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TL v63n3: The Heart of the Campus
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The Heart of the Campus: Libraries as Learning Spaces


Teresa B. Walker (
Associate Professor and Head,  Learning, Research, and Engagement
University of Tennessee Libraries


Rita H. Smith (
Professor and Executive Associate Dean
University of Tennessee Libraries

Originally presented at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Chattanooga, TN) in April 2013.


Libraries have responded to a new generation of learning styles and emerging technologies by designing vibrant spaces that encourage students to learn, create, and collaborate. At the University of Tennessee, we have renovated to create a “third generation” commons that will contribute to the university’s strategic goals. This is not the first renovation for UT’s Commons. The desire to connect library services with IT support prompted the first iteration of this informal learning space in 2005. Since then, the Commons has continually evolved to support advances in learning technologies as well as our campus’ adoption of those technologies. Like many libraries, the University of Tennessee Libraries has provided services, spaces, and technologies that actively involve students in the learning process of the University, and as with other libraries, change has been a steady factor.

Commons environments are constantly evolving to meet the needs of new generations of learners and increasingly to facilitate changing learning modalities. More than ever, libraries are co-creating change with campus partners to meet the curricular goals and advance the mission of the university. The terms information commons and learning commons are typically used to describe informal learning spaces, many times in libraries, that bring together complementary services in one setting. Most frequently, these are library and technology services. In their article discussing conceptual frameworks for commons spaces, Bonnand and Donahue describe the key elements of commons transformations as, “the addition and expansion of public computing stations and the reconfiguration of library spaces to promote collaborative learning" (p. 225). What distinguishes a learning commons is perhaps the addition of academic support services such as tutoring or counseling referral. The focus for commons spaces has moved from convenience and proximity of services to scholarship. Learning commons spaces provide students with the tools they need to succeed and thrive at the college and university level.

In this article, a companion to our Tennessee Library Association presentation in 2013, we chronicle how the UT Libraries has shaped the evolution of its learning commons to support and enhance the classroom experience at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. We have accomplished this through attention to the learning landscape, assessment, and by aligning our strategic plan with campus priorities. Capitalizing on our physical location at the heart of campus, our latest renovation positions us as the Campus Main Street, not just a place for active learning on campus but the place.

The Learning Landscape

The learning landscape has changed on multiple levels in the last decade. Successful and pervasive digital technologies such as wireless Internet and social networking platforms have shifted attitudes as well as workflows (Educause, 2005). The learning environment of 2005 was heavily influenced by technology and specifically by the proliferation of wireless networking. In turn, the ubiquity of wireless access spawned broad participation in instant messaging technologies, creating opportunities for extended communication and learning. As a result, simulations enabling users to interact in online worlds made their way into mainstream education, allowing instructors to have classes, libraries to offer services, and associations to conduct meetings without the need for in-person contact. While these technologies were the innovative seeds of blended learning as we know it today, the important shift was more subtle and far reaching. Living one’s life in virtual space was becoming acceptable, at times necessary, and even expected. UT Libraries’ first generation Commons reflected those changing attitudes.

Phase I of the Commons opened on the 2nd floor of Hodges Library, displacing a well-loved legacy Reserve Department. Collaborative study and computing spaces were created using existing furniture. Partnering with the Office of Information Technology, the focus was on bringing essential computing and information services together in one place so that students working in an online environment would have all of the experts required to ensure their access to Internet resources twenty-four hours a day. Students used online databases to find electronic articles, accessed their assignments from the Blackboard course management system, and checked email for notes from their professors and fellow students. The space was so successful, it expanded across the hall the following year.

By 2007, mobile devices, the natural extension of pervasive wireless networking, were seen as simultaneously innovative and disruptive (Educause, 2007). Smartphones infiltrated the classrooms and savvy instructors incorporated them into their teaching. Social networks began to gain the attention of instructors and students and allowed for constant communication and a platform for collaboration with a seemingly captive audience. This phase in higher education saw the first widespread use of student-created online content. Mashups became the trendiest mechanism for student creative work as well as the newest challenge for fair use and copyright.

