4 Ways Academic Libraries Are Adapting For The Future

Has technology rendered the library obsolete? It doesn’t seem so. Instead, centers for higher learning are finding ways to reinvigorate them.

For academic institutions seeking to thrive amidst the constantly shifting world of higher education, libraries have become the heart of the spirit of collaboration and innovation–going beyond being places to merely access knowledge to become hubs to truly explore and create. The institutions at the frontlines of this change are thinking beyond the days of the library as a collections repository to something much more powerful. At a recent meeting with the University of Virginia Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon, he described the library as the great “Intellectual Convener.”


Despite all the dire predictions for the future of academic libraries in the digital age, when people believed the digitalization of print and other emerging technologies would make them irrelevant, universities around the country are evolving their libraries and intellectual centers into catalysts for discovery, learning, collaboration, and scholarly breakthroughs.

This evolution keeps academic libraries at the intersection of trans-disciplinary learning as institutions transform their pedagogies to meet evolving needs.

SUNY Old Westbury

Each institution requires a unique vision for creating an intellectual center for 21st-century teaching, learning and collaboration. Moreover, that vision must reflect the institution’s own voice and ask what it means to support the creation of academic scholarship. These are four key areas critical to the changing landscape for academic libraries.

Libraries Must Respond to Strategic Campus and Business Needs

In today’s educational environment, simply focusing on library space planning is not sufficient. Academic leaders are immersed in ongoing discussions about strategic investments and outcomes that impact institutional priorities, use of resources and the modeling of spaces on campus. This critical, evidence-based decision-making must be aligned with library planning efforts.

SUNY Old Westbury

The University of Guelph has committed to such rigorous analysis with the revitalization of its McLaughlin Library. Originally designed to support a 300,000 volume collection and 15,000 students, McLaughlin Library needed a plan to accommodate the university’s evolution into a comprehensive research university with a 1.2 million volume collection serving over 21,000 students.

University leaders conducted online staff surveys, open town-hall sessions, focus group discussion, student intercept polling and interactive staff planning workshops to develop a plan to renovate the existing facility. The plan created 40% more study space, including flexible active learning instruction areas, a range of collaborative group-study rooms and a new “Research Collaboratory,” co-located with reading and exhibit rooms. By reorganizing for efficiencies in staff workspaces and moving non-technical operations off the main floor, the university also created a vibrant new main entrance that invites students into the learning commons and offers a 24-hour zone, café, and computer lab.


Libraries Need to have Technology Infused in Every Aspect of Service

Those who predicted the demise of libraries in the face of emerging technology failed to understand how libraries could transform to become beacons for both interactive learning and knowledge creation across both the physical and digital realms. With an estimated 89% of today’s college students using smart phones in addition to laptops and tablets, libraries need to offer learning opportunities across multiple mediums that allow students to access local and global networks of information. That access allows not only access to knowledge but also the ability to easily create and share knowledge. This mobility shift is where 21st-century teaching, learning, and the creation of new knowledge intersect. Libraries must now foster a positive ecology of relationships, connectivity settings, and tools layered together to foster discovery and learning within the context of a dynamic academic framework.

Wilfrid Laurier

Wilfrid Laurier University made technology a central focus for the planning of its new library which will be fully equipped to support the multimedia, study and instructional needs for its 16,000 students. The library offers robust access to technology and digital content along with an IT infrastructure capable of supporting 24/7 fast-paced learning and connectivity. The University of Guelph made similar adaptations for McLaughlin Library by introducing compact shelving for a consolidated collection and spaces and tools reflective of the rise of digital resources.

Libraries Must Embrace Flexibilty

The role a library needs to play on an academic campus will continue to evolve over the next two decades just as it has over the previous two. Institutions can’t lose sight of this as they plan for the future of their intellectual facilities. Universities will be most successful in leveraging their libraries if they not only solve for current needs but ensure their facilities can respond to future changes in pedagogy and technology.

SUNY, The College at Old Westbury recognized that its 1980s-built library at the heart of campus no longer adequately met student needs. The state of New York and the school committed to an extensive planning exercise that led to expanding the range of seating types and creating collaborative study rooms, digital and analog media labs and individual research spaces. Collectively, these renovation efforts prepared the library to accommodate a growing collection for the next 20 years, provide staff with sufficient space for student support, and introduce adaptable and technology-rich environments across the library. The rejuvenated library not only enriches the existing campus experience but is also aiding in student recruitment and retention for the future.

Wilfrid Laurier

Libraries Must Have Places to Engage

It has never been more vital for academic leaders to ensure libraries offer an appropriate balance of flexible and special-use spaces to spur dialogue and engagement. Along with responding to changes dictated by technological advances, libraries must also offer appropriate spaces for meetings, presentations and casual collaboration.

Every institution will have a different set of needs for such spaces. Academic leaders need to study their institutions and deliver strategic responses based on their unique opportunities. SUNY Old Westbury, Wilfrid Laurier University, and University of Guelph needed to achieve different goals and thus delivered their own creative solutions. In each case, while strategically addressing how their libraries can continue to empower leading-edge learning, they’ve created valuable and memorable spaces that invigorate their campus.


The academic library’s shift from a repository of collections to a catalyst for discovery and creation is now happening across the globe. More than ever, libraries are essential as the place where people, knowledge, and research intersect to tackle our world’s greatest challenges.

About the author

Brad Lukanic is the Executive Director of CannonDesign’s global education practice, focused on helping educational institutions design solutions that turn challenges into opportunities for success.