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Students studying in the Beacon College Library.
Students studying in the Beacon College Library.

By Richard Burnett

Almost a decade ago, the popular cable series “The Librarians” materialized onto the small screen with a team of super-smart heroes who used their powers to battle mysterious foes and save the world from dangerous magic.

At Beacon College, chief librarian Gretchen Dreimiller and her team may not be superheroes, but they are certainly using all their powers to transform the traditional campus information hub into a modern, energized haven of learning in a dramatically changing landscape.

“I think it’s important for people to know that we have always been prepared to adapt to the changing needs of students, faculty and the community in general,” said Dreimiller, director of library services. “That’s why we’ve implemented a plan that creates a more comfortable, welcoming place that will help them deal with the many challenges they face.”

Beacon’s library team is not alone in this mission. Many colleges around the United States have mobilized in recent years to respond to the rise of technology, the social media revolution, skyrocketing costs of higher education and changing student expectations. With such powerful forces in play, libraries can’t afford to remain static, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in a virtual forum released last month called “In Defense of Libraries.”

“Libraries are no longer dusty, dimly lit spaces reserved for quiet research and solitary study,” the Chronicle said. “Today, college and university libraries are striving to become vibrant centers of student connection and creativity. [The question is] how can they overcome outdated notions and reassert their relevance in a time of competing expenses and priorities.”

The library as ‘comfort zone’

Dreimiller and company have tackled the challenge by starting a series of end-to-end changes – from the layout and structure of the library’s physical space to the buildup of its digital books and other electronic resources.

The first stage began last year, with what Dreimiller calls a “rightsizing” of the library’s book collection, which means they pulled books that were gathering dust on shelves or could be obtained in digital form. That freed up space for the next step – the restructuring of the student areas of the library, a move that is still underway.

Ultimately, the team plans to create a ‘comfort zone’ in the front of the library, with lounge-like seats where students can relax, read, and chat. Also, there will be individual worktables and collaborative whiteboard tables, where small groups can work together or independently. The team chose whiteboards because many of Beacon’s neurodiverse students like to scribble, draw, or otherwise jot down ideas when working on a project, Dreimiller said.

Further back in the library will be the quiet workspaces – desks, tables, and study rooms, which some students still prefer so they can focus better without distractions, she said. Most of the new furniture for the changes is still in the budget and ordering process.

“The physical look of the library is noticeably changing,” Dreimiller said. “We want to meet the demand we’re seeing now from many students, so we’re opting for furniture that will allow for more of a lounge area [up front] as well as the quiet spaces others want. Overall, the library as a silent environment is a very outdated concept. And we’re comfortable with that.”

Robust trove of free digital sources

Perhaps more important to the new library landscape is the focus on digital — providing students with more access to online books, articles, study guides, research, and other electronic resources. There’s a concerted effort by the team to inform and steer students to a robust trove of digital material that is available largely free of charge for their projects.

The library’s website alone is a portal leading to more than two dozen free databases offering students access to everything from classic literature, world news, education trends, film and entertainment, scientific and business research and more. It also provides access to more than a dozen study guides in subjects ranging from business law and critical thinking to ecology and monster literature.

The librarians are available to guide students through the steps of accessing what they need, but there is an emphasis on personal responsibility as well.

“The resources provided are intended to direct you to the most credible sources of information to best meet the needs of your assignment,” says Emily Morgan, assistant director of library resources, in an online note. “However, you will still need to do the work of finding, selecting, and analyzing the exact materials you will use. In other words, you do the research, but we will help guide you to the best places start your search.”

So many good things out there

Too many students, however, still don’t know about all the free digital resources that are available to them, according to Kathryn Van Gundy, the library’s administrative assistant. There are, for example, open-source research journals with credible academic articles and printing capabilities for classroom projects. There are also free software programs they could use in a variety of classes. (Van Gundy is currently teaching a course on one such program – Canva, a free software that creates social media graphics and presentations.)

“There are so many good things out there,” she said. “We have to drive these students to these software programs, open-source research sites and other resources they don’t know about. There are also online textbooks available, if their professor will approve it. All of this can make a big difference for our students.”

Overall, the emphasis on digital is the biggest certainty in an ever-changing environment for Dreimiller and her team. They do their best to stay on top of the trends, attending conferences and webinars, to be able to read the road signs on what to do next.

“As librarians, it is so hard to predict the future with things changing so fast,” she said. “We just try to be aware of what is going on. For now, we know that everyone is looking at electronic and creating a collaborative space for students, but there’s no way to predict what will happen 10 years down the road. It probably won’t even look the same five years from now.”