April 23, 2018

Rethought & Reincarnated: Grand Valley’s library, the core of campus life | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerIt’s easy to see why students want to camp out at the new library at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI. I had the opportunity to see it in person last month when I attended the Re-think It: Libraries for a New Age conference on campus. The space itself is incredible—as is the response to the critical questions that drove the design and programming of services delivered at what is now the Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons.

In 2005, when Lee Van Orsdel, the newly arrived dean of university libraries, contemplated the scene in the existing building she was amazed at how, well, moribund it was. Recalling that moment during the conference with her characteristic wit, Van Orsdel said she asked herself, “What would we be doing in this building if we weren’t being dead?”

She started to identify examples of engaging spaces and took a long look at shopping malls, which struck her as quite good at getting teens and young adults engaged in spending money, and European train stations, which seemed to vibrate with activity. Those observations raised another key question: “What if, instead, we wanted to get them to spend time learning?”

The new $60 million building, which ultimately came in under budget, opened in 2013 after a heroic fundraising effort brought in some $20 million to supplement a mix of support from the university to make it a reality. Its evolving program is a wonderful, complex, and responsive answer to Van Orsdel’s inquiries. I don’t have room to celebrate the building in full here—its LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Platinum status; luscious rooftop garden [pictured] and surprising third-floor open-air terrace; the transparency conveyed by the many vistas from level to level and through the spaces; the stunning reuse of wood offcuts; and much more—but it’s worth seeing for anyone who is planning library space, regardless of institution type. The student-first philosophy pervades the design choices, from the above to the use of 31 kinds of seating, and what happens in the library.

The vision includes what Van Orsdel refers to as “implied permissions.” You will not find signs limiting student actions here. They can move the furniture. Food is welcome. Whiteboards are prevalent, and three experimental whiteboard rooms are extremely popular.

The student-first philosophy also extends to fostering a peer-to-peer culture. Students, Van Orsdel notes, are the outward face of the library, as they staff all the service points. This encourages interaction—a student is more likely to ask a peer for help—and has the by-product of giving student workers excellent training.

The goal is to deliver an experience in a place that students want to use and settle into to do whatever level of work they need to do. It should supply enough different spaces that they can move accordingly and still make use of the library offerings. The structured but permissive environment, in which students can engage in their work as they live their campus lives, has resounded with the student body. Use it they do. The building averaged some 7,596 visitors daily during midterms in fall 2014, and use is up 154 percent from the prior facility across a dizzying array of services. The students settle as well, staying for three- and four-hour stints. One is reported to have pitched a tent during finals last year. (There’s the permission culture in action!)

To help students find a place to perch when the library is at fever pitch, the UX team developed a way to capture density and display heat maps that show where seats are tapped out and where there is still room.

A lot of library strategies posit putting users’ needs first, but the Mary Idema Pew Library gives us a vibrant example of a holistic approach to just that in a beautiful and inspiring package that imparts to each and every student that their learning is worth the investment.


This article was published in Library Journal's September 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.