Phase II of the Commons catered to these students who were always online--day and night. As a result of the “always on” mindset, consumer models of services at the point of need found their way into higher education. Giving users control over their services and surroundings was the guiding theme of this second generation space. “Students want to be able to work individually or together in a physical space but also have options for virtual interactions. Social networking and learning activities blend together in such a setting” (Smith, LDR 2007-2008, p.4). This renovation brought highly mobile and configurable furniture to support an increased emphasis on student collaboration. To further support student-created content, The Studio, a technology-rich media production lab, was integrated into the Commons. This shift gave The Studio more visibility to individual students and academic departments. Once catering to departments such as Art and Journalism with media as part of their curriculum, The Studio became a place filled with first year English students creating documentaries and biology students producing podcasts. The privacy concerns of the early days of the Internet had given way to the desire to contribute to the conversation. Participatory culture, in which students are expected to consume and produce information and media, had been fully established as an expectation of both students and professors.

Fast-forward to 2012-2013, and online learning and campus partnerships occupy the minds of educators and administrators in higher education. Evidenced-based decision-making is more important than ever as colleges and universities endeavor to graduate students with skills that meet the demands of a workforce highly skilled in communications technologies. As professors move toward blended and online delivery of instruction (MOOCs, flipped classrooms), students need spaces to work collaboratively on assignments and to meet for discussions (Educause, 2012). They need equipment, software, and expertise to help with content creation work outside the classroom. As students are required to bring their own laptops and mobile devices to class, the need for powered workspaces becomes a concern. Perhaps the most impactful change in current years has been the mandate for meaningful analytics and assessment in an outcomes-based funding model (Educause, 2013). In this type of scenario, providing the appropriate spaces and services is achieved only through close cooperation with the university and a concerted effort to contribute to the university’s strategic goals. The alignment of strategic plans from all stakeholders--libraries and academic support units--with the larger institution’s strategic plan is critical. 

Strategic Alignment

In developing Commons assessments, with university decision-making in mind, our goal was to make use of existing data such as usage statistics and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), and to create instruments that would help us correlate Commons usage with student academic success. The first step was to define success and to define it in terms of our greater institutional definition. For that, we turned to our University Strategic Plan, Vol Vision 2015: The Pursuit of Top 25 (Vol Vision – Top25 Report, 2012) [see Bibliography]. At the University of Tennessee, initiatives such as the Vol Vision plan to be a Top 25 public research institution are centered on outcomes-based funding models and geared toward increased graduation and retention rates and with attention paid to campus spaces.

At UT, success has hinged upon retention rates, increased emphasis on graduation rates, and recently a focus on blended and online education. In our surveys, we aimed to correlate student use of Commons resources with academic success over a period of time. There were two resulting surveys: one developed for in-Commons usage and the other administered in a classroom setting (LibValue, 2012). The results provided us with meaningful information about the role of the Commons in the lives of students. Some of the most valuable information concerned engagement.

For over a decade, UT’s retention rate was between 75% and 80%, well below our peer institutions at the time. One of the top responses from students who were interviewed when leaving the University was “I did not feel like I was part of the university.” Survey results showed that over 70% of students indicated that the Commons “made them feel more involved in the University" (Walker, 2013). With increased emphasis on student outcomes driving new expectations for teaching and learning, we sought to accommodate new challenges for instructors and students. Phase III of the Commons sought to address those expectations by providing expanded support for teaching and learning in an environment beginning to embrace pedagogies geared toward active and online learning. Providing this academic support required increased partnerships with campus units dedicated to student learning support. For this particular phase, the northeast wing of the Commons was renovated to house the Student Success Center’s tutoring and referral operations: the Math Tutorial Center, the Stat Lab, and the Writing Center. Student academic support was expanded and flexible spaces were created for single and group tutoring activities. Through assessment and strategic alignment with university goals, the Commons was becoming vital to the success of students at the university.

