A Push To Make Libraries 3.0: How a Small Liberal Arts College Landed Big Mellon Money

Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts recently received a $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to revamp its Harold F. Johnson Library on campus as a centralized hub of campus learning, content, tools, and academic support services. The grant came through Mellon's Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities program, which focuses on "enhancing the learning experience of both undergraduate and graduate students in the humanities, and fostering collaborations within and among institutions." 

It's worth digging into a grant like this to see exactly how a small liberal arts school fostered a relationship with a major foundation and landed a seven-figure boost. 

To unravel the story, I recently spoke with Hampshire's library director, Jennifer Gunter King, who believes the project, titled "Learning Commons 3.0," was successful because of its strong alignment with Mellon's priorities and aims. As we've written often, Mellon is at the cutting edge of efforts to fuse digital advances with the age-old mission of universities to deepen critical thinking through the humanities. While the humanities and technology are often posited as mortal rivals, Mellon's been on a quest to help schools integrate the two. 

Logically, campus libraries are one locus of such efforts. Library gifts in general  tend to fly under the radar and in my discussions with King, I gained a better understanding of the latest trends in this space, how Hampshire's library stands out, and how other campus libraries might position themselves for similar philanthropic support.

Let's start with Hampshire's grant proposal itself, "Learning Commons 3.0." What's "3.0" about the school's new library hub, exactly? Answering that question requires a bit of history. 

Hamsphire College was formed in the 1960s by the leaders of its neighboring schools, including Amherst and Smith, to experiment with different teaching models. Its library also broke new ground, and a 1969 report authored by a Hampshire librarian to the U.S. Office of Education argued that "a library can no longer be a sophisticated warehouse storing and dispensing knowledge to students who happen to come through the door.” Moreover, academic libraries that failed to anticipate emerging trends were at risk of becoming an "irrelevant warehouse of books." In some respects, the report foresaw the impact of technology and digitization on campus libraries, with a new emphasis on digital resources and fewer physical books.

Related: Big Gifts for Campus Libraries Are Unusual. What Can We Learn From This One? 

King explained to me about several shifts that have occurred in academic libraries over the past two decades, starting with the first iteration of a so-called "learning commons," which blended technology, group study space, and user services together inside the library—a learning commons "1.0", if you will. A second movement, "learning commons 2.0," involved things like multimedia production and creating a service desk staffed by both library and information technology personnel, as well as other services. I can recall an I.T. desk and a writing center at my alma mater's library in the mid to late aughts.

Hampshire College's Harold F. Johnson Library hopes to spearhead the Learning Commons 3.0 model, with plans to offer services collaboratively with non-library partners, bringing together outfits like information technology, the Creativity Center, and academic support programs—the Writing Center, the Transformative Speaking Program, and the Quantitative Resource Center, among others. Currently, these programs serve students independently and from different spaces all across campus. Among other things, this integration will help recent Hampshire graduates working with the writing center to serve more students, as well as to train future writing mentors. On the heels of this grant, Hampshire will also embark on a major renovation linking the library with health and wellness services in its Robert Crown Center, too.

It's evident that a great deal of thought and planning went into this. King tells me that while there's often a desire to bring things together on campus, the organizational piece is often the hardest. A few years ago, Hampshire embarked on a phase of deep strategic planning, working hard to articulate its brand under the new leadership of President Jonathan Lash, appointed in 2011. For instance, the mind and body aspect of the new library hub is in line with Hampshire's founding commitment to educate the whole person. The fusion of all these spaces in the library and the adjacent Crown Center might also help cohere Hampshire's complex interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum. Again, Mellon's Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities program focuses on "foster[ing] collaborations within and among institutions."

I should also mention that Learning Commons 3.0 was a library-led project, and challenged the whole campus to think about new ways to use library space. This is a key insight, and reveals the big rewards that planning can reap. These efforts led to a $65,000 discretionary planning grant from Mellon in 2014, allowing the school to hire consultants and ramp up research and planning. A team visited other institutions, and learned from them—Hampshire's library isn't the only library implementing such programs. One note that Hampshire received from the outside: it isn't enough for a library simply to look better after renovation. The real challenge was developing a service strategy.

Learning Commons 3.0 is that strategy, and a strong example of a school doing the hard work of articulating its brand, making it relevant to a foundation, and engaging in deep strategic planning.