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A library on the move

Concordia's R. Howard Webster Library is being transformed to respond to new student needs
February 11, 2016
By J. Latimer

Concordia libraries

There is more natural light, more study space, less noise — and that’s just for starters.

Welcome to the transformation of the R. Howard Webster Library on Concordia’s Sir George Williams Campus. The project is nothing less than a radical rethinking of every aspect of how the library functions, from the allocation of space to the types of holdings in the collection. “Anyone who hasn’t been to the Webster Library in a few years will be in for a surprise,” says Guylaine Beaudry, university librarian.

Work began in January 2015 and the three-year project is well underway (see the sidebar, “The transformation”). “It’s essential to our growth as a university that we provide inspiring, nurturing environments for our students,” says Beaudry, who has been a driving force behind the project since arriving at Concordia in 2014. “Students asked for more seating, more technology, more comfortable chairs, and that’s what they’re getting. We even involved students in the furniture selection process.”

Concordia President Alan Shepard identifies the library transformation as an important priority. “This project will help deliver a next-generation education, which is in line with our new strategic direction of teaching for tomorrow,” says Shepard. “It will reinforce the libraries’ ability to support learning and research activities, provide a foundation for intellectual life within Concordia and foster a culture of research, innovation and collaborative learning.”

University Librarian Guylaine Beaudry Concordia's University Librarian Guylaine Beaudry
points out that the need for libraries has not
diminished in the digital age.
More relevant than ever

With the Webster Library undergoing such a major upgrade, it raises the awkward question: why bother? Won’t libraries be obsolete in the near future? Beaudry has heard the concern before. She isn’t defensive, however, because the facts support her claim that libraries are thriving. “We’re in a golden age for libraries, in Quebec in particular,” she says. “And our libraries at Concordia are full!”

Indeed, the Webster Library alone gets between 10,000 and 12,000 visits per day. Last year, Concordia’s libraries, including the Grey Nuns Reading Room downtown and the Georges P. Vanier Library on the Loyola Campus, had 2.2 million visits in total. “It’s a myth that nobody reads anymore and everything is digital. We know that only three per cent of what we published on paper in Canada has been digitized,” says Beaudry, who would like Canada to adopt a national digitization program. “There is still a lot of content only available in print. We have it, of course, but we’re a very modern institution so we devote more than 85 per cent of our collections budget to online publications and databases.”

Arnaldo Brunetti and Vince Graziano Veteran Concordia Libraries staff members Arnaldo
Brunetti and Vince Graziano in the newly
renovated premises.
New student needs

There are many reasons why students continue to come to the library so regularly. Arnaldo Brunetti, a staffer of 30 years, points to the changing nature of assignments and homework. “There has been a fundamental shift toward group work,” notes Brunetti, the libraries’ circulation, controls and reserve supervisor. “Before, students basically wanted study carrels. Now, demand is high for group meeting rooms — with white boards and technology — and public spaces where students can meet and talk and work on their projects together.”

Vince Graziano, BA 85, senior librarian for English, theatre and sexuality studies, agrees, adding that the flip side of demand for more collaborative space is a demand for “zero noise” rooms. “When students aren’t doing group work, they want to focus on their reading. If they’re alone, they want absolute quiet,” he says.

Graziano has seen many changes since he started at Concordia 23 years ago. “We used to have one online database called Dialog and librarians would do searches for faculty and students, for a fee. Now students borrow laptops and iPads, or they sit at computers and run searches themselves,” he says. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t see students one on one, but now we do — so much so that the transformation incorporates consultation rooms for this purpose. Librarians have more of a teaching role than we ever did. We reinvent ourselves all the time.”

He has also seen a rise in the number of graduate students at Concordia and is happy that the transformation supports this reality. The fifth floor will have four dissertation rooms, lockers, shelves and a silent study hall, plus a lounge and kitchenette for graduate students. “Doing your master’s will be less isolating and more collegial with these facilities in place,” says Graziano.

This radical reimaging of the existing space is key to keeping the library an essential service. “Since antiquity, libraries have been spaces where we develop knowledge, where we express ourselves, where we work for the advancement of society and science,” says Beaudry. “That’s still the case, especially at Concordia, but we need a space to reflect that ambition.”

Lending support

Reconfiguring the library’s layout and upgrading its technological capacity — not to mention providing the fun stuff, like jazzy new carpets, glass bricks and comfortable sofas — is a major financial undertaking.

"An ambitious space like the new Webster Library requires financial support,” says Belinda Pyle, development officer, Libraries, for Concordia’s Advancement and Alumni Relations. “Libraries are being used more than ever. The more we gear toward technology, the busier the libraries get.”

Much of the project funding is coming from the Government of Quebec under budget envelopes earmarked for university infrastructure projects and equipment. The Concordia Student Union also pledged a substantial $6.8 million to the Student Union Library Service Fund in 2009, which allowed the library to remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Yet it’s not enough — which is why Concordia is reaching out to donors to support the library. The libraries recently received two major gifts from alumni: Richard Stilwell, BA 68, gave $25,000 for the oral history data web platform at Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. This database archives digital video and audio materials in such a way that researchers can annotate, analyze and evaluate materials in the collections.

Brian Neysmith, BSc 66, donated $100,000 to develop Concordia University Press — one of the first to publish free digital scholarly books in North America. (See the sidebar, “Investing in knowledge.”) “Libraries are key players in supporting student success and they’re a vital component of the learning experience. Library donors understand that,” says Pyle. “It’s not about books. It’s about students.”

Those students have noticed. “The lighting is much better now, and that changes everything,” says second-year art history major Oona Ostrowski, voicing a common reaction to the transformation. “It’s a completely different experience.”

“The bright colours and the seats are so inspiring. It motivates me,” says Marla Scattolin, a second-year accounting student. “I didn’t realize how important design was, psychologically, until I experienced the difference.” Second-year John Molson School of Business student Theo Kobb agrees. “The new design has a positive effect on my studying. All the little details — the splashes of orange, the carpet, the couches — have an impact,” he says. “It feels more like home.”

—Joanne Latimer, MFA (art history) 94, is a Montreal freelance writer.

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