The Research Commons

Placemaking for learning in a twenty-first-century library

Michael Page

Stewart Varner

Sun-drenched reading rooms, dark wood tables, and cozy chairs are as evocative of great libraries as stack towers and full bookshelves. This is because libraries have always been more than their collections; they are inspiring places where scholars learn, think, and create. It does not get as much attention as activities like collection development and archive curation, but placemaking is an important responsibility for any research library. 

Traditionally, the research library has been designed for scholars to do work that is separate from teaching and for students to work on assignments. Task chairs and study carrels offer quiet seclusion close to the library’s resources. The lines between research and pedagogy, however, have never been very thick, and the line between classwork and homework is becoming more porous as well. New strategies, such as blended learning and flipping the classroom, are challenging the image of the scholar pouring knowledge into students from the front of the class. Additionally, the idea of the scholar retreating into solitary study is getting stale as emerging technology facilitates—even demands—partnerships with other scholars and technical experts.

In order to meet these emerging needs, Emory has established The Research Commons in the Robert W. Woodruff Library. Prominently located on the third floor, the Research Commons was designed as an open workspace with graduate students and faculty in mind. Additionally, the space serves as a public-facing front door to a wide variety of resources and services located in the library. The Research Commons is a truly neutral space, where interdisciplinary groups of scholars can meet and work collaboratively. 

The space itself was designed to be as flexible as possible. The team, which included architects, designers, scholars, and librarians, resisted the temptation to build small offices in favor of an open space. Most of the furniture can be easily moved, and large marker boards can also be used to create temporary, semi-private spaces. This open design also allows scholars to get a peek at what others are working on and to be inspired by what they see. These unplanned and serendipitous encounters, along with more formal events such as workshops and guest speakers, enable the Research Commons to establish and nurture an interdisciplinary community of scholars interested in digital scholarship.

This flexibility is made possible by ubiquitous wireless internet connectivity and the widespread adoption of laptops and tablet devices. Instead of a computer lab with rows and rows of desktop machines, the Research Commons offers multiple large monitors that can be used as secondary displays for laptops. Scholars who do not bring their own computers can check one out from the library. 

For projects that require more than a laptop can provide, there are two iMacs equipped for creative design work with images and videos. There are also three dual-monitor performance PC workstations with animation, 3-D modeling, database, and geospatial capability. 

Currently, the only full-time resident of the Research Commons is the Digital Scholarship Commons. DiSC, as it is generally known, seeks to facilitate experimental, collaborative work. In DiSC, scholars partner with library staff who can recommend tools and processes that minimize redundancies and prepare for long-term maintenance and preservation. Emory’s Library has a long history of partnering with faculty who use emerging technology in their research, but the recent increase of interest in such projects demanded proactive action to coordinate demand and capacity. 

Of the seven projects currently in development in DiSC, three of these projects—Views of Rome, Tracking Samothrace, and the Atlanta Geocoder—rely heavily on the geospatial technology available in the Research Commons. Each of these projects has teams comprising library staff, faculty, and students who work in the Research Commons. Their efforts blur the lines between pedagogy and research, classwork and homework. For example, the Views of Rome project used the workstations to create a single “Deep Zoom” interactive image map out of the twelve plates that make up Pirro Ligorio’s 1561 map of ancient Rome. For Bonna Wescoat’s Tracking Samothrace project, an online database platform was designed in the Research Commons so that the research team could upload content from the archaeological site in Greece. More recently, the Re-mapping Segregated Atlanta project is using the workstations to create a geocoding tool that rapidly transforms historic Atlanta address data, circa 1930, into point data on digital maps. 

Students engaged in coursework are also using these technologies. For example, in the course Maps and Modeling: 21st Century Ways of Seeing ancient Greece and Baroque Rome, students used Google Earth, Google Sketchup, and other graphic programs in project work. In both introductory and advanced Geographic Information Systems (GIS), students have used the applications to address a need in a community, connect with content they are learning in another course, or add a map component to their master’s thesis. For example, in the undergraduate course, students have produced maps and data for Newton County’s The Center, an organization for community preservation and planning, and The South Fork Conservancy, a local organization working on repairing the damage to local streams caused by urbanization and neglect. In one of the graduate courses, a student explored the probable movements of contaminated water and its potential impact to the neighborhoods surrounding the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, India. 

The specialized workstations also provide access to more geospatial programs that may not be available elsewhere on campus. In the course Public Health Applications of Remote Sensing, taught by Michael Page and Yang Liu, students used remote sensing applications to examine phenomena such as coral reef damage, the impact of atmospheric pollution on a human settlements, and significant loss of tree canopy. 

Whether it is access to specialized computing resources or finding a flexible space to work and collaborate, the Research Commons seeks to provide the Emory community a place where learning can coincide with research. While libraries have long histories as repositories of knowledge and information, they have also served their patrons as venues for communication, discovery, and productivity. Traditional library space is being transformed into flexible spaces that accommodate presentations, group learning, digital production, or even social events. Through a conscious and careful process of placemaking, Woodruff Library’s Research Commons has become a destination for these activities.