Rachel Brekhus has made a top cut.
A reference librarian at MU’s Ellis Library, she and other reference staff have spent the past months creating a list of reference books they think should make the move into the library’s new James B. Nutter Sr. Family Information Commons, under construction now and scheduled to open in the fall. The commons will replace the library’s reference section as a space for students to gather and share information.
Deciding what books make the move is based on popularity and relevance, Brekhus said. It is a tight selection, considering that only about 2,000 of the 75,000 books previously in the reference section will return to the commons.
These days, Brekhus sits at a temporary reference desk, snugly relocated in between columns and in front of a long row of computers in the library’s colonnade.
“They are the kind of books that have a quick fact that we could pull out and use,” she said of the chosen. “We don’t want to leave them (the patrons) hanging.” With humor, she insists that the selection process does not devalue those books that don’t make the move.
The philosophy behind the number of books, and the information commons itself, is based on a long-running project with the goal to increase library patronage and transform the way people use libraries, said Jim Cogswell, director of libraries at MU.
The idea for the project originated among university libraries about 10 years ago, when libraries noticed that the number of visitors had plateaued or was decreasing.
“A lot of people tended to not come to the library because it was largely seen as a place where you had books,” Cogswell said, “and if you needed books that was great, but you didn’t stay there.”
Cogswell and other library staff hoped to create a space where people would come, stay and learn with the library’s resources and each other.
A $1 million grant from the James B. Nutter Sr. family made the hope a reality, and construction of the commons began in the first week of January. Additional money needed for the project, about $1 million, is being raised through other private gifts and will be in hand by September, Cogswell said.
In redesigning the space, the renovation team focused on “the social needs for scholarship,” Cogswell said. The commons will have a number of group tables, plush armchairs and individual work spaces in semi-enclosed “pods” and fully enclosed study rooms. Objects in the room will be low to emphasize openness, and the room’s large amount of window light — previously blocked by metal shelves with reference materials — will give the room a comfortable atmosphere.
The space will also change the way the reference desk and the reference librarians operate. The new reference desk will also be low and open, with only a few shelves to house books and a large table for the librarians to have consultations.
Brekhus said a changed reference desk would help to alleviate some of the psychological effects of coming into the library. “People are always frustrated with a large academic library — it’s intimidating,” she said. “It will be more relaxing in a generally open space.”Cogswell said the construction is scheduled for completion in mid-September.
Meanwhile, however, students who use the library for study face space constraints brought on by the construction. MU freshman Valencia Marshall spends some of her afternoons in the library’s colonnade — a hall full of cushy chairs and squat tables that is one of the most popular areas for students to study.
Marshall thinks the library, especially the colonnade, will be a hectic place come finals week. But she is excited to see the outcome, specifically an increase in group seating.
“It’s a little inconvenient, now, but it’ll be worth it in the end,” he said.
Cogswell is aware of the space issues within the library but thinks it’s a problem of every library: “Name the library, and there are space constraints,” he said.
He said the feel of the commons, with its low sight lines, mobile furniture and wireless Internet, will help reduce that constraint.
As the renovations occur, Brekhus and other reference staff are keeping an eye on which books prove most helpful at the reference desk. However, before the books were relocated, staff used orange stickers to tag those getting the most use and seen as the most helpful. Brekhus’ favorite keeper: “The Statistical Abstract of the United States.”
“It just has so many random and useful facts,” she said. “It’s a desert-island reference book.”
Such books symbolize the wide-ranging information needs of today’s students, Cogswell said. He said he hopes the Information Commons will provide a space for such factfinding and sharing among students and faculty.
“It’s a great place for people to come together, to learn, to discover, to interact and work,” he said. “The nature of information is that it is constantly expanding, and that means your capacity to use it has to expand, too.”