The Learning Commons Model:
 Determining Best Practices for Design, Implementation, and Service

Home  |   Proposal   |   Site Visits   |   Readings

Information Commons and Learning Commons Site Visits

Site Visit: Hamilton College - Burke Library - Clinton, New York
Contact: Randall Ericson, Director of Libraries
Sharon Britton, Director of Public Services
Ken Herold, Director, Library Information Systems
Web Site: Library:
Organizational Structure: Traditional Library Organizational Structure, not merged with Information Technology Services but strong partnership -- in same building
Date of Visit: March 27, 2007


Hamilton College, located in upstate New York, is a small undergraduate private liberal arts college with a FTE of 1775 and 183 full-time faculty members.  They are a member of the Oberlin Group.  They have 10 librarians and a library staff of 20.  In addition to the main undergraduate Burke Library, they also have a Music Library and a Media Library.

Hamilton College initially established its Multimedia Presentation Center (MPC) with funding from a Mellon Foundation Grant in the front corner of the building. Building on the success of the MPC grant project they built an Information Commons in the reference area of the library which currently has 21 computer workstations.  The MPC is primarily staffed by Information Technology. The Information Commons is primarily staffed by librarians, with a few (8) hours of tech support from ITS each week.   In order to provide additional staff support for both the Information Commons and the MPC, Hamilton has decided to relocate the MPC so that it is adjacent to the IC.  They will then have one integrated service point, with one half providing the research and information/data finding support services of the IC and the other half of the desk supporting the technical presentation services of the MPC.  In essence. support will be available from inquiry to finished product.

Plans showing the new combined MPC and IC.  The IC is made up of 3 rows of  7 computer workstations on left and the MPC workstation clusters are shown toward the top.  There is a central support desk in a diamond shape -- one V shape faces the MPC and houses its support staff, the other V faces the IC and Reference Stacks (in foreground).  A smaller desk in the center will be for research consultation.

Description of Services and Facilities

The Multimedia Presentation Center (MPC) is a high end presentation facility. It is the result of a pedagogy project funded by the Mellon Foundation. The MPC is a collaborative project of the Library and ITS and is open during all Library hours. It is staffed by professional and student workers from ITS. Faculty are invited to work collaboratively with librarians and instructional technologists in using this space for their courses. In order to allow time to work collaboratively and ensure the availability of staff to work with students on their projects, faculty wishing to use the MPC must plan their course content far in advance and work with members of the HILLgroup. The HILLgroup (Hamilton Information & Learning Liaisons) is a collaboration of the Library, Instructional Technology Services and Oral Communication.  "The goal of the HILLgroup is to support faculty in the identification, selection, and use of technologies and content applicable to their teaching or research needs."  To learn more about the HILLgroup use of collaboration to support academic success, refer to their web site at  This semester the MPC is supporting 18 courses and 6-10 independent projects.  The services of the MPC are made even more valuable by a graduation requirement that requires every student to make a public presentation.

The MPC is equipped to support a variety of high-end multimedia enhanced projects including digital and audio editing, large format printing that can be used to create posters for conference and seminar presentations, web content development with video, audio, and animation, and medium format color laser printing.  Hardware includes 21 Apple PowerMac G5s running MacOS X, 2 Epson Large Format Printers, 3 HP Medium Format Laser Printers - 1 B/W and 2 Color, 2 large format scanners, 4 photo flatbed scanners, digital cameras,8 mini DV VCR players, 2 VHS/DVD players, a Video Monitor, headsets and microphones. Software includes QuickTime Pro, iLife, iMovie, iPhoto, iWeb, Final Cut Pro, DVD Studio Pro, Motion, Sound Studio, Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, After Effects, Dreamweaver and more.  For more information of MPC lab equipment specifications and software, see

In planning for the MPC they surveyed the faculty to determine hardware and software needs.  These surveys indicated the demand for large format printing.  The Library and ITS have offered various outreach and training sessions for the faculty to inform them about their services and policies. Interest and use of the MPC began slowly but has grown steadily since its inception.

