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Planning for Collections: Balancing Digital Trends, Physical Realities, and Pedagogy

Monday, 29 August 2016


Digital technologies, changing scholarship habits, spatial constraints, and economic challenges are prompting many institutions to dramatically change how their physical collections (e.g., books, maps, art, biological samples, pottery fragments) are stored, accessed, displayed, and consumed. With the digital revolution, what physical things still are important pedagogically for an academic institution? That is what I explored with Janette Blackburn, principal at Shepley Bulfinch; Paul Guenther, Senior Campus Planner for McGill University, and Anna Gold, Dean of Library Services at Cal Poly, at our SCUP-51 conference presentation in Vancouver.

Leaders of higher education face decisions about their campus’ physical collections in light of urgent demands for learning spaces, a changing emphasis on what is valued physically and the growing dominance of digital information resources. Because interactions with physical and digital materials offer very different affordances for learning, these decisions will have lasting impacts on the future of learning. Whether by replacing physical things with digital surrogates or by creating new, rich interfaces between digital and physical artifacts, the economic and cognitive implications of these decisions are challenging how we plan the 21st century campus.

In our presentation, Paul shared how McGill’s recent Library System Master Plan addressed changing collection usage patterns, overcrowding of both people spaces and book spaces, and the university’s evolving vision for the library. The plan recommends a dramatic reprioritization of central campus library space for study and research, and evaluates options for high density robotic or off-site collection storage.

Anna showed how in a constrained economic environment, Cal Poly’s physical collections have been fine-tuned and their digital acquisitions expanded to create an active learning interface. CalPoly has enhanced their library users’ experiences with modifications to the library allowing for community exhibits, events, and displays as well as an interactive learning lab, media lab, and innovation sandbox.

Janette discussed options for storage and digitization as well as metrics for deciding on those options and processes for working with stakeholders engaged in collections planning. She pointed towards a future that would support more regional or cross-institutional sharing of collections.

We then asked the audience to engage in two exercises: a Personal Media Survey and a board game we called “Planning for Collections.” The report that can be found in the link below contains the results from those exercises. While no means scientific, this survey of session attendees does show how truly hybrid media use is today. Also in the linked report are images of the completed “Planning for Collections” board game. It is interesting to note that the results of no two board games are the same. As these exercises demonstrated, we now “read” more than just text; we also rely on images and videos, data, virtual simulations, and digital social media.

I concluded the session with a range of theories pertinent to how we read, write and think in this hybrid physical-digital landscape. With an understanding of the why, what and how of reading now, institutional leaders can help cultivate an abundant information landscape on campus – aligned with their unique institutional mission – that invites their community to strike out on their own learning path, collaborate, create new knowledge and share it globally. While there are no easy answers, institutions are at an exciting point in time: ironically the digital revolution has brought with it a focus on the physical things that truly matter for learning and knowledge creation and how those things can be rendered more visible, accessible and useful to an institution’s community.

Planning for Collections: Balancing Digital Trends, Physical Realities, and Pedagogy

- Christina Long

Christina Long is an architect at Shepley Bulfinch in the education practice.

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