006). Information commons handbook. New York: Neal-Schuman.

Bennett, S.  Libraries designed for learning. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources. Retrieved from

“Commons.” (1989). The Oxford English dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cox, C. (2008). “Changing demographics: Meet the students and faculty of the future.”  In J. McNeil Hurlbert (Ed.), Defining relevancy: Managing the new academic library (pp. 3-15). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing.

Gartner, A., & Riessman, F. (1993). Peer-tutoring: Toward a new model. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED362506). Retrieved from

McMullen, S. (2007). “The learning commons model: Determining best practices for design, implementation, and service.” Retrieved from

McMullen, S. (2008). “U.S. academic libraries: Today’s learning commons model.” Retrieved from

Reiner, M.B., & Thomas, B. (2010). The learning commons: Leading libraries to be leaders in learning. Retrieved from

Sherman, S.C. (2008).  A user-centered evaluation of the North Carolina State University libraries learning commons (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retried from

Stuart, C. (2009). “Learning and research spaces in ARL libraries: Snapshots of instillations and experiments.”  Research Library Issues: A Bimonthly Report from ARL, CNI, and SPARC, no 264: June, 7-19.  Retrieved from

Wizeman, L., & McKeown, G. (2010). Multipliers: How the best leaders make everyone smarter. New York: HarperBusiness.


Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal