How We Transformed our Library into a Lively Space for Learning
Interview with Jane Blumenthal: Community, caffeine, and a virtual patient are just part of U-M’s renovated Taubman Health Sciences Library
July 12, 2017
Taubman Library evening wide By UMHealth System
Jaws drop when people familiar with the original 1980 Taubman Health Sciences Library (THSL) walk into the University of Michigan’s light-filled renovated space — humming with teaching, learning, and collaboration and no stacks in sight.
The repurposed library is a testament to how technology has changed medical education and the libraries that support it. THSL’s transformation added 67 miles of data cables and 18,000 square feet of glass wall. All print books and print journals are now off-site, but available. An entrance-level café greets visitors. Students tap a table-top screen — a virtual cadaver — to explore 3-D anatomy of a life-size patient. Throughout the medical student lounge and study areas, working groups scribble on whiteboard-covered tables and walls.
Less visible is the partnership between the library and U-M’s medical school, the primary funder of the $55 million transformation.
“The library already was a good partner on medical education. It was a natural next step to think about space,” explains Rajesh S. Mangrulkar, MD, U-M Associate Dean for Medical Student Education.
This ongoing collaboration seeks to leverage the digital revolution while optimizing university space for education, research, and patient care. The Taubman’s re-opening in August 2015, after the 18-month renovation, coincided with a new medical school curriculum that embraces new types of learning. And it ushered in a shift in how librarians, redefined as informationists, interact with faculty, students, and trainees throughout U-M’s six health science schools.
The new space itself “has been incredibly positively received,” says Mangrulkar. “For students, it’s the best study space on campus. And faculty love using the great collaborative meeting areas.”
Jane Blumenthal, Associate University Librarian and THSL Library Director, shares lessons learned about transforming a library — and how the experience may apply to others, regardless of size and budget.
Q. Let’s talk about space. How did it come about for you to use library space in new ways?
We began talking about space internally about nine years ago, initially with the University Library. That provided an opportunity to think about what we really needed. We concluded it wasn’t so much access to the print collection on site that was needed, but rather space to work together and to collaborate in a quiet place. We had lots of cubicles, but no good conference rooms or places for small group discussion.
We had worked to get electronic subscriptions, with the goal of dropping the print, so we knew we could give up space being used for printed materials. When the medical school came to us because they needed space for additional study rooms and other collaborative work and teaching areas, we already had some of these ideas in mind. It helped that we had a long history of working well together. We’d been partnering on medical education for many years.
Q. How do you define your health sciences library now?
For years, we’ve been redefining the collection and the library to align with institutional mission and priorities, reflected in our mission statement: “…to be a valued partner, fully integrated into the work of the university and providing leadership in knowledge management for education, research, patient care, and community outreach.”
I don’t know how many times I have explained that we are not “a library without books.” At most, we are a library without print in the library building. We have lots of books — some located remotely and some online. We have more than 500,000 volumes of print materials available, not all of which are books.
Q. Among the biggest changes is that you closed the reference desk and shifted to a liaison model for librarians, now called informationists. How does this work?
We work beyond the traditional library reference model to be an active partner in education and research, with both faculty and students. Our informationists work primarily outside of the library building in departments, clinical sites, and laboratories.
They are strongly affiliated with these departments. We contribute to departmental committees and projects. We try to be very alert to what’s going on – and when we see or hear an opportunity, we ask if we can participate. Our informationists develop deep knowledge of the content, context, and culture of the subject area, and share their knowledge of information resources beyond the library’s collections.
In our team model, multiple informationists are aware of each department’s work, so that the department doesn’t become too wed to any one of us. For example, a five-person team works with the school of medicine; other teams work with nursing, public health, pharmacy, kinesiology, and dentistry. We also have a tech team that works across all schools to help informationists with the details of using emerging technologies in instruction and research.
Informationists spend a lot of time within health sciences departments, but their home department is still the library, where their offices are. It’s important to have a place where library professionals can come together to interact.
Q. Did you face resistance within the library staff for the changing roles?
We made this change to show our commitment to meet changing expectations and needs of our faculty partners. And, yes, in the beginning there was opposition. Over time, people made peace with it. We reallocated some positions and created some new ones. We expected and accepted some attrition. In new hires, we looked for people who are flexible, interested in partnerships, and have varied expertise. We continue to invest in professional development.
Q. How do you work with clinical care sites?
We have a big connection with clinical care enterprises, primarily in two areas: We collaborate with individual departments to help them create clinical guidelines. And we partner with people who are producing systematic reviews.
Sometimes people come up to us with questions about clinical care. But generally people can find answers to their point-of-care questions themselves and not deal with a mediator. That’s ideal. That leaves the library resources available for the more complex presentation of information.
Q. Short of a $55 million renovation, what steps can a library take to ensure it keeps the space it needs? How can librarians make their voices relevant and heard?
Some schools come in and with no notice say “We’re taking over this space.” But if you are open to proposing change before it is foisted on you, then you can have more control. You will not have complete control. But at least you can have some say.
First, make sure you are getting as many resources as possible electronically, so you don’t have such pressure on space. Then, think about how you use space and how you might repurpose it. Move furniture before remodeling. For example, early on, we took out a section of stacks and put in tables and chairs in spaces surrounded by books. The books absorb sound. We didn’t have funding to build, but we could offer an intermediate step to show we were working toward solutions.
Most of all, it helps to have good working relationships with other departments. You have to build your relationships before you can call on them. You can do this by presenting yourself as collaborators and partners, and by going to faculty meetings and presentations where potential partners are. Ask them about their work and learn their needs.
Q. With the revamped library now in full swing, can you share any surprises? Lessons learned?
The building renovation was designed for all the space to be used — and that is happening. We have quiet single studiers as well as groups of four or five students working together, writing on the whiteboard walls. Some courses now have classroom time in the library. On a recent morning, the small group learning rooms (for 30 students) were all in use. And the coffee shop is doing a gangbuster business. The building is vibrant and used more fully than before.
We have seen that natural light, art, and food and coffee bring life and energy. That’s one lesson. Another is the need to reinvent and reiterate. It’s OK to change the library!
Q. What feedback have you received?
Everyone is very proud of this building. It’s been shown off to U-M alumni and donors and conferences visiting the area. People walk in, and their jaws drop. Visually, it’s beautiful. People who had been in the old building are flabbergasted by how much the building has changed. And it’s a very functional space for medical education — designed for education by educators. I and the THL informationists are proud to be educators in a community that is able to work together so well for the common good.
For further information, contact Jane Blumenthal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: UMHealth System, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)