5 A Space of Their Own

Creating a Welcoming Learning Commons to Support Student Intellectual Curiosity and Success

Melissa Laidman and Chloe Santangelo

The many physical changes that took place in the space renovations piqued students’ curiosity to find new places to study and relax… students began to have a sense of ownership and pride in the space.”


According to the “Research as Inquiry” frame of the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2016), “learners who are developing their information literate abilities . . . consider research as open-ended exploration and engagement with information,” and “value intellectual curiosity in developing questions and learning new investigative methods” (p. 7). Additionally, intellectual curiosity has been linked to higher academic performance (Von Stumm, et al., 2011) as well as being “the key motivating favor for inquiry-based learning” (Yu, 2017). The academic library can serve as a key place to not only cultivate students’ intellectual curiosity, but to encourage it as a daily habit.

It may seem that information literacy skills develop during library instruction sessions and fall solely under the purview of instruction librarians. However, the library space itself can serve as an environment to stimulate students’ intellectual curiosity, thereby increasing information literacy and fostering student success. Using the conceptual model of intellectual curiosity by Russell (2013), the library space can contribute to preconditions of intellectual curiosity such as the degree of knowledge related to the topic of inquiry by supplying resources and information to the students. It can impact the attributes of intellectual curiosity itself, such as enhanced cognitive stimulation as a result of the space and the services available in it. The consequences of intellectual curiosity, such as exploratory behavior and knowledge acquisition can also be affected by the physical library space. As Hensley (2004) states, “the first change that educators can incorporate. . . to foster curiosity in teaching and learning, is to create an environment rich in inquiry rather than one dominated by process” (p. 32). The Learning Commons in McGrath Library at Hilbert College has become an environment rich in inquiry as we have undertaken a remodeling project to create a true learning commons over the past two years.

Many academic libraries are moving toward a learning commons model. As defined by Jones & Grote (2018), a learning commons is “a flexible learning environment that blends library resources and technology with collaborative working spaces to promote active and interdisciplinary learning” (p.2). Some may view the transition from “library” to “learning commons” with excitement, others with trepidation. Wherever one falls on this scale, it is of the utmost importance when making decisions to recognize that students rely on librarians to fight for a space to call their own. In the current academic climate, “libraries must be centers of the knowledge economy, of collaborative learning, and of creative production” (Jones & Grote, 2018, p.1).

When considering the physical design of the space, the purpose must be clearly communicated that the space allows for not only the collaboration of students, but the collaboration of college-wide departments. Instead of an emphasis on the collection, there is a greater emphasis on the services that are offered and the flexibility of the space. A study done at Queensland Libraries shows that students prioritize and look for a pleasant, clean, peaceful environment and comfortable furniture above all else when searching for a space to study and collaborate (Abbasi et al., 2014). Students are more likely to use a space if they are offered a variety of options where they can work individually or with a group.

Space Renovation

Hilbert College is a small, private 4-year college in Hamburg, NY, offering associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, with an enrollment between 800-900 students. McGrath Library at Hilbert College employs two full-time librarians and three part-time library associates. Other departments are also housed within the building encompassing the Learning Commons in McGrath Library. In both 2020 and 2021, Hilbert College was fortunate to receive a grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. The grant’s purpose was to support and strengthen students’ ability to transition and thrive in their educational setting and beyond. While this grant contributed to many initiatives campus-wide, a substantial portion of the 2020 grant and a smaller percentage of the 2021 grant were used to renovate the library space. The library, which had not been updated in many years, was renovated into a learning commons model. In the design process, the concept of flexibility and innovation that encourages collaboration filtered through every decision, ranging from the furniture chosen, to the way the space was utilized.

A few years prior to the renovation of the space, the college implemented the idea of the Learning Commons model, in which the departments of Academic Services, Accessibility Services, and the College’s Opportunity Programs, including a testing center, moved into the library building. As such, a workspace was added to the main service desk for a student worker from Academic Services. The student workers’ roles include scheduling and setting up tests for students, assisting with tutoring, and directing students to appropriate offices.

While the new location of these offices within a single access point was a benefit, the quick transition necessitated Academic Services personnel filling offices that happened to be vacant at the time. The layout of the learning commons was initially haphazard, with offices scattered throughout the building. The main floor of the library featured a bank of ten desktop computers with two printers, and densely spaced stacks of books. It offered a few spaces for individual study, including study carrels and a small café table. Group study options were limited to a few tables that could accommodate a group of four, with no spaces for larger groups. Three small couches were available but were dated and worn. In addition, the location of the service desk was along the side of the main library space, far from both entrances, and not immediately in view when one entered the space.


library service desk made of light wood
Library reference desk before summer 2021 remodel.
rows of computers on wooden desk surrounded by book shelves
Lower level of the library before summer 2021 remodel.

One of the biggest changes in the renovation was relocating the service desk directly inside the library entrance. The relocation of the service desk has transformed what students experience as they enter the learning commons. Now, when students enter the space, they immediately see people who can help them, whether they are there to get help with research, find a tutor, or schedule a make-up test. Library and academic services staff are also better enabled to greet patrons as they enter. In addition, the main student printers are located at the service desk, which allows staff to help more easily with printing and creates opportunities for frequent staff/patron interaction.


service desk with gray wood and blue & white lettering
Library reference desk, new collaborative furniture, and newly spaced shelving on the first floor after the summer 2021 remodel.
library service desk in gray wood with blue and white letters spelling Hilbert College
Newly placed reference desk and furniture after the 2021 remodel.

The next major change in the space was the removal of approximately 1/3 of the bookshelves along the back wall of the library (where most of the windows are located). While this was a large undertaking that involved thoroughly weeding the reference collection and hours of moving books, the result was a much more open space and a brighter, more welcoming environment. The open layout of these stacks has resulted in spaces for collaborative learning near the windows, as well as opportunities to create interactive displays to spark students’ interest and curiosity. The more widely spaced stacks have also allowed for better accessibility, as well as making the collection more browsable. Two collaborative workstation desks, equipped with 55” displays, integrated webcams for video conferencing, and screen sharing enabled by Mersive Solstice Pod units, have been placed in the spaces between the stacks. In other openings there are modern lounge chairs in a conversational layout, and a booth-style table. Students can effectively study within the stacks, as many of the collaborative seating areas are situated between two stacks of books.


rounded, cushioned seats surround by book shelves
Popular new seating area between bookshelves.

The old tables were replaced with modular tables that can be used individually or in groups and can easily be moved to different configurations. Desktop computers were removed, as the college has implemented a universal laptop initiative, and in their place, a table where students can work either individually or in small groups using laptops was added. A large new dual-sided s-shaped lounge chair, a round booth that can accommodate a large group, and a café-height table with a whiteboard surface were all added to allow a variety of seating and work environments. Various lounge chairs in several locations were made available, as well. In the selection of the furniture, accessibility for people with disabilities was a guiding factor. Most of the tables are wheelchair accessible, and the placement of furniture was done with ADA compliance in mind.


tables in chairs in grays and dark blues surrounded by books shelves
First floor after the 2021 remodel, featuring flexible, modular furniture to meet a variety of needs.

With the second round of the Cabrini Foundation grant, we have begun making changes to the second floor of the learning commons. It was repainted, and all the lounge furniture was replaced. We replaced about half of the study tables and chairs, with plans to continue this in the future, as the budget allows. Overall, the layout has remained the same, designed as a “reading room” with many tables and study carrels. Prior to receiving the grant, out of necessity due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions, we added a projector and computer podium on the main area of the second floor. Although COVID-19 restrictions became less prevalent as time has gone on, we made the decision to keep the podium and projector space despite no longer needing it as an instructional classroom. This decision has allowed us to host new types of events in the upper level, including workshops, readings, and even library instruction classes. Teaching students within the main library space creates a distinct experience, and is conducive to active learning opportunities, with more room to move around, and interact with material in the library. The second-floor area includes a leisure reading area, with a newly expanded leisure reading collection. The space features a board game collection and art station, with supplies ranging from coloring books and colored pencils to acrylic paints and canvases. These provide opportunities for both study and leisure within the shared space.