View of MPC to your right upon entering the Library -- the MPC will be moved closer to IC this summer Workstations in MPC and scanners
MPC workstations and Video Monitor - currently running diagnostics View of MPC
MPC Support Desk Epson Large Format Printer
HP Medium Format Laser Printers -- 1 B/W, 2 Color  

The Information Commons, opened in September 2004, is located directly behind the Information Commons Service Desk and is directly visible upon entering the library.  The Circulation Desk is to the left of the entrance and adjacent to the IC service desk.  The IC was the result of the Library's rethinking of the Reference Desk and Reference Services. Their goal was to meet the need of the student without having to refer to another department.  In order to accomplish this goal, they needed additional staffing at the IC service point.  During this initial pilot phase ITS was only able to join librarians at the IC desk 2 hours a day, 4 days a week because of their staffing duties in the MPC.  As mentioned above, they are hoping to alleviate this problem by bringing the MPC and IC together in the summer of 2007.  In the span of three years, they have undergone 2 major projects in relation to the Information Commons -- its initiation and pilot phase and its reconfiguration.

They are very pleased with the furniture design and layout -- it provides privacy while at the same time is open and invites collaboration.  There is plenty of room for students to spread out and for collaboration. The furniture and the space has been very popular with students.  The furniture and space was designed by an Office Interiors firm. The IC consists of 3 zigzag rows of 7 computers each.  Each of the 3 rows of computers has its own printer.  Printing is free.

Inside view of the Information Commons Service Desk,
notice the comfortable seating for patrons
View from the IC area facing the service desk and
library entrance
Information Commons -- each row is in a zigzag
to accommodate individual workspaces.
One computer work area in IC
Information Commons Computer Workstation in Information Commons

The next phase of their project will also offer 6 group study rooms along the back wall of the library that will accommodate up to 3 people.  There are an additional four rooms on the second floor that accommodate up to 16 people.  These rooms are also used for library instruction. They will move the reference stacks and consolidate space in the microfilm area in this next phase.

On the second floor of the library, there is ample seating for individuals and groups.  The third floor houses the ITS department and has quieter study areas with carrels.  In this carrel area, along the outside wall, they have recently added computer workstations on furniture similar to that used in the information commons.  It is their hope that they can move the concept of the IC throughout the building and provide more suitable spaces for individual work.

Seating on 2nd floor

Computer work areas replacing carrels on 3rd floor

Close-up of computer work area on 3rd floor Workstation for the visually impaired
Entrance to Information Technology Services on
3rd floor
Offices for ITS staff

Governance and Strategic Fit

The Library and Information Technology Services Departments are not merged at Hamilton, but there is a very strong partnership between the two departments.  Since 1974, ITS has resided in the library.  From 1974 until 2001, ITS resided in the basement of the Burke Library building.  Wanting to consolidate shelving for bound periodicals into Compact Shelving, the Director of Library Services and the VP for ITS decided to space swap.  Compact shelving for periodicals is now in the basement and ITS resides on the third floor of the Library, offering them better space for their offices and greater accessibility to students.  The happy result of the co-location of the Library and ITS has been an informal governance structure with a shared vision. 

In planning for the Information Commons they created a standing committee of both library and ITS staff.  This large committee, which meets monthly to deal with operational decisions, includes everyone who staffs or supports the IC.  A smaller Steering Group Committee, made up of 2 library staff and 2 ITS staff members works as the coordinating body for the development of the IC - first in its initial pilot phase and now as it is merging with the MPC.  Additionally, they have formed smaller committees, each with library and ITS representation, to deal with floor plans, systems, furniture, publicity, and procedures.

Collaboration and Partnerships

Since Randy Ericson came to Hamilton in 2000, there has been increased collaboration with ITS.  This collaboration is essential in providing holistic and integrated information services and resources to students and faculty. 

The HILLgroup is an essential partnership between librarians, instructional technologists, and Oral Communication. Its focus is to work with faculty to bring technology into the classroom in a 3-way collaboration.

