The Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library Renovation

Where learning happens

Sandra G. Franklin

In 2011, the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library completed a space renovation, aligning the library with the educational and research missions of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center and the university and promoting flexibility, ease of use, and barrier-free interaction.

The objective? To allow library users to experience a unique, vigorous hybrid of both physical and virtual elements; social and study spaces; data, information, and knowledge-rich environments; and advanced information management tools. 

The Woodruff Health Sciences Center (WHSC) Library opened its doors in January 1987 in the Dental School Building. Established in 1923 as the A.W. Calhoun Medical Library and located in the Woodruff Memorial Building, the library had outgrown its space as Health Sciences Center schools and programs expanded. Those days, every student came to the library to retrieve course reserve readings, view assigned slide presentations, photocopy journals articles, check out books, and study. Professor of Medicine H. Kenneth Walker required each medical student enrolled in Clinical Methods to have a session with the medical librarians on developing search strategies in the National Library of Medicine’s Medline database. Professor of Epidemiology John Boring III held small group classes in the library’s first Mac computer lab for the Analytic Medicine course. 

Jump forward twenty years to a very different landscape. Blackboard and Reserves Direct provided an entirely new space for students to access and interact with assigned course materials. Electronic books, journals, bibliographic and imaging databases, and search tools rendered print collections much less important than ever before. And even more recently, most students today use multiple personal devices including laptops, iPads, and smart phones to link to library information resources any time and from any place, as confirmed by the 2012 UTS student survey.

While these changes produced an overall positive effect on academia, they also introduced many challenges, ranging from understanding the provenance and ownership of data and information to appreciating the library’s role in information management, to an awareness of the variety of services the WHSC Library currently provides. With faculty and graduate and undergraduate students in the sciences becoming more aware of the issues at hand and expressing the desire for a face-lift for the library, the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library embarked on a complex project to rethink its space—and to create a more contemporary environment that emphasizes student and faculty learning and teaching needs. 

Balancing print and electronic collections with open study spaces equipped with technology, we thought, would highlight relationships in the complex world of information science. The creative thinking of the architect, the prior experiences of University Library facilities staff, the expertise of campus planners, and the vision of WHSC Library administration and staff combined to result in a powerfully reinvented space—but one that tested the flexibility of a 1960s building for a second renovation. 

The first phase of this project required removing large quantities of print volumes, already available online. After some thorough analysis and recycling, we remodeled the space most visible and accessible to users to accommodate the new settings and enable a technologically current, well-wired and wireless environment for interdisciplinary interaction involving electronic data. This included large-screen Macs, café booths for groups and individuals, screened areas for on-demand group discussions, smart boards, and all-in-one printing stations. We also established videoconferencing space, large collaborative conference space equipped with smart boards, and small-group study spaces.

Our guiding principle for the renovation was to create an open, flexible, technology-enhanced learning environment with a variety of ergonomic seating options for optimal collaboration and study. It led to a repurposing of library space to become centered on learning, with collections distributed throughout the building, and books placed within reach of where the learning happens. The entrance to the library was moved to the lower level, which created an entirely new entry into the library and produced much greater visibility. What used to be book stacks that a passerby saw through the library windows, now are open spaces and workstations, equipped with PCs and Macs, as well as a variety of seating to suit any style and preference: booth, bar-height stool, traditional workstation. The book collection was moved from the lower to the upper level, intended as the more quiet study space. An untraditional area was added to the upper level, too, featuring a lounge with vending machines and lockers. Altogether, these changes allowed for a much more efficient deployment of library space: some simply discovered the library, some discovered the books in the library, others learned about technologies and spaces they could use, and still more discovered library services and possibilities of which they were not aware before. 

The renovated WHSC Library now incorporates a blend of technologies to accommodate the variety of pedagogical approaches. Faculty groups reserve the Collaboration Room to brainstorm and collectively work on proposals/grants; departments use the Classroom to hold seminars and training; students engaged in group study use smartboards; and various groups making connections with remote locations use newly available audio and videoconferencing capabilities. The next step is to establish productivity workstations to enable high-end computing in the library. Already, there are two computers on the upper level devoted to high capacity processing for gene and protein analysis software.

Today, the remodeled library space provides unique opportunities for diverse library user groups and individuals to connect and collaborate, conduct research in a neutral space, and interact with one another, librarians, data, information, and print collections in a technologically advanced environment. Efforts to combine a welcoming collaborative environment with technology-enabled spaces resulted in an increase in daily activities. The renovated space is visible to those traveling across the pedestrian bridge to and from our major customer base: the medical school, the nursing school, the school of public health, the life sciences connector, and the Rollins and Whitehead research buildings. As a result, the library as a place still proves to be an important concept for learners and teachers alike in academia.