long, blue coaches with bookshelves in the distance
Leisure reading area featuring new lounge furniture after summer 2022 update.
tables and chairs in open space for group work or studying with bookshelves in the distance
Second floor after summer 2022 update.

The changes in the space have enhanced cognitive stimulation and encouraged exploration, thereby stimulating the students’ intellectual curiosity. Ultimately, the space is only one aspect of this important initiative, and our next priority became strategizing how we could ensure that everyone would feel like they have a place in the learning commons.

Welcoming Students

Once the first round of renovations was nearly complete, the next step was to let students know about the new Learning Commons! We advocated for the opportunity to be included in New Student Orientation in Summer 2021. We had to make a convincing case of the importance of students’ being introduced to the new learning commons for their future success, as the sessions were abbreviated due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Each new student orientation group had twenty minutes in the learning commons space. We gave a brief introduction to the services and features available in the learning commons, as well as a guided tour of the building, with opportunities to find spaces that appealed to them on both floors. Two themes were emphasized. First, that the learning commons is where students can go to get help with any sort of academic problem they might have, and second, that the learning commons space is theirs to make their own. We wanted students to feel comfortable and safe in the space, whether they were there to relax, study, learn, or get help. Additionally, extended library sessions were included in Hilbert’s Summer Institute, geared toward students in opportunity programs, allowing our first-generation and other at-risk students to become familiar with the space, librarians, and resources before entering their first semester of college.

In the Fall 2021 semester, we took an additional initiative to increase visits of first-year experience (GS 101) classes to the library. While it was not required that every section of GS 101 had a library session, librarians collaborated with the director of the first-year experience program to encourage as many instructors as possible to schedule library sessions. In these sessions, students discussed their past experiences with libraries and research, as well as their perceptions of libraries and information literacy concepts. They learned about the services and resources available in the learning commons and online. Nine of the thirteen GS 101 sections attended library sessions, up from only five the previous fall.

During the first weeks of the semester, the benefit of introducing new students to the space was evident. We saw many new students in the space during the first weeks of classes. Overall visits were up, and the number of questions recorded at our desk was more than double that of the previous year. We were thrilled to find that students took to heart the message that we are here to help.

Student-Librarian relationships

The many physical changes that took place in the space renovations piqued students’ curiosity to find new places to study and relax. Simultaneously, the librarians saw having new patrons in the space as an open door for new student-librarian relationships to form. Most notably, students began to have a sense of ownership and pride in the space, and the librarians started to recognize “library regulars” who had found their own spot to consistently study and spend time daily.

The students’ comfort in the space opens the door for the librarians to form connections beyond the everyday small talk and integrate conversations about students’ coursework, academics, and build on previous conversations. For example, a conversation about printing often turns into an informal reference interview between librarian and student. While the librarian helps the student connect to the printer, the librarian strikes up a conversation asking the student how classes are going and soon finds out that the student has a research paper due. The librarian then asks if the student needs any assistance with finding resources or working on citations. Gauging the students’ response to these questions can help the librarian conduct an informal reference interview and bridge the gap between students asking a question, to naturally include it in conversation. We have found that the best reference interactions occur when the student is the most at ease, without fear of feeling intimidated.

A recent study conducted by James Madison University (Fagan et al., 2021) presented some examples of why librarians may not be approachable to students, with the causes cited for students’ perceptions stemming from “library anxiety, insufficient prior experience with librarians, and the tensions between librarians’ roles as both guides to knowledge and enforcers of rules” (McClellan & Beggan, 2019). To bridge this gap of library anxiety, an awareness of this perception has helped our library team become invigorated with a new sense of purpose and motivation. Our goal is to reflect the approachability of the newly renovated space in every interaction with our patrons. A comfortable space can only get so far without staff members in the space who cultivate an environment where everyone feels welcome and seen.

