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Drexel’s Learning Terrace enables a collaborative learning experience

Power to the Librarian: Exploring the impact of the 21st Century librarian

July 01, 2012

L-R Drexel engineering student Chris Baccash and Danuta A. Nitecki

The Power to the Librarian project illuminates the experiences of exceptional library professionals who are empowering their users to achieve great success. These experiences are explored in a series of case studies available here: Power to the Librarian case studies.


Drexel University in Philadelphia has begun experimenting with a new collaborative learning environment underpinned by technology and digital content. The 3,000-square-foot Learning Terrace fosters cooperation and self-learning among students, while providing access to the traditional services and expertise of the university’s library staff.

Modern communications allow librarians to experiment with new methods of interacting with students in the Terrace environment. As well as telephones these include chats using Internet Messaging on mobile devices on occasions when a librarian cannot be physically present. Library staff also schedule time at the Terrace to offer support and guidance to students in person.

“Our focus is trying to look at what contributes to an environment that fosters learning,” says Danuta A. Nitecki, Dean of Libraries and Professor at the College of Information Science & Technology at Drexel. Learning and instruction take many forms. In the university’s labs and classrooms, students learn the content and methodology of their chosen discipline. But Nitecki explains: “There are aha moments of learning and insights which take place outside the classroom when students are reflecting or doing their own exploration of information and we want to be there to help them navigate that in terms of accessing the information resources.”

Within the Learning Terrace, one of the walls acts as a whiteboard that can be used by several groups simultaneously. Small groups can also rearrange mobile whiteboards and furniture to configure a temporary workspace. And, of course, wireless Internet connectivity is available.

There are aha moments of learning and insights which take place outside the classroom when students are reflecting or doing their own exploration of information and we want to be there to help them navigate that in terms of accessing the information resources.

The first Terrace came into operation in June 2011 and the intention is to roll out similar spaces across campus. Much will be decided by experimentation and experience: whether to tailor such spaces to particular subjects or disciplines or whether to keep them subject-neutral; whether the current size is correct or whether they need to be larger or smaller; whether subject specialist librarians need to concentrate their time on one Terrace space or to be available everywhere.

Evolution of the role

In most ways librarians will continue to perform as they always have, providing access to ideas and authoritative information, selecting and cataloging material, making it available through online catalogues, and helping people find what they need. “

This is our traditional role but it changes because you no longer have to come to a place for that one container of information, a book or journal, in print form,” says Nitecki, who is amused, if not bemused, by the notion that the Terrace reflects a move to “bookless libraries.”

“We are not ‘bookless’. In fact we’re very ‘book-full’ but we now have books in electronic format as well as print,” she says. “The new piece is how do we also provide an environment? What else is needed to help the learner learn?”

Beth Ten Have, Director of Library Academic Partnership at Drexel, believes that the new facility represents part of the way in which the role of the librarian is evolving in response to the adoption of new technologies. Traditionally the college had a structure of liaison librarians who were based in a main library and had subject expertise. They were responsible for monitoring and addressing the instructional and collection needs of their respective disciplines and providing a reference service.

“We are now looking at an evolution where we may not only physically embed within our discipline departments,” Ten Have says. “We are going to embed deeper into the curricular and research needs of those departments.” She says new spaces such as the Terrace will cause librarians to be more outward facing and to become more proactive in terms of dealing with both students and faculty.

For more information about Drexel University Libraries’ Learning Terrace and updates on its evolution see: www.library.drexel.edu/about/learning-terrace

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