An LSC Guide Essay: University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Weigle Information Commons and Education Commons

With the growing emphasis on teamwork and collaborative problem-solving at Penn, administrators from the school of arts and sciences, the provost’s office and the library began to discuss the potential for a “collaboratory” where students would work in groups and access academic support services. Planning began in 2001 with regular meetings of groups of faculty and staff. The planners identified for renovation a large space on the first floor of the main library building, already a popular hub for undergraduate study.

A mandate from the university president to focus on undergraduate needs led the planners to propose a self-service space with a variety of sub-spaces and a strong technology infrastructure. The planning process nurtured partnerships with several academic centers around campus, and included visits to other universities. Supported by fundraising and a naming gift, the David B. Weigle Information Commons opened in 2006 with 12 “data diner” booths, 10 group study rooms, informal gathering spaces, a teaching seminar room, and a media lab. Students and faculty reserve spaces online, meeting in groups often until 2 am. Use of the space is dramatically high, filling to capacity on a daily basis. Almost 30,000 groups reserved the 22 rooms and booths during the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Development of services to complement the spaces has been a priority for the Information Commons. The academic support center, the writing center and the public speaking program provide tutors on-site for regular walk-in and appointment based assistance. Monthly governance meetings include a more extensive group of campus organizations. In the past 6 years, the Information Commons has established a strong brand on campus for providing direct assistance to undergraduates and supporting faculty exploration of new media technologies. The annual mashup video contest has gained national recognition as has a student-created music video. Student successes with video projects led to the creation of a faculty development module featuring five instructors and an annual Engaging Students Through Technology faculty symposium. Students present workshops, share exemplary work, staff service desks, tutor peers and learn to manage their own digital literacy skills. The Commons conducts several hundred workshops each year attracting several thousand participants. In many workshops, freshmen, graduate students, faculty and staff share the common, often intimidating, journey of learning new software skills. As demand on space increases, Information Commons’ staff members provide workshops and programs in classrooms around campus.

Awareness of the popularity and relevance of the Weigle Commons led to a decision in 2010 by the university president to develop a second commons-like space, managed by the library. The Education Commons opened in March 2012 in the arcade of Franklin Field, the University’s stadium. Not surprisingly, the space is attractive to student athletes and its proximity to the campus science quad has also helped to inform programming, which is currently being developed.

Students have commented that the Information Commons has a “daytime” feel with bright orange hues and sharp-edged booths and the Education Commons has a “nighttime” feel with its blue décor and undulating banquettes. Both are clearly marked as spaces where students can be casual, relaxed with conversations and cell-phone use, and generally feel in control of the space. Group study rooms can be reserved by students online with minimal mediation. Both spaces are staffed by graduate and undergraduate students in addition to a few permanent staff.

Technology is well integrated in both spaces. The Information Commons includes laptops, iPadsvideocamera and microphone lending, video recording and video conferencing. The Education Commons includes extra-large display screens and easy connections for personal laptops. Both provide self-service scanning, wireless printing and mobile whiteboards as well as a variety of spaces in close proximity. This arrangement makes it possible for a large class that is meeting in a seminar room to break up into small group discussion in informal spaces without advance planning. Services are designed so that it is intuitive and inviting for students to ask for help.

I get mesmerized just watching all that action. There’s always a ton going on.
— Undergraduate student worker

That was so wonderful--everyone learned so much. Indeed, I overheard three young women commenting that they were so much more confident now that they could certainly do the movie themselves! So that is a great thing. What an amazing space—and I so appreciate you staying late to help us!
— Faculty member 

The Information Commons is a superb space for collaborative learning. The resources are phenomenal, and the staff is friendly, helpful, knowledgeable. [My students] found the booths ideal for hammering out script and casting differences.
— Writing Center Director

I wish you would stay open 24/7. I don’t even want to tell my friends about [the Education Commons], I want to keep it for myself.
— Undergraduate student