In addition to expanded academic partnerships and service offerings, Commons Phase III incorporated The Studio media production lab and consultation service into the Commons proper, expanding media creation spaces to include three enclosed recording studios and a video production room. As online teaching and learning becomes more mainstream, needs for both instructors and students increase. Instructors “flip” their classes by creating videos of their lectures and spending class time interacting with students. Students create and submit online assignments and participate in online course activities outside the classroom. For every direction higher education takes, the first signs may be seen in Commons spaces such as the one at Hodges Library. As those trends become practice, our Commons evolves to be the place that supports student learning, collaboration, and creation. It becomes the place to support faculty and staff as they innovate and contribute to an active learning environment. 

Future directions in the Commons will certainly take advantage of increased faculty interest in informal learning spaces. A task force at the University of Tennessee Libraries recommended the creation of a scholars lab to provide “seamless access to the expertise, tools, and resources that facilitate the creation, management, and use of digital scholarship as an extension of the Studio” (Scholars Commons Study Team Report, 2012, p. 2). An environment such as this one expands the learning commons concept further to more seamlessly combine research, learning, and knowledge creation. In this type of space, “the new knowledge brought to light by research becomes part of the body of knowledge available to the student, supporting the cycle of insight, transmittal and verification" (Forrest, 2012, p.1). This type of space could attract researchers at all levels seeking expertise and resources on integrating data and media into their research.

The most current trend, and one that fits well with the increasingly participatory culture of higher education, is the maker space. The Commons at the University of Tennessee has begun to embrace the idea of the digital maker space equipped with the tools of online invention. A 3D scanner will be available in The Studio in Fall 2013 for classes making use of 3D modeling. As the concept of maker space evolves in this particular context, services such as 3D printing and tools to bridge the digital and physical will find their way into the Commons.

Finally, added conveniences and improvements will enhance the existing learning environment. New food and drink choices, requested by students, will be available in Fall 2013. Refurbishing other areas of the library, such as the stacks, will add quieter types of study spaces to the mix and create safe environments, conducive to learning, throughout the library. In addition to spaces and services, the Commons is always the test bed for new furniture. In the coming year, we hope to investigate new collaborative furniture and technology as well as solutions for offering single-use workstations in more private configurations. The Commons transforms as learning transforms and students as well as faculty rely on the Libraries to develop inspiring and flexible spaces. We are listening to the students, observing our learning environment, and doing whatever we can to draw students to Main Street.


Bonnand, S., & Donahue, T. (2010). What’s in a name? The evolving library commons concept. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17, 225-233.

Casado, M., Feltner-Reichert, M., Manoff, M., Radom, R., Smith, R., Walker, T., & Williamson, J. (2012). Scholars commons study team report. Unpublished report.

Forrest, C. G. (2012). COMO white paper - Information, learning, research: Evolution of the academic library commons. Georgia Library Quarterly, 49(2), 10-13. Retrieved from

LibValue: Value, outcomes and return on investment of academic libraries. (2013). Retrieved from

NMC Horizon Report. (2012). Retrieved from

NMC Horizon Report. (2013). Retrieved from

NSSE: National Survey of Student Engagement. (2010-2012). Retrieved from

Smith, R. H. (2008). Transformation for a new generation. Library Development Review 2007-2008, 3-5Retrieved from

Smith, R. H., & Walker, T. B. (2012). Revamping Main Street: The Commons Phase III. Library Development Review 2011-2012, 9-11. Retrieved from

The Horizon Report. (2005). Retrieved from

The Horizon Report. (2007). Retrieved from

Vol Vision – Top 25 Report. (2012). Retrieved from

Walker, T., & Mays, R. (2012 May). Aligning assessment efforts with institutional priorities: A case study from the University of TennesseeQQML 2012. Limerick, Ireland. Retrieved from 

Walker, T., Mays, R., & Smith, S. (2013). Library Assessment ForumALA Midwinter Conference, Seattle, Washington. Retrieved from






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