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More than Meets the Eye

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Digital librarians guide students through a virtual library at the MLC

Third-year student Jordan Hartgens records in the Digital Media Lab sound booth. Photo Credit: Cristian Niculas

The Zell B. Miller Learning Center, formerly the Student Learning Center, opened in 2003 to accommodate the overlapping spheres of academic and social life at the University of Georgia. Caroline Barratt, the director of the Miller Learning Center Library Commons, describes the dynamic building as a library space and more: "I think our collective definition of the 'library of the future' will look more like what we are doing now: providing work space as well as collections, often digital, plus the in-person and online assistance to use those tools."

Over 10,000 students visit the MLC every day to attend classes, research online, collaborate on group projects, and relax near Jittery Joe's, the MLC's beloved coffee house. "How I see the MLC today is much as it was envisioned: a single building where the continuum of learning and creative development takes place."

The continuum describes both the physical building–classrooms, study spaces, and lounges blending together–and the ethereal information exchange that occurs throughout the 200,000 square feet. To the uninitiated, the open corridors of the MLC, unbroken by bookshelves and book carts, may not evoke the word "library." Yes, students study their notes on traditional hardwood tables, but the currency of a library–the information–is invisible here. This is a virtual library–where digital collections are transmitted through thousands of data ports and 107 wireless access points.

The MLC is designed and outfitted to allow a seamless transition between textbooks and learning management systems. Students can check out laptops, iPads, and Kindles or they can log in to one of the 582 desktops for an uninterrupted research experience. The ubiquity of computers and widespread network allow students to settle into their preferred nooks throughout the four-story building. Caramel lattes in hand, students are energized, connected, and ready to spend hours studying and researching. But what if they need traditional library assistance?

In 2005, the UGA Libraries instituted a chat service as a virtual reference desk. When they switched to the RefChatter provider in August and added a widget to the MLC homepage, they experienced a 100 percent traffic increase. "Where we have had the most success with getting research questions...has been online–our chat reference service numbers have gone through the roof this semester," Barratt says.

Caroline Barratt, director of the Miller Learning Center Library Commons

The librarians meet the students where they are–in the virtual world–and guide them while they search through digital archives, just as they formerly would have scoured for a book in the library stacks. "[Usually] they're trying to find articles about a particular subject, and they have to be a particular type of experiment, like a case study. Oftentimes, they don't know how to limit their searches in a manageable way," explains Elizabeth White, a virtual reference coordinator and librarian, communicating through RefChatter. The MLC library staff teaches students to take advantage of the digital tools available to them by approaching their searches logically. Recently, a student visited the librarians' office on the third floor, seeking research advice. "I showed him how to use the advanced search in his database of choice. He didn't know about truncation, and we explored the benefits of AND, OR and NOT," recalls Reference Associate Germaine Cahoon. "That's a really powerful search tool. He was very excited and that was really rewarding." Once the student was shown the technical tools he needed to research on his own, he learned how to fish for articles online more efficiently.

The MLC library staff promotes computer literacy, so students can locate information hidden behind queries, rather than between hardcovers. The technical tools are simply the modern means to the timeless end of learning.  "I definitely think that in today's world– when so much information is on the computers and not necessarily in books–it helps to have these tools, along with the help of the library staff," says graduate student Jason Fleet, while supervising the Digital Media Lab, a component of the MLC Digital Media Wing. Learning in higher education has become more technical, and it has also required much more engagement.

After students locate and process journal articles, they have to communicate their findings in increasingly digital ways. "A lot of assignments now are multimedia, and [at the MLC] we're providing access to the tools they need to create those kinds of projects," Cahoon says. In fact, Reference & Instruction Librarian Sandra Riggs teaches a documentary class that culminates in a video project, rather than a term paper. The class consists of copyright education, online database training and digital authorship. The UGA Libraries have applied for a grant to loan video-cameras to students. For now, students can borrow recording equipment from the Center for Teaching & Learning, which also supports the MLC. To edit that video content, they can use the Digital Media Lab.

Librarian Sandra Riggs teaches digital authorship at the MLC. Photo Credit: Cristian Niculas

The Digital Media Lab, supported by Enterprise Information Technology Services, boasts six iMac and six Mac Pro workstations equipped with multimedia software like Final Cut Pro. The lab also features a sound booth and MIDI keyboards for recording. Jason Fleet has worked in the lab, and throughout the MLC, since May of 2010. As a musician, he has benefited from free access to expensive audio software within the lab: "I think that for a good deal of students, it gives them an opportunity to do some of the projects that they may not have been able to do if they had to come up with the equipment on their own." Jordan Lewis, a double major in mass media arts and film studies, agrees with Fleet that students need access to graphic tools. Without a personal Mac, Lewis needs the lab to edit video for his portfolio at night. As a Grady student, he has access to the college's labs until 5 p.m. The late hours of the MLC and the lab accommodate students in a time crunch.  "I've been in here the last two weeks, and it's always been full of people working on different things," Lewis remarks during finals week.

In the MLC, students can develop their creativity and computer literacy by exploring the possibilities of professional-quality tools. The librarians guide students to the content they can use to build those multimedia projects. "Libraries are really about information," Cahoon explains. "In modern communication, there's much more of a two-way flow of information. It's not just about receiving. It's also about being able to create and communicate content, and that's why a lot of these tools we make available here are relevant to a library space."

Undoubtedly, this popular space has served many purposes for the UGA community in its nine-year existence. As the MLC upgrades its equipment, based on the needs of the student population, the MLC library staff members also expand their technical abilities to fulfill the purpose of the building. "Our mission is to provide the resources and support services that allow students and faculty to be their academic best," Barratt says. "And I believe we have been able to grow in both areas over the past several years."