Rutgers responds to digital age with library renovations

Posted: September 02, 2014

Rutgers-Camden students assiduously avoided studying in the dark, dusty library basement, crammed in between book stacks with asbestos tile and the ghostly noises of a building built in the middle of the last century.

Not that things were ideal elsewhere in the library, where book stacks across two floors limited seating and study areas, a lack of electrical outlets led students to bring their own extension cords, and piecemeal furniture replacement led to a grab-bag vision of interior design.

"We can't study together, it's too noisy, it's dirty and dark" were common complaints, said Gary Golden, Rutgers-Camden's library director.

As academic materials moved online, wireless Internet access became ubiquitous, and a new generation of students sought collaborative workspaces, Rutgers-Camden began in 2009 to renovate its Paul Robeson Library to better reflect the quickly shifting demands on its physical space.

In the project's three phases, totaling about $6 million, the vast majority of physical collections are now stored in new, compact basement book stacks; the first floor was opened for computer labs; and the second floor was dedicated to group and individual study spaces. The library jigsaw puzzle even includes a corner reimagined as a branch of the county public library, which opened in April 2012 with its own external door, space, and operating hours.

And by putting 193 computers and a help desk on the first floor, the school was able to clear out computer space in other buildings; the business and science building opened a 60-seat classroom and three seminar rooms.

"We've expanded our space for individual study, but . . . all of this is not newly created space," said Larry Gaines, campus vice chancellor. "We took scattered space and we made better space."

The second floor, which has been closed for a year for the renovations, will open to students in mid-October, said Gaines, who oversees administration and finance. The stairs enter into an open study area, with high tables, chairs arranged around circular tables, and booths by the window. The quiet study area has open tables and seats.

Through a glass door - to muffle noise - a silent study zone will have dozens of wooden study carrels and, for graduate students, small rooms that can be reserved.

Students can study in the 14 group rooms that fit between four and 10 people each, outfitted with TV sets and video recorders.

Blue and green paint brightens what were once off-white walls, colorful carpet greets visitors, and every piece of furniture will be new.

"I can stand here today and say I don't have any old furniture, I don't have any old carpet, I don't have any old paint," Golden said.

The digital shift that made consolidating physical collections possible has also expanded the library's reach, the library director said.

Golden was once known as "Dr. No," he said, because he had to turn down faculty requests and had few answers for prospective faculty.

"I had to say to them, 'I can't afford $5,000 for that journal, so maybe in New Brunswick they'll photocopy it and bring it down,' " he said, laughing during a tour of the library last week. "Now, in the last five years, I'm Dr. Yes, because it's online."

And students using computers or open tables in the library have other services at their fingertips, which has increased their use, Golden said.

"They get up and they walk over to the reference desk, and they say, 'I'm sitting in there, but I can't figure out how to cite this.' So we walk back out there with them and show them various citing tools and how to do it," Golden said, "which is good because in the past . . . they would just leave."

Other schools also are reevaluating their library needs as they observe shifting demands.

"Students come in, they work together, they collaborate, they're looking for study rooms, they're looking for computer equipment," said Scott Muir, who oversees Rowan University's library system. "And so the library's become a very active hub of student learning and engagement."

Rowan plans to study its library system this year for a possible revamp, said Muir, who moved to Rowan from Arizona State University.

In Camden, Rutgers' renovations have made the first and second floors more flexible for future changes. If students demand a different proportion of silent vs. quiet space, Gaines said, he'll be able to accommodate that. As mobile devices gain popularity, he can convert computer space to open tables.

Gaines also imagines a future in which academic advising and career-planning services can be offered in the building.

For now, the mid-October ribbon-cutting will represent the completion of the expected changes to the library - at least until Gaines begins the next project, one with a decidedly different focus.

"I have to put a new roof on this building," he said, laughing. "This roof leaks on our new stuff."

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