We continue to have an eye on ensuring that the space is a welcoming, safe environment for students and that librarians are not seen as rule enforcers. We have been inspired by Michelle Reale’s (2018) book, The Indispensable Academic Librarian, and her statement, “Any policies that benefit staff, but exclude patrons are ludicrous; any that prioritize the maintenance of a building above what our students need seems misguided, or even criminal” (p. 81). We do not want to discourage anyone from using our space because they feel like they must adhere to strict rules, or have students perceive us as anything but helpful support. We have removed signs that have a negative or scolding tone. The learning commons is the students’ space, and they should be free to use it as they need. Food and drink are welcome with no restrictions. Aside from a quiet study area in the back half of the second floor, we try to have as few “rules” as possible. The inviting environment and attitudes of the librarians allow students to feel comfortable exploring the area and resources while spending more time within the learning commons.

Librarians’ roles are always service-oriented, but the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the increased population of first-generation college students who have come to our college through various opportunity programs, have led to an increased need for library services. In an informal poll done with our students from the Hilbert Assisi Scholars opportunity program, 30% of students answered that they were not even aware that their high school had a library. As students were returning from years of social distancing and lost schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we predicted, correctly, that students would need additional support in areas that librarians might not typically address – such as finding their classes and navigating college, as well as traditional areas such as finding books and using databases.

Building relationships between students and librarians forms a bridge between students’ information needs that they may be unaware that they even have, and the answers they are looking for. Often, we have found that students who already can put a face to the name of a librarian will come into the library and start with three simple words: “I need help.” By starting with this admission, the librarian is then able to meet the student where they are at and ask further clarifying questions that expose the reality that there is often more than one information need at stake. This is related to the students’ intellectual curiosity in that we can encourage them to ask additional questions and dig deeper to find more information. In this context, the librarian is more than a resource, but is a lifeline to student success.

Programming, Workshops and Events

The renovated, flexible spaces have had the effect of increased visits to the learning commons, but they have also allowed us to use the library in new and exciting ways to increase student engagement and interest in the learning commons and its resources. The learning commons has held its own programming, as well as hosted programs held by other campus departments.

While it not a new service, drop-in tutoring in the learning commons continues to be popular. Our tutors have all found spaces that work well for them, such as the collaborative workstations, the white board table, or smaller modular tables. Small group workshops have been held at the collaborative stations during this hour as well. The fact that tutoring takes place in the open library creates an environment where the library acts as a space for learning and exploration.

During the fall 2021 semester, programming mainly consisted of academic and career skills workshops presented by departments within the learning commons. To close the semester, we offered Winter Break Book Boxes, where students could sign up to receive a box to take home for winter break. Librarians selected leisure reading books for students based on their reading preferences and boxed them with gifts and snacks. We hoped that it would make students more aware of the library’s leisure reading collection and remind them that we are more than just a place to study or get articles. The signup was done through a link on our Instagram page, serving to increase our followers and engagement on that account. The pick-up dates coincided with our “Fuel Up for Finals” week, where coffee and snacks were available in the library. This program was enormously popular, with far more students than expected requesting boxes. We noticed anecdotally that this had a positive impact on students’ attitudes toward the library and librarians. When classes resumed in the spring, several students requested that we purchase further books from series they received. We hosted a Commuter Breakfast at the end of the fall semester, where the Student Life department provided students with a free breakfast. This collaboration was a testament to the flexibility of the new space.

Buoyed by the success of the end of the fall semester programs, we started the Spring semester eager to encourage more students to see the spaces and services available in the Learning Commons. In collaboration with Academic Affairs and Academic Services, we hosted “March Midterm Madness.” This event combined stress relief activities with academic support. Other campus departments tabled the event, answering questions about registration, financial aid, career services, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. This was a tremendously successful event and allowed students to see the learning commons as a campus hub for all types of activities.

