Newly-designed library illustrates modern education’s transformation


Spaces the encourage interactions and collaboration, private meeting rooms, individual work areas and an open, bright design are some of the features of the new Harrell Health Sciences Library, Research and Learning Commons.

By Carolyn Kimmel

Third-year medical students Nathan Wong, Anne Chen and Wilson Chan munched on lunch as they talked through their notes in a group study room at the Harrell Health Sciences Library, Research and Learning Commons at Penn State College of Medicine.

To study better, they could grab a marker and write on the white board walls of the room, turning them into one large study guide with great visibility. Or they could pull up a PowerPoint presentation from class on the large screen on another wall.

“These are good spaces for students to study together; there were none here before,” Chen said. “Now the library accommodates different types of study styles. There are still cubicles if you are a self-learner, but if you are a group studier, like us, you can use one of these new rooms.”

“Our old library was old looking; this is much more a place where you want to come,” Wong said.

Higher education is undergoing radical change and one place that change is on display is the newly-redesigned Harrell Health Science Library, Research and Learning Commons.

Open to students since December, the library held its ribbon-cutting ceremony in February with about 400 people attending and celebrating the new, welcoming space.

Gone are the majority of library stacks filled with books and the study carrels interspersed throughout. A short row of compact shelving holds a small working collection of textbooks and books not available electronically and students find devoted technology spaces, study rooms that encourage collaboration and open spaces for mingling. There are still quiet areas and single desk spaces traditionally associated with a library, but the overall atmosphere caters to today’s students, who are much more collaborative in their study habits and projects.

“The other library really wasn’t very welcoming. It was a book warehouse, as were all libraries. That is a transition that is occurring. This library is designed for people,” said Cynthia Robinson, associate dean for library and information services and director of the Harrell Health Sciences Library, Research and Learning Commons. “The modern student comes with different expectations. They have grown up in the digital age and they do expect us to have the technical infrastructure here for them to use and we need to meet that expectation.”

Today’s students are invested in the idea of a good education, but they have very definite ideas of what it should look like – relevant, engaging and personal – and educators must work to present the right model to engage them, Google’s Education Evangelist Jaime Casap said in his keynote address prior to the ribbon cutting.

“Education is still set up as a single-player sport. We need a team-based approach,” Casap said. “We need to take the best of what we know in education and bring it to the next level.”

To convert information to knowledge in today’s student takes creativity, collaboration and communication, all things that Casap noted the new library and learning commons offers. Technology is constantly changing and educators must continually ask themselves, “Do you have the right models and infrastructure in place?’” said Casap, who promotes inquiry-driven, project-based learning models.Library_11-08-2016_33



The library of the 21st Century creates spaces that support teaching and learning, research, discovery and innovation, Robinson said. It integrates social spaces that bring students and faculty together to encourage “idea incubation,” supports expansion of new educational programs and teaching modalities and includes access to high-end Macs and PCs with data visualization programs, statistical packages and virtual reality simulation, she said.

To that end, the library’s One Button Studio is a video recording space that makes it simple to create high-quality videos for a class project or a conference presentation. Faculty can use the studio to make a video to drop into a lecture. It’s modeled after the studio developed by the Teaching and Learning Technology Group at Penn State’s main campus and features professional lighting, camera, teleprompter, a green screen to allow any backdrop and a lightboard that records handwritten notes and automatically flips the image for the viewer. The “one button” technology bypasses any need for video production experience.

The Technology Innovation Sandbox, named by Robinson, offers a space to bring together technology that faculty and students can learn about and integrate into teaching and learning. It includes 3D printing, 3D modeling and a video wall for data visualization.

“The idea of a sandbox is you sit in there and experience and try new things,” Robinson said. “We want to push faculty and students into asking, ‘How can I use these technologies in teaching, patient care, developing new products?’”

Collaborative learning isn’t a new concept at Penn College of Medicine, according to Carol Whitfield, retired associate dean for undergraduate curriculum who says she introduced problem-based learning on campus 25 years ago. She is delighted to see the dedicated group study spaces in the new library.

“Places for collaborative learning – that’s huge!” she said. “Students are synthesizing the information, not just memorizing it and spitting it back out on an exam. New stuff they learn goes on the scaffold they already have in their brain.”

Dr. Charles “Chip” Davis, an orthopaedic surgeon, and his wife, DeFord Davis, toured the new library during an open house that followed the ribbon cutting. They are donors to the new space and excited to see the results.

“We need to provide the resources that today’s medical students need to solve the problems of tomorrow,” DeFord Davis said. “This looks very user-friendly. We appreciate the design that helps bring students together.”

Libraries have been transitioning for the last 20 years, moving from print-based to electronic, from the old card catalog and hard copy journals to an electronic world that provides universal access regardless of location.

It’s a transition that Cynthia Robinson has been watching and researching with growing interest since she came to the College of Medicine 10 years ago as library director. Long term plans of the College included an update to the library, so Robinson spent time researching and interviewing library users for their input. Small study rooms, better furniture, lighting, infrastructure and technology were some of the requests on the wish lists she heard.

“It was energizing and exciting to think about ways to reinvent the library so it was in the best interest of the institution, the students and the faculty who use it,” said Robinson, who headed up the library facilities senior planning team. The team’s aim was to create a 21st Century library that would support all four missions of the Hershey campus – education, research, clinical care and community outreach.Library_11-08-2016_13

“The role of a college of medicine, whether you’re educating the physician, the physician assistant, the nurse or an investigator in the medical sciences, is preparing them to become a continuous learner throughout their professional career. This space enables that to happen,” said Dr. A. Craig Hillemeier, dean, College of Medicine. “It’s no longer just learning a collection of facts from a book. It’s acquiring the skills that lead to visionary thinking about subjects that aren’t even on the horizon yet.”

Indeed, now that the new library and learning commons is officially open, Robinson says she doesn’t expect it to stay static.

“In two to five years, the things in the Technology Innovation Sandbox will be totally different,” she said. “It’s constantly evolving.”

A few of the group study rooms bear the names of the generous donors who supported the renovation project. Other naming opportunities still exist, including study rooms, the Technology Sandbox, and the One Button Studio. To learn more about how to support the new Harrell Health Sciences Library Research and Learning Commons and name a space, contact Mark Sunday in the Office of Development at or 717-531-0003, ext. 287717.

To see photos of the library’s grand re-opening, visit Flickr:

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