v32#1 Back Talk — What Do You Get for $90 Million?

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Jim O’Donnell  (University Librarian, Arizona State University) 

The mighty work is done:  at ASU, we’ve spent $90 million over the last three years on the wall-to-wall renovation — we call it “reinvention” — of the Charles Hayden Library, our signature building at the center of our oldest campus.  We opened the doors on January 13 at 7 a.m. and the first student entered at 7:03.  A few minutes later a second student came in and turned out to be the brother of the first one — but neither one expected the other to be there!  We took their picture.

That was Monday morning.  By Wednesday, we had 10,000 students coming through the building in a day and by Friday we had the glamorous local news reporter dragging the University Librarian in at 7 a.m. for a live report on the early news program.  The following Tuesday, we had our first reported case of student misconduct, mild enough in a way but the sort of thing you don’t report in a family magazine like ATG.  

So it’s real now, we’re back.  What are our first takes on having a moment to catch breath and wonder what we’ve gotten for all that money?

First, the students go from surprise to loving it to taking it for granted in something like milliseconds.  By the second day, we could see students come in who didn’t look left or right, went straight to the elevator, punched their floor, and got off, head down, marching straight for their favorite place to work.  They were ready for us. (Those favorite places to work range from group-study-friendly zones on lower floors to the book-surrounded private — and silent — study top floor. Whenever we survey students, they all tell us they want both group and private study places, at different times for different purposes.)  We have a variety of university classrooms and library instructional rooms scattered around the building, but our principle is that when a room like that is not in scheduled use, it’s open for all comers as work space. Figuring that out did in fact take the students exactly one extra day.  They’re smart. (We knew that.)

But here’s the other discovery:  for a huge number of our users and a huge number of uses, the new building makes no immediate or superficial difference.  Users are still logging in to our licensed resources, still ordering books from ILL or high-density shelving, or using our Ask-a-Librarian chat service, undeterred.  For them and for those uses, not a wobble.  

Whoa!  Yikes! $90M and lots of people don’t even notice?  Yes, and that’s as it should be.  We take this as a validation of our strategy.  The physical facility that houses library staff and users really is only a part of the much larger and more ambitious strategy for the provision of services.  While we knew that, it’s actually reassuring to see it proven in reality. The central facility isn’t the necessary point of departure for inquiry, not a compulsory place to go for various purposes.  In the many decades when it was those things, it was also — and had gradually become more and more — a working home away from home for people doing the most serious work of their lives. And that’s what it still is — only moreso.  It’s a place of welcome and safety and support and opportunity.  

So I walk around the building smiling a lot — smiling to see half a dozen students and a whiteboard, one of the students writing down equations way beyond anything in my limited experience and the others all pitching in with comments and questions and corrections and explanations.  That’s what we’re here for. So now we surround users with the environment they need and want: librarians, books, and high-tech opportunities. We’ve added geospatial data and data science to our offerings in the last couple of years, expanded the thronged maker space, upgraded the video studios, and held back some space for the next technologies and brainstorms.  We’ve also improved the food, the bathrooms, the furniture, the lighting and upgraded to much more sustainable air conditioning.  

And the books.  I need to wait a while before writing about our innovative construction and presentation of the print collection, but here I’ll say that it’s very much part of the mission to make sure that students connect with print culture on multiple levels.  That means that every book in the building is there for two reasons: to be itself a coherent structured piece of intellectual achievement and resource — and also to be a marketing device, to cry out to a passing student, “hey there, look at me!  I’m the kind of thing that smart people like you want to get to know.”  We need to see how our innovations go, and we’ve got good ideas for improving those book-to-student conversations.  Stay tuned.

And meanwhile, of course, there’s a punch list:  all the little things that need tweaking. After a $90M renovation, the first part of the building that needs renovating is… the University Librarian’s office.  I’m still squatting until we can get some things fixed that just went astray in the construction process. (It happens, oh, it happens.) Every day, I enjoy the great stuff, the cool stuff, and the exciting stuff while I am at times tempted to wonder why the trash cans are there and why do the motion detectors turn off the lights in the middle of class, and a lot of other small things to be sorted out.  It’s hard to stop smiling.  

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