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Rising Star - Joan Heath

Inspiring Research, Collaboration and Innovation

The Albert B. Alkek Library wants to be ready for 21st century researchers. It plans to bring new infrastructure and technology renovations to create a state-of-the-art learning commons. Joan Heath is leading this ambitious, multi-phase endeavor that is addressing the different ways teaching and learning occur and the vital part the library needs to play to support it.

What role does the Alkek Library play in the university community?

The Alkek Library is the central library of Texas State University. It is the most important information resource within the Texas State community and serves a wider public as well. Our mission is to advance teaching and research.

What kind of growth has the library seen?

It's interesting to note that over the past two decades, both the library and the university have grown significantly with a 73 percent increase in the library's collections of print volumes and a 56 percent increase in Texas State enrollment. The use of the library has increased with over 1.25 million people visiting it during the 2013-14 academic year.

When the Alkek Library was a new building in May 1990, there were less than a million titles in the collections. At that time, we doubled its shelving and seating capacities. Now in 2014, all of that growth has been taken up. With more than four million volumes of books, printed materials and e-resources, we are running out of space.

How has the use of the library changed?

It has changed dramatically over the years. It is now largely driven by information technology. In 1990, the collection was heavily print-based. Today we spend the majority of our collections' budget on electronic resources. We have reached a point where over 600,000 titles are electronic. There are electronic databases, e-journals e-books and now streaming media. With all of this, there are tremendous changes in the media formats and their accessibility.

When the library had a feasibility study conducted several years ago, what results stood out?

The study confirmed our suspicions around space and technology. First, it gave us a greater awareness about our space. For our size of enrollment, we were basically out of room for the collections, offices and study areas, particularly for collaborative work. Keep in mind that technology is impacting how instruction occurs along with the entire teaching and learning process. As the faculty assigns more group work, students expect to come to the library to find appropriate learning environments that allow for both individual study and group space. They see the library as a place to meet to collaborate, develop and prepare presentations, publications and digital learning objects.

Second, with the growing demand for technology, there is a major need for more electrical power capacity and a stronger telecommunications grid. The study identified how we need to upgrade the infrastructure and its capacity. Our mechanical, electrical, security, data and HVAC systems require updating to be viable for the future needs.

The most exciting point that the study introduced was the concept for the learning commons which we have embraced.

What is a learning commons?

The phrase originated from the concept of merging a library and a computer lab. At the Alkek Library, we see the learning commons as a vital place to bring students, technology and resources together in more innovative spaces for collaboration and research.

What is the library's vision for reshaping it?

Our vision for the library is to renovate the facility and transition it to a learning commons model. Part of doing this also includes the construction of an offsite, 13,000-square-foot repository, which is a high-density storage facility. Over time, our intention is to renovate the library in phases beginning with the first phase, which is an upgrade of the infrastructure. Gradually following that, we will go up the floors from first to seventh to renovate each floor. Keep in mind that one floor is about the size of a football field. We have at least three floors out of the seven that are dedicated to book storage. In order to free up this prime real estate, we'll need to move a large portion of the book collection and archives to the storage repository to allow us more room for studying and group work.

How would this offsite repository work?

Librarians would select significant portions of the collections to be moved to a climate-controlled facility. Patrons would make their requests and, once or twice a day, volumes would be retrieved and sent to the Alkek. Researchers would also be able to visit the storage facility, make requests for materials and use reading rooms there.

What have you done to test prototype-learning spaces in the library?

When you walk into the second and fourth floors of the Alkek today, you can see that we have set up learning spaces that we are trying out on a small scale to see what works and what doesn't. A big part of this includes rolling chairs and tables that come apart and go back together to accommodate groups varying in size. Collaboration zones have conference tables with large flat screen monitors and white boards to support group efforts. Presentation rooms give students access to technical support and advanced publishing and software not readily found on personal computers. We are already seeing how well students respond to these spaces and equipment.

What features are you planning for the learning commons?

The learning commons is about providing an engaging environment with flexible furnishings and equipment for students to work independently or collaboratively with the merging technology of the day. There will be much more space to support different groups with multiple collaboration areas, workstations, visualization walls, maker spaces with 3D printing capabilities and even a café are a few examples of what is coming.

How will the learning commons complement the university's research status?

The addition of a learning commons will reinforce the university's eventual move from an emerging research institution to national tier one research status. This is the kind of library space needed so we have the caliber of technology, software applications and resources to support students with more sophisticated study and research.

How do students perceive the concept of a library today?

We are working with a generation of students who see the library as not just a collection of books but also as a learning center that helps them solve problems and make decisions. They are seeing the library as a place to advance their thinking and achieve more in life.

How will the Alkek Library's mission change as it serves 21st century researchers?

The mission of the library remains the same to advance study and research. I see great change going on in how we support our vision. The library is no longer a collection of print materials, although we do have print materials and will continue to do so. The library will be more diverse in the way information is presented as we add electronic resources, maker spaces and visualization walls. We remain committed to support the individual so they feel personally engaged to reach their own achievements. We want graduates of the university to leave with a greater level of information literacy. They will be more comfortable in knowing how to evaluate and use information, and will become discerning consumers of information. They will have that for the rest of the lives. So our mission really is the same. It is how we go about it to accomplish everything amid the many changes.