Media Services used to be part of the Library's organizational structure but it now comes under ITS because of its increasing technical role.

Staffing and Training

Hamilton worked diligently to achieve staff buy-in for their Information Commons Project.  They involved everyone that would be staffing or supporting this area (from both the library and ITS) and actively sought their participation through committee work, a listserv, and retreats.  Two retreats dealt specifically with bringing staff together from two very different cultures.  An organizational consultant was brought in to help resolve issues and help all staff learn to work together.  He asked each staff member what they considered to be their support for the project on a scale of 1 to 5.  Then he asked each staff member what it would take for them to become a "5".

Although many institutions try to skip over staff-building exercises and meetings, Hamilton found that the hard work done by both librarians and technologists at meetings and retreats throughout the planning and implementation processes was the key to their successful partnership.

Hamilton has also established a Protocol for Conflict which clearly describes a methodology designed to get people talking with one another to resolve their own issues of dispute.  They have established guidelines for what ITS can expect of the Library and what the Library can expect of ITS and what the IC Steering Committee can expect from the staff as a whole, and what the whole can expect of the IC Steering Committee.

Hamilton cross-trains its student workers by providing a week of intensive training before school starts in the fall.  All student workers are hired during the previous spring semester.


In addition to committees, workshops, and retreats, Hamilton established a listserv and used their Campus Share email system to keep all members informed about development in the IC.  Informal conversations also help to keep everyone in the loop. These conversations became a matter of routine for sharing information, filling in gaps from committee minutes,  and helping to build trust. When a procedure, standard or policy was agreed upon it was placed in print manual.

Impact on Collections

They have moved the back files of bound periodicals to compact shelving in the basement and have reduced the size of the reference collection through weeding and electronic conversion.

Reference & Instruction Services

The HILLgroup collaboration plays an integral role in Library Instruction Services.  Research consultations between librarians and students are an important function of their reference services.  Students generally schedule one hour appointments to meet with liaison librarians.


They have completed LibQual, but would not do again because the faculty was unhappy with the survey tool. 

They do a "Cookie Survey" each semester.  The last week of class they stay open 24 hours and provide cookies and treats from 9 - 11 p.m.  During this time, they take the opportunity to ask students to fill out a short survey.

Lessons Learned.

  • The project should have less top-down involvement and work to involve staff even at the earliest planning stages.  It would have been better to do more preparatory work to gather staff input and buy-in for the project.

  • Hiring an organizational consultant was invaluable in getting two cultures to work together.

  • Have a public vote at the meeting where people can show their support or disapproval of the project.  If people are not in favor, ask why and how to make it better.

  • Ask people to sign on to the plan in writing and make sure everyone is OK with that plan.

  • You need to be clear in your intent from the beginning and throughout the process.  Nothing can be left assumed or ambiguous.

  • Two Day Retreat was very important for bringing people together.

  • They needed to form teams to address specific issues

  • Designate a convener and a note taker for every meeting.  Have an agenda and have the note taker report back what has been decided and action items at the close of the meeting.

  • Have structured policies and procedures for the IC.

  • Collaboration is not always a bowl of cherries but it can work.

Observations Informing Best Practices

  • Staff involvement is essential -- it is important not to skip over this part.  It was the hard work done by librarians and technologists throughout the planning and design process that was the key to a successful partnership.

  • An organizational consultant can help achieve staff buy-in for a Learning Commons project.

  • Retreats were an important for merging two cultures.

  • Committees that have representation from both the Library and ITS are essential to the success of the project.

  • Let librarians and ITS staff work through the process and manage themselves without interference or direction from the Library Director or ITS VP.

  • In redesigning floor plans, an architect is not needed -- an interior designer may be sufficient.

  • Build it -- Try it out -- wait to see what happens and how it is used -- reconfigure as necessary.

  • Be clear in your intent - do not be ambiguous.

  • A merged organization does not necessarily mean you have a successful partnership.  The Library and IT departments can collaborate successfully without being merged.  You just need commitment from both sides.