Campus & Community

The new Anderson Academic Commons is a catalyst for connection

When Penrose Library was completed in 1972, learning was largely a matter of lectures, books and labs.

Today’s learning model involves experience, collaboration and access to information in forms barely imagined 40 years ago. Computer databases have replaced card catalogs and microfilm; group projects have replaced individual reports; and mobile devices have made all of it portable, sharable and accessible from anywhere.

At the University of Denver, the library has caught up with the times.

After 16 months of construction, the Anderson Academic Commons opened its doors March 25. Created with the support of more than 5,000 donors, the fully remodeled building features several dozen tech-equipped group study areas, “deep quiet” zones for intense study and an in-house café with patio seating and a menu of seasonal, locally sourced cuisine.

As Nancy Allen, dean and director of University Libraries, notes, academic libraries today must complement the way learning occurs on campus. Higher education is no longer about students gaining knowledge from “the sage on the stage.” Rather, students are learning from peers and experience, as well as from their professors. The Anderson Academic Commons provides ample opportunities for quiet study, but it also expands space for collaborative work — comfy areas where armchairs can be pulled into a circle so that students can explore digital resources together. Project teams can meet in group study rooms, equipped with flat-panel monitors, to put the finishing touches on class presentations. An array of connection points means students and faculty members can plug in a tablet or phone to share their mobile work with others.

“The library is a place that offers choices,” Allen says. “If you’re at a point in your studies where you need quiet, concentrated spaces for solo work so that you can focus, using your brain power to its best capacity, we’ve got a place for you. If you need to meet up with your colleagues from one of your classes to produce a shared project, we have a place for you. If you want to do that behind walls so you’ve got some acoustic protection, great — you can reserve a room. If you want to be out and visible and waving to your friends who are walking by, we’ve got a place for you. And all of those places have electrical power and technology: display panels, communication networks. We have the infrastructure to help you succeed.”

In terms of cultural offerings, the commons has been designed to include exhibit spaces for items from the Penrose archives — maps, rare books, artworks and more. And the main level features a 3,000-square-foot events arena, a glass-walled space suitable for poetry slams and author readings.

“Our idea is that the building should be more of a cultural center, a community center,” Allen says. “The library has never had its own location for book lectures or poetry readings. We just didn’t have the space.”

The notion of space is prevalent in the new building, where seating areas and study rooms have replaced much of the real estate once occupied by books, and where a giant skylight fills the ground level and second floor with sunlight during the day.

On the upper level, a formal reading room offers comfortable perches for perusing print and digital materials, as well as a stone fireplace and panoramic views of campus. The upper level also provides entry to a glass-walled classroom that hangs between the skylight and the main floor. The lower level, meanwhile, is home to Special Collections and Archives and the bulk of the book collections. Thanks to compact shelving, the commons affords access to about eight miles of books, while reading tables provide space for visitors to spread out with their selections from the stacks.

The Anderson Academic Commons also provides integrated workspace for a full array of academic support services, including the Writing Program and Center, the Office of Teaching and Learning, the Math Center, the Research Center and the University Technology Services Help Center. In addition, a Digital Media Center assists students and faculty in the emerging art of editing digital content and marrying media into presentations.

“We’re all about empowering people and providing access to information,” says Julanna Gilbert, director of the Office of Teaching and Learning, which works with faculty to improve teaching and learning and to acquire high-tech pedagogical expertise. “I see the new building as responding to that.”

Once obscured by stacks of books in the southeast corner of Penrose’s upper level, the Office of Teaching and Learning now has an increased visual presence that helps patrons “see the connections” among services. It allows students and faculty to get research assistance at one stop, advice on persuasive rhetoric at another and a consultation on embedding media in a PowerPoint presentation at still another — all without leaving the building.

Doug Hesse, director of the Writing Program, expects the new design, with its open floor plan and emphasis on transparency, to increase demand for services. “I think the Academic Commons is much more purposeful and inviting,” he says. “It’s going to convey to students that this is central to the academic mission of the campus and not ancillary. As a result, I anticipate students using the services more.”

To Allen, the combination of student support services with areas for research and collaboration puts the University of Denver on the cutting edge when it comes to academic libraries.

“I’ve been saying all along that it’s going to have magnetic properties,” she says. “Students will be irresistibly drawn to it. Lots of power outlets and lots of spaces for every academic purpose — everything from the café to the deep quiet study areas with the acoustic glass. It’s a well-done project, and I hope every single student will work there.”

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