One year and one-million down
GVL / Courtesy - James Haefner; Architect: SHW Group
The Mary Idema Pew Library and Information Commons is a colossus. Hidden beneath its glassy, post-modern exterior is a combined floor area of 150,000 square feet. For every one of those feet, there is an equal number of books available in its stacks, with additional space for 600,000 more in its automated retrieval system ASRS.
On June 24, the Mary Idema Pew Library hits its first-year milestone, and its staff is looking back on the year’s lessons learned, successes earned and how they will be applied to years to come.
“Honestly, I think it’s been amazing,” said Brian Merry, head of operations and user services. “I’m pretty proud with what we’ve done…to take on this project and operate and deliver services…we (worked) tirelessly to make this a smooth transition and to make sure people had a good experience.”
Merry and the rest of the staff thought they might be able to rest easy with the first year under their belt, but with over one-million guests in a recent tally, and more on the way, rest may lay on some distant horizon.
“I thought there would be a lull now that we got through the first academic year, but I feel like I’m busier than ever right now,” he said. “Most of our time now is taken up with kind of showing off the building and building new partnerships and that sort of thing. Literally our schedule is booked.”
Facing initial technological difficulties and punctuated by an act of vandalism in late 2013, the year has also seen its challenges for the library staff.
“Year one, I gather with any new facility, you have a lot of growing pains from a facility standpoint. There’s a lot of things that are a work in progress when you move into a place like this that you need to work with,” Merry said.
He added that the efficiency of library staff, including IT and other departments in the building, help to keep setbacks at a minimum.
“I wouldn’t call (them) a huge obstacle, but it’s definitely been an adjustment compared to what we’re used to from a library operations standpoint and the beauty of that is I don’t think the students would know the difference. It’s all kind of behind the scenes.”
When it comes to ever being finished, the staff takes a more proactive, hands-on approach.
“We’ll never be finished,” said Kristin Meyer, library user experience manager. “I think we’ll always be looking for ways to improve the library and the services we offer and we are always interested in user feedback and improving the experience for our users.”
Although only being a fixture on campus for 12 months, the Mary Idema Pew Library has affected the campus, though only the library staff could say how.
“One of the things we notice when the building is full is that there is this energy in here, and I think that energy motivates students,” said Jennifer Torreano, library evening operations and user services manager. “So they come in and see everyone else studying and getting work done and they’re energized by that.”
Torreano, a Grand Valley State University graduate, recalls her experiences at the old Zumberge Library.
“Even at peak hours during exam-cram at Zumberge, the volume of students was much lower than it is now. (During the regular school year), we regularly have over 800 people in the building, so there’s just a lot more activity, a lot more life in the building. Really everything has changed.”
The Zumberge Library served GVSU students since its opening in 1969. The building has since been renovated and become home to many of the university’s administrative services.
Merry sees that the library has not only impacted students, but also the university body as a whole.
“(The Mary Idema Pew Library has) also brought a sense of pride to Grand Valley,” he said. “Even more than we had before. Both for students and everybody from undergrad to the president of the university share a great sense of pride with this place.”
Though, Merry said, it’s hard to measure the impact that it has really had.
“I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface really. There’s different ways the library’s been a showcase for initiatives or purposes so, aside the practical use of the space, I think it’s really helped raise the profile of Grand Valley. It’s a worldwide recognized facility.”
Since its opening, the library has hosted scores of activities ranging from live music to lectures. Reservations in any of its event rooms are at a premium.
The library also regularly hosts representatives of the public and private sectors from around the globe to observe its design and layout.
Underlying such a feat is a design philosophy that stems from allowing students to interact freely with their work environments. Such design has made the Mary Idema Pew Library a model to be emulated. Last year, it was the item of focus in Library Journal’s Year in Architecture 2013 and continues to influence business design in companies like Steelcase, a major contributor to the library’s development.
Meyer brings up the Fun Theory, a way of organization that encourages players to interact freely in work settings, which was a major focus in the design of the building and its environment.
“The philosophy we follow is whenever we try to cue users to a certain behaviors we try to use the Fun Theory, which is (that) you can change behavior through fun more than having a passive/aggressive sign put up.”
These passive/aggressive stimuli are common in in a lot of public buildings, Merry said.
“People are always surprised when they come here and there are almost no signs,” Torreano said. “You won’t find signs telling you to be quiet in places or anything like that. It’s your building and we want you to use it the way that you want to use it.”
Most of the planning and layout went into student behavior and allows them to fit the study environment of the library to their needs.
“We find that it’s best to let students do what they want and just see how it plays out,” Torreano said.
The library has also designed services in the same way. Intentionally, students have a variety of choices to help them get the information they might need. From meeting with full time librarians, peer consultants, the service desk and live Internet chats, there are many options to choose from.
The sci-fi appeal of the library is apparent and appropriate, seeing that the words of famed science-fiction author Ray Bradbury are placed near the entrance.
“Without libraries what have we?” Bradbury asked. “We have no past and no future.”
This is a provocative statement especially for a facility that in recent decades has eroded to the digital revolution.
“An academic library still serves that fundamental purpose of being the gatekeeper of scholarly information and the preserver of it,” Merry said. “That’s a pretty important task to serve to the world. I don’t know where else that information is stored or preserved over time, other than a library.”
Meyer connects the past with the future, saying that the former invariably affects the latter.
“But at the same time, this is the place where new ideas are formed. Students are able to engage and interact with new technology and can be inspired by something new, and that’s where I think the future component comes in,” she said.
Growing numbers of people doubt the relevance of libraries in the 21st century. With the pendulum swinging evermore in the direction of electronic consumption, a palace to paper and ink seems increasingly antiquated.
"I think the role of the library has changed over time,” Torreano said. “It used to be that coming into a library, you’d really need a lot of direct assistance to find what you needed, but with electronic resources --even with things like Google -- it’s really easy to find information.”
This approach can yield many results, Torreano said, but finding which pieces of information are useful to students, regardless of their field, is the duty of the library.
“(This library is) more than a place to get information, it’s a place to speak to each other, to learn, to experiment, to try new things. So it’s not just a house for books anymore,” she said.
For the upcoming year, and all years to follow, the Mary Idema Pew Library is already planning out its long-term goals.
“Getting better,” Merry said. “We just never settle. Year one, we learned a lot of how to utilize the spaces and how we need to position ourselves to operate and deliver services at a level we expect. Building off of that with the knowledge that we’ve gained, the data we’ve collected, all the observations we’ve had and having a better year two is really our primary focus.”
As for the immediate future, that is almost certain.
“I’m looking forward to our next million visitors,” Meyer said.
More information on the Mary Idema Pew Library can be found on their website at www.gvsu.edu/library, or by telephone at 616-331-3500.