Clemson University library reinvents itself for today’s students BY KEN SCAR, CLEMSON UNIVERSITY

CLEMSON, South Carolina – Walk through one of the doors embedded in the three-story wall of windows at the front of the building’s sleek white exterior and you’ll find a Starbucks, a geospatial technology lab and a digital studio sponsored by Adobe. Open work spaces all around you buzz with researchers collaborating on high-definition displays, computer monitors and laptops. It might sound like a high-tech incubator in Silicon Valley, but it’s Clemson University’s main library - which had more than 1.4 million visitors in 2016 - as it joins others across the country in adapting to the digital age.

Clemson’s R.M. Cooper Library is not the book repository your parents got “shushed” in. There are books, yes, and plenty of them – four of the building’s six floors are packed with them - but technology is beginning to transform how students and faculty use a building that has been central to university life since it was built in 1966.

The main entrance to the R.M. Cooper Library at Clemson University bustles with activity.

“Libraries have always been on the forefront of learning environments,” said Maggie Farrell, who was Clemson's Dean of Libraries for two years until she took on the same position at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on August 1. Prior to Clemson, Farrell was dean of libraries at the University of Wyoming for 13 years, and was associate dean of libraries at Montana State University for six years before that.

"We integrated technology years ago. Before there was HTML there was MARC, the coding language we used in cataloguing, so librarians have been leaders in technology from the very beginning,” she said.

Farrell said that as computers and the internet rapidly take over the transfer of information, Clemson’s libraries are not just adjusting accordingly, but using the big shift from paper to digital as an opportunity to rebrand what a library is.

“The libraries' main purpose is to facilitate access and use of information. That’s particularly important today because kids are technologically savvy. Clemson students and faculty need assistance understanding the global environment of information because they work in a global, complex information environment,” said Farrell. “The goal is to teach students the skills they will need to navigate this complex environment, to help faculty with their research and to build learning spaces that help students and faculty learn and apply information.”

Those collaborative learning spaces are now everywhere you look as soon you enter the building:

The first door on your right leads into a room that was transformed into a digital resources laboratory in 2013 in collaboration with Clemson Computing and Information Technology (CCIT), Dell and the National Science Foundation. The facility features a wall of fifteen 46-inch high-definition displays, a 16-node computational cluster, laptops for 16 students with software customization available, network and video connections in the floor, a high-definition video-conferencing system and four projectors – one of which creates a holographic-type image.

Up the stairs to the left you find the Adobe Digital Studio, a space designed to nourish creativity and innovation using state-of-the-art technology. In 2015, Clemson became the only university in the country to give students, faculty and staff full access to the Adobe Creative Cloud. The new studio is designed to help them utilize it. The space features a soundproof audio production studio, a video production studio with green screen, collaborative workstations with digital wall displays and a nine-display “Behance” wall that can be used as an instruction tool or as a high-tech version of sticky notes.

Students study in the Adobe Digital Studio in Clemson's R.M. Cooper Library during a quiet summer semester day.

In the back of level four you’ll find Clemson’s Center for Geospatial Technologies, a lab designed solely to help student researchers understand and master software that visualizes data. The technology allows students to create 3-D maps, graphics, animations and time lapses with the data they’ve collected for their projects. For instance, in 2016 an industrial engineering student used the lab to create maps showing which lands in South Carolina would be most suitable for generating solar energy at utility scale.

Computer screens are peppered throughout the building among the shelves of books. Personal laptops add even more glowing pixels to the atmosphere, creating a scene a student at Clemson couldn’t have imagined just a couple short decades ago.

The computerization of the library extends all the way to its core, as staff members methodically migrate information into its digital collections as well as onto its bookshelves. This also includes the intellectual output of Clemson students – dissertations, research findings, articles, books – which are archived in the library’s digital collections and made accessible to anyone. In 2016 Clemson’s digital collections had more than 1.2 million downloads from nearly every country in the world.

This geospatial map shows global downloads from Clemson University libraries in 2016.

The transition to digital content hasn’t come without some new challenges to the library: Its revenue has decreased 50 percent since 2012 since electronic books don’t generate overdue fines and photocopying hard copies of documents is being replaced by scanning to email.

Past alumni might be the most jealous of the newest addition to Cooper library – a Starbucks on the fifth floor that opened earlier this year. The designers created an open room floor plan for the coffee shop with an upper balcony and bridge that opens the entire space up to the rest of the library.

“The Starbucks is within the library, so it’s a part of the life of the library,” said Farrell.

The Starbucks and the convenience store one floor down from it are part of a new atmosphere created to make visitors feel at home, unlike the conventionally stuffy academic atmosphere that’s been lampooned in everything from “The Music Man” to Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video. Hard wooden chairs are being replaced with comfortable rolling office chairs and couches, square wooden tables are being replaced with computer desks and special exercise equipment built to hold books and laptops - so you work off that vanilla scone while you study.

The aim is for the the library to provide an environment conducive to the modern-day student's busy, multi-tasking life, said Farrell. “They can eat on the run, they can get assistance from the Clemson IT team, they can meet with their professors and on top of that they have full access to our expert librarians, who are actually Clemson faculty because they’re deeply engaged with the instruction mission of the university."

Wesley Smith, Clemson’s media resources consultant for the Adobe Digital Studio, noted that the main difference he’s seen is that Cooper library no longer is a container of individual cubicles of solitude, but a vessel of open meeting spaces where people go to be with other people and collaborate.

Wesley Smith, a media resource consultant for Clemson University, works in the Adobe Digital Studio in the R.M. Cooper Library. The room behind him is a video production studio that features a professional green screen

“The idea of libraries has changed from a place of study to a place where you go to grow and develop your ideas,” he said. “Ideas are done in a place where you’re most comfortable. So here you can get a coffee, you can relax, move furniture around, be with your friends and talk – not just sequester yourself in a dark silo in the corner.”

Picture the casual, interactive office space of an internet startup company or the PIXAR Animation Studios and you’ll get what they’re going for at Cooper Library.

“This is a place where you can be laughing out loud and all of a sudden you have an epiphany,” said Smith. “This is where dissertation ideas can come from, this is where startups can come from. You can see in companies like Google, Yahoo, Netflix – they’re developing offices that support cross-collaboration so it’s just kind of natural that education is following suit.”

To complement the new high-tech learning spaces, the interior of the library is undergoing extensive re-designs that are really more like restorations to bring back the midcentury modern look the building was famous for when it opened. Over the years the Barcelona chairs and other 1960s-era furnishings were removed and the terrazzo floor carpeted over as tastes and materials changed. The library team is in the process of bringing back the integrity of the original design, which they hope will create a stimulating energy coupled with all the new tech.

Farrell said that, even with all the exciting advances, some things will never change.

“We still circulate books – they’re quite popular,” she said. “And with all the advanced technology we have, white boards are still the most in-demand item we offer.”

Even in 2017 there’s still nothing like putting pen to paper when you have an idea, and as long as there are pens and paper – and ideas - Clemson University libraries will provide the perfect place for them.

Created By
Ken Scar


Photographs by Ken Scar

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