Wednesday, April 17, 2013

“Every Library Should Be Unique”: The Information Commons @ The New Community College and the Future of Academic Libraries

The New Community College's Information Commons

On Tuesday, April 16, the NY Librarians Meetup Group met with Vee Herrington, Chief Librarian at the Information Commons at the New Community College, to learn about the CUNY system’s newest addition. “Information commons” is often applied to a wide variety of innovations in an attempt to re-brand waning academic libraries, but the NCC’s commons has a very specific meaning: few books, lots of technology, lots of space to eat and talk, and almost none of the markings of a traditional library. 

This was Herrington’s goal as she set out to create (in a very short time) a space for research and collaboration that is as unique as the college’s curriculum. The school was opened in August 2012 with the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Gates Foundation, among others. The goal of the school seems to be to get a traditional college age group of students from remedial college levels to an associate's degree in three years with an intensive, full-time curriculum and a hands-on approach from faculty and staff. The creation of an information commons instead of a library is as intentional and specific to this goal as everything else in the college. This school does not want to be anything like the other institutions that have failed community college students. And this includes libraries.

Small (only 300 students currently enrolled), young, and focused, the inaugural class at NCC don’t have a library, they have a commons: a large space that, without students, stands mostly empty except large tables with power outlets, a few desks with desktop computers, and large monitors that hover above some tables. But with the students this space becomes, as Herrington puts it, a lunch room, a student union, an auditorium, and a computer lab. And hopefully a collaborative space that allows this group of students to succeed.

Perhaps a radical revamping of the academic library is called for; Herrington stated that community colleges at CUNY had a 16% graduation rate, and even traditional academic setting face the changing landscape of digital content, Google research skills, and increasingly costly (and archaic?) models of access to scholarship. The University Leadership Council reported that academic library users associate the library with books rather than information and expertise, and increasingly fall behind other sources of information. Vee Herrington sees her library as meeting the just-in-time approach advocated by the ULC, as opposed to the just-in-case model traditionally used.

It is important to note the NCC's Commons model benefits from relationships with NYPL and a CUNY-wide interlibrary loans system that allows for print books to be available but not on the shelf, as well as a budget for more than 120 databases and a fairly tech-savvy user population.

So while the Information Commons model at NCC is particular to the goals of the school, their model raises some underlying assumptions and questions all libraries should consider:
  • Collaboration not quiet (Is it time for the library to get loud?)
  • Embracing access instead of ownership (Or should we be fighting this model?)
  • Embedding information literacy into the core curriculum (What would this foster with faculty and students?)
  • Student-centered space (Do we need a reference desk? Why?)
  • Information not books (Are the stacks the best way to provide information literacy?)
  • Faculty-driven acquisitions (Should our collections be "just-in-case"?)  
While many Information Commons models meet the needs of large universities, or traditional campuses, the New Community College's model stands out because it is for community college students in an urban campus. This model is less innovation for its own sake than a call to action to meet the needs of a demographic of students have been failed by higher education systems. 

Sarah Prindle is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois' MSLIS program and a Reference Librarian at the Metropolitan College of New York. She would love to hear your thoughts about academic libraries and the information commons at

Projection screens/auditorium space at NCC's Information Commons, where presentations and movie nights are held.


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