Barker renovation is the beginning

MIT Libraries conducted surveys to tailor library facilities

If you think the Barker Reading Room is the last you’ll see of changes in the MIT Libraries, think again. The renovation of the Barker Reading Room is the first step of a longer process to better serve students’ study needs.

By the end of IAP, the well-loved Barker reading room will be a transformed space. Shawmut Construction, under the direction of Dick O’Connell, project superintendent, along with Joe Collins and Jennifer Combs from MIT Facilities, and Steve Gass, associate director for libraries’ research and instructional services, is renovating the study area by adding four new sources of lighting, improving the sound masking system, and repainting the grilles and dome.

The new reading room will have a ring of LED lights about halfway down from the dome, a series of fluorescent lights behind fogged acrylic panels, and 16 recessed lights just under the dome, and the newly restored oculus. In restoring the skylight of the dome, Shawmut has kept the original steelwork but replicated the small glass blocks that allow light to stream through. They are also adding a sloped protective lid on the dome intended to deter hackers and prevent leaks.

In addition to improving the lighting, Shawmut is upgrading the sound masking system by installing advanced acoustic panels. Another key part of the renovation is the construction of bathrooms right outside the reading room. The furniture in the reading room will remain the same. Upon its reopening in February 2013, the reading room will become a 24-hour accessible space with a seating capacity of about 120 students.

Barker is the beginning of the reinvention of libraries at MIT, according to Ann Wolpert, director of libraries.

The administration of the libraries has begun to construct a set of new long-term aspirations. They hope to take advantage of under-utilized spaces, such as the courtyard by Hayden Library, in an effort to encourage a collaborative and digital learning environment. According to Wolpert, “the vision is, fundamentally, to continue to take an amazing asset that MIT has built over the last 150 years … building them into the curriculum, helping students understand how to use these resources so they can continue to be successful once they leave MIT and finding the kinds of spaces that students need to study and work.”

After conducting several surveys and even counting the number of students in each library space at any time, the Libraries have a better idea of how to tailor library hours and facilities to the needs of students.

“If it looks like at the end of the day we’re shooing a lot of students out the door, then that was how we tried to respond,” said Janet Conrad, chair of the faculty committee on library systems. The libraries are also responding to graduate students’ need for spaces to write their theses — somewhere separate from the lab, where they can easily ask for help finding material. A key part of the libraries’ vision is to make the libraries a place where students can either study ‘alone together’ or work on group projects. Another need the libraries are responding to is the demand for group work space. Following the popularity of the Barker group study spaces, the libraries hope to develop more similar spaces.

In developing a vision for the MIT libraries, the administration took into consideration libraries at several other colleges, including Georgia Tech, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, North Carolina State, and Stanford. In comparison, libraries on other campuses provide more seating, more group study rooms, more digital learning classrooms, nearby food and coffee venues, and longer hours. A few other libraries also have more advanced technology, with elaborate A/V equipment and automatic check-out systems.

Though MIT libraries are lacking in certain areas, they lead in electronic collections, an initiative that began before any other library realized the importance of the shift from tangible collections to electronic ones, according to Wolpert. The MIT libraries, recognizing that students and faculty are constantly traveling, have dedicated strong efforts to building a world-class electronic collection. In 2011, 90 percent of the libraries’ acquisitions budget consisted of electronic resources.

Currently the MIT libraries provide seating for about 13 percent of the student population if every student were to try to sit in the library. The remaining space is allocated to collections, staff, service desks, and instructional spaces. As the libraries continue to improve their ability to meet students’ needs, next steps might even include a system for tracking the availability of specific study spaces, Wolpert said.