Finally, we closed the semester with a late-night study party. Having limited staffing, it is difficult for us to extend hours during finals week, but we were able to stay open a few additional hours for one night. Students came to study, finish projects, or just relax. Librarians and tutors were on hand if students needed help with assignments. Food, gift bags and raffle prizes were highlights of the event. During the party, there were “study breaks” each hour. We found that this event attracted students who might not typically come to the library in the evenings and led to more positive attitudes toward the learning commons space.

Students’ Responses to the Space and Intellectual Curiosity

One way we can measure the success of our space is through simple attendance and reference statistics. Despite nationwide trends of decreasing reference transactions (ACRL, 2021) and visits (DeGroote & Scoulas, 2021) in academic libraries, we have seen tremendous growth, year over year, in both door counts and reference questions. The 2021-2022 school year showed a 13.5% growth in visitors over the previous year. At the time of this writing, the 2022-2023 school year is just beginning, but visits have increased even more, with the first 3 weeks of the semester showing a 30% increase over the first three weeks of the Fall 2020 semester. While we are thrilled to have a vibrant and active learning commons, the tangible evidence of students demonstrating their curiosity is the questions they pose. Overall, there was a 15% increase in the number of questions addressed at the desk from the 2020-2021 school year to 2021-2022. However, looking at this year’s early statistics, the number of questions at the desk has been astronomical, with a 519% increase over the first three weeks of Fall 2020, and a 110% increase over the first three weeks of Fall 2021. We have also been able to gather student feedback using ACRL’s Project Outcome Space surveys. While our response sizes have been small, 100% of respondents have either agreed or strongly agreed that the space has contributed to their ability to learn something new. Most students have indicated that they come to the library to study independently, use the printers, socialize, and relax. Students have indicated a direct impact of the learning commons on their intellectual curiosity, either through the provision of materials, or the environment allowing them to feel comfortable broadening their horizons, asking more questions and finding answers.

Overall, we feel that the space renovations and relaxed, welcoming atmosphere have benefitted students, and contributed to their success. Students have benefitted directly through the centralized services in the learning commons, the efforts of librarians to reach students, and technology to support their learning. The renovations have also contributed to student success by providing space and resources that stimulate intellectual curiosity and allow students to become active learners in the learning commons. Rather than losing our identity as a library, transitioning into the learning commons model has provided new opportunities to think creatively about the flexibility of our student-centered space, and how we can grow with and support the evolving needs of our students.


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About the Authors

Melissa Laidman holds a Masters in Information and Library Science and a Masters in Psychology from the University at Buffalo. Currently the Public Services and Instruction Librarian at Hilbert College in Hamburg, NY, Melissa has been working in academic libraries in various roles, including interlibrary loan, reference, instruction, public services, and outreach for six years. She is dedicated to helping students succeed in higher education and beyond and committed to promoting access to information and lifelong learning. Her research interests include information literacy instruction, particularly for first year students, first generation students and distance learners, the impact of library instruction and services on student success and retention, and news and media literacy.

Melissa can be reached at mlaidman@hilbert.edu

Chloe Santangelo holds a Masters in Information and Library Science from the University at Buffalo and currently serves as the Library Director at Hilbert College in Hamburg, NY. Her background working in reference services, instruction, library advocacy, electronic resource management, and emerging technologies research has fueled her career in library administration. With her commitment to fostering a dynamic and inclusive learning environment, Chloe believes that effective leadership involves advocating for librarians and patrons alike. She is passionate about cultivating patron-centric spaces, specifically, enhancing the student experience and improving access to information in the academic library.

Chloe can be reached at csantangelo@hilbert.edu


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Intellectual Curiosity and the Role of Libraries Copyright © by Melissa Laidman and Chloe Santangelo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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