Of all the buildings on a college campus, the library is perhaps the one that best embodies the hub of academic life. Regardless of major, and even in our digital age of instant and constant information, an academic library remains the preeminent place for students, faculty, and staff to find credible sources of information, conduct serious research, and interact with each other in a supportive academic environment.
Which is why the recent renovation to the first floor of the James J. Shea Sr. Memorial Library was such a significant event for both the American International College community and for the facility itself. Originally constructed in 1948, the building has not undergone a major renovation since the completion of its west wing in 1980. And similar to the work done on the Dining Commons in 2015, the overhaul was so thorough that people seeing it for the first time can hardly believe their eyes.
A More Sophisticated Space
“It’s just been phenomenal,” says Heidi Spencer, director of library services. “People are stunned when they walk in, not only in an aesthetic sense, but also in terms of usage. We’ve increased our computer capacity, added study spaces, added new, more comfortable furniture. It’s completely rejuvenated our presence on campus.”
Work on the renovation began in May 2016 and proceeded rapidly throughout the summer. Designed by Phase Zero Design out of Simsbury, Connecticut and constructed by Martin Construction out of Southwick, Massachusetts, the final finishing touches were completed in August, just in time for the beginning of the 2016 fall semester.
So what’s changed exactly? In a word: everything.
The renovation opened up the main entrance area considerably, allowing for access from both the front and back of the building for the first time in over a decade. An expanded and more welcoming circulation and support desk greet patrons as soon as they enter from either entrance. Also in this front space is a new open-air lounge area and computer lab, purposefully placed so that students coming into the library can get to work as quickly as possible.
To the right of the support desk are even more drastic improvements. Down a short hallway lined with display cases that show AIC student art and photography is the main learning commons area, complete with glass-enclosed study rooms, independent and group collaborative zones, a food kiosk, and café-style seating. There are even individual study pods where students can sit in egg-shaped chairs complete with power-outlets, smartphone docking, and personal lighting.
Also renovated was the flag room, which now serves as a large collaborative study area with configurable furniture, video projection options, and whiteboard space. Overlooking this is the new Center for Financial Literacy, which will house new programs and resources for students to gain knowledge about student loans, financial planning, debt management, savings, and investments.
Spencer says that it has contributed to a much more welcoming, comfortable atmosphere. She and her staff have noticed that students and faculty are now visiting the library for coffee or to simply sit and talk instead of leaving when they need a break or want to get something to eat. This includes some faculty members that the library staff have never seen enter the building.
Early data confirm this anecdotal evidence—overall activity is up 77%, studying is up 23%, and socializing is up 97% when comparing patron activity to the first few days of September 2015 and 2016. It’s a trend that she’s confident will continue.
“We feel that the library has some real character now,” she says. “Everything is more approachable and more sophisticated, and little touches like brighter colors and better lighting make our patrons feel more relaxed and wanting to explore and discover all that we offer.”
A Unique Perspective
The renovation is particularly impressive for Michael Forrest ’16, the library’s new day circulation supervisor. Having worked in the library for four years as a student at AIC and having begun his full-time position in August 2016, he’s seen the transformation from the perspective of a student, a student-worker, and now as an alumnus and a full-time staff member.
“The old library was nice and homey, and it felt very familiar, which can be a good thing,” he explains. “But when you have chairs that constantly squeak and spaces that aren’t well lit, it doesn’t make people want to stay. That’s one of the biggest changes I’m seeing—that shift in perception from us being a place that people have to come to a place that people want to come to.”
Apart from the building renovation, Forrest explains that the technological updates have also been critical, with new computers and copy machines, as well as faster and more reliable Internet, attracting new patrons. It’s been a notable change, even in the four years since he first came to campus. Yet he admits that all of these improvements would be meaningless if not for the small modifications that are making lasting impressions.
“One of the changes that I appreciate most is the new location of our circulation desk. It used to be off to the side when you entered, which is out of people’s immediate view. Moving it to where people first enter the building may seem like a simple thing, but it makes all the difference to people who need help. We’re right here now—so much more visible and approachable.”
So what hasn’t changed? When asked that question, Spencer is quick to answer.
“The approach we take towards patrons won’t change at all,” she says. “We’ve always been about customer service first. Our librarians and clerical staff never say ‘No,’ they say, “No, but…’ and try to guide each person who comes through our doors to what they need.
“Will this new space make people feel more comfortable approaching us, or even more comfortable in the building in general? I certainly hope so. But we’ll absolutely provide them with the same great service we always have.”
-By Michael Reid