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Architect of learning

The reinvention of the college library

Good architects are a treat to talk to because they speak the language of design -- a tongue we rarely hear. Developers and contractors traffic in their own argot and, as a general rule, pursue the vocabulary of design with the fluency of a Serbian speaking Sanskrit.

That's why the Observer was delighted last week to corner Geoffrey Freeman, one of America's top library architects, in his office at the venerable Boston firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott. Freeman specializes in academic libraries. His client list runs over 80 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Duke, Rice -- you name it.

''I worship at his feet," says Crit Stuart, associate director for public services of the Georgia Tech Library and Information Centers. ''He's way out there -- absolutely cutting edge."

Stuart mentions Freeman because Georgia Tech has just hired him to help rethink what its library should be for the 21st century. (He's also advising Johns Hopkins and the University of Illinois on the same issue.) ''We must provide the environment that accepts change but focuses on the activity of learning rather than technology," Freeman says.

Freeman, a boyish 63, studies how people learn the way a lepidopterist plumbs the mystery of the Blue Morpho. He looked for clues at places like Starbucks, Borders bookstores, and Kinko's. He likes the blend of books and cafe at Borders and found that Kinko's is where students congregate most after midnight.

The news is that while public libraries struggle to stay afloat amid oceans of red ink, college libraries are experiencing a renaissance. This is counterintuitive when you consider that colleges have, with great fanfare, wired dormitories to provide Internet access to students in the privacy of their gamy rooms. If they can use their laptops there to do their homework, why would they ever darken the marble doorstep of some mausoleum and labor alone in sepulchral silence?

For starters, that's so last century. Today, says Freeman, libraries are where the action is: ''We are in this great cycle of the rise of college libraries. Learning is a significant social phenomenon. You don't learn in a vacuum. It's not a monastic activity. Technology has allowed us to focus on the activity of learning and communicating. It's nothing about architectural style now. It's all about the user." (One false assumption, says Freeman, is that students routinely bring their laptops to libraries.)

But with all this brave new technology come new questions.

''There are the different mediums -- paper, digital, video. How do I combine these different pieces of information?" he asks. ''Today's library is where people challenge the information they get. It's a real cultural difference. Students don't care if it's a technology or content question, so the new demands on a library are tremendous. The biggest challenge in any of these facilities is how to integrate technology and knowledge. The goal is one-stop shopping."

Libraries now embrace the idea of a ''learning commons," open areas that promote the easy exchange of ideas among students. Library cafes are becoming the hallmark of this process -- ''the Parisian sidewalk cafe" in Freeman's words: ''They don't serve a student union function, which is purely a social activity, but they're there to recognize and complement learning activity."

Georgia Tech has created its own commons on one floor of its main library complex. Students work in a huge open space that can be reconfigured to accommodate groups of different sizes. There are no vertical separations among 100 computers sited there, each of which comes with a set of headphones because, says Stuart, students want more, not less, stimulation. More than 20 of these have multimedia software with two display screens and are staffed most of each 24-hour day by hybrid personnel with technology and content expertise.

The importance of physical collections of books diminishes as access to a digital world of information extends far beyond the confines of the building.

''With the libraries of the past," explains Freeman, ''you projected the rate of acquisition of a collection for 20 years. It always expanded at the expense of the user function. It's just the opposite now. Now you project it out to zero growth. You design around the user and expand at the expense of the collection."

For many places, he argues, this is not the end of the world: ''Technology has opened up the collections. You'll see collections more specialized and specific to an institution. It has leveled the playing field. Bigger is not necessarily better."

Great research universities like Harvard must maintain their huge collections at large expense because those resources define them. Not so small liberal arts colleges.

''I tell them, 'You're in a fantastic position,' " says Freemen. ''For them, the question is, 'What's the right amount?' They will not be expanding like water finding its own level."

''The ideal library," he adds, ''is a place where I can take someone to its center fast and explain how it works. I need to understand it."

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@globe.com

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