From Library to Information Commons

Spring 2015

By Candace Aiani

In order for the library to remain what it is, it must change. If it doesn’t change, it will not remain what it is.

— David Penniman1

We are fortunate. During these difficult economic times, when many schools and districts are reducing or eliminating school library services,2 the Taipei American School (TAS) is investing: building infrastructure, expanding access to digital content, budgeting for critical information management tools, integrating new technologies, and adding to the footprint of the library.

We are investing in the transformation of our library into what we call the “Information Commons.” The purpose of the investment is strategic, an initiative based not only on the understanding that students’ ability to access, organize, and produce information is a required skill for future success but also on the premise that a school Information Commons can and should have a critical role in supporting student learning. This learning includes not just the skills of information literacy but learning in any content area and, especially, in that of the student’s own choosing. As the relevant spaces, resources, and services have developed, students’ habits around the use of information have changed. And perhaps even more important, as the Information Commons has emerged, students have begun to see it as a place that has personal relevance to all areas of their learning. In the past, the library collections were viewed as finite, and students would ask: Does the library have X, Y, or Z? Now the operative question is, increasingly: Can the library get X, Y, or Z? With positive results, an expanding number of students are using the library collections, digital resources, and services in support of a wider range of courses.

Defining Information Commons (IC)

There is no single definition of an Information Commons. Martin Halbert, dean of libraries at the University of North Texas, has explained that an Information Commons is simply “a platform for innovation” that has emerged in response to “rapidly changing technological surroundings.”3 An Information Commons can comprise a variety of programs, services, and facilities, just as a variety of names can be applied to such a space, including any number of “other evocative labels for innovations in how the library benefits [its] clientele,” such as “Learning Commons” or “Information Arcade.”4 Whatever the actual name, the important characteristic is the ability to innovate and to continue to respond to technological change.

It is impossible to predict future technologies or their impact on education and learning, so the expectation that an IC will be “innovative and responsive to technological change” does not mean that one can anticipate and prepare for every technological “inevitability.” Instead, it means having an operational philosophy and attitude that integration of new technologies to serve the information needs of the students and faculty will be ongoing, part of standard operating procedures and a part of normal (and enormous) benefits to the users.

The Transformation to an Information Commons

Renovation of physical spaces. A few years ago, we undertook a major renovation and redesign of the physical library spaces at TAS. A variety of traditional wooden library tables and metal-base tech tables; fixtures such as table lamps; and lounge furniture, including comfortable couches and chairs, were included in the redesign. This redesign was the beginning of redefining library space and usage.

We hoped to create spaces or “zones” within the library space that supported diverse learning styles and study needs, such as group seating, a silent room, study rooms, and an instructional area. A culture of use developed quickly for various zones, and now students and faculty consistently choose locations based on their learning or work needs. Collaboration is the norm in the main floor zone, and seating is primarily library tables for four to six people and group configurations of lounge furniture people. Individual study takes place in the classroom-sized silent room where the seating includes individual study carrels and individually arranged lounge chairs. Students who need to project images for collaborative purposes use the online booking system to reserve one of the study rooms, one of the four floor spaces with media technology, or the instructional area with access to the Smart Board. I initially underestimated the demand for space in the silent room, and it was reconfigured again to expand that zone. Bookshelves were relocated to a book room in another location in the building that would serve as closed stacks where items could be retrieved as needed. About 80 percent of the total collection is currently located in the book room. At this time, usage of the various library zones demonstrates a good balance between demand and availability.

Expanded content for research. In the past, information was typically purchased in the form of books, magazines, and other media that were owned and maintained by the library. In addition to print, the collection included a number of digital database subscriptions that provided additional content. Regardless of format, these materials were primarily full text, and the value of the library was quantifiable, traditionally measured by the size of the collection (the actual number of volumes it contained). Faculty and students understood the traditional library collection as finite; even the best high-quality secondary school collections of print and digital materials could not provide all the information needed for student learning.

In TAS’s Upper School Information Commons (USIC), the philosophical shift from ownership to access resulted in the implementation of a number of interrelated digital resources (indexes) and services (DDS and WOS /WOK). For instance, one service available to students in the USIC is document delivery (DDS), a benefit for member libraries in a local Taiwan library consortium. DDS allows faculty and students to order single, full-text articles that are delivered in a timely manner (usually within hours or overnight) and for minimal cost to the library. Faculty and students did not previously have access to the full text of abstract-only document citations, so they sometimes express surprise that this “nontraditional” school library service is available to them.

Because document delivery service provides a purchasing option, the USIC does not have to limit purchases of databases to those that provide full text for all or most content. For this reason, two indexing databases, Web of Science (WOS) and Web of Knowledge (WOK), were introduced to students this past year.

Because they are indexes, neither has a large percentage of full-text content. TAS students use these indexes to search for content, but they also use them for citation analysis, extending their learning and thinking by analyzing a body of research results using WOS and WOK. With these tools, students engage in metacognitive activity related to their research. They can see trends and identify the most frequently cited works. For example, one student in the scientific research program focused his research on a species of spider native to Southeast Asia. Using advanced filters in WOS, he identified a body of current published research on his topic and discovered that some of the tests he planned to do had already been researched and published. Consequently, he used the most recent literature to revise new questions and come up with a new direction for his research. The student’s research supervisor and director of the research program writes, “WOS is an extremely useful tool because it literally saves hundreds of hours of research time with its numerous searching filters.”5 

These indexes were particularly good additions in support of the STEAM curriculum and the science research program but also in the humanities. In terms of access to digital content, students have access to the largest body of science and humanities information available. It is not necessary to have full text at this juncture; students can search the most relevant information for their purposes, and, in most cases, the library can purchase the full text of the desired articles. Not only do students and faculty get precisely what they identify as needed, the library pays for the full text of only those specifically identified materials.

eBooks, eReaders, tablets, and mobiles. There is no question that the eBook industry is in flux. During one nearly full day session at the 2013 IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) conference in Singapore, representative speakers from around the globe described the eBook landscape in their part of the world. If there was a common theme, it could best be described as a worldwide collective holding of breath, waiting to see outcomes to questions around hardware, software, cross-border availability, format standards, pricing, licensing, etc. These are complex issues that will take time and effort to sort out.

But time is a luxury that school libraries cannot afford to waste if they are to provide benefits now that students and faculty need, want, and frankly expect as consumers in the digital age. For that reason, the USIC has piloted and subsequently established a number of digital options, primarily for fiction, that collectively provide the widest degree of access to the widest range of digital content.

For access to fiction, the USIC purchased a subscription to Overdrive, a platform designed for libraries that provides downloadable digital content, including eBooks and audiobooks. Unfortunately, Overdrive cannot offer its overseas schools the same range of titles and formats available to stateside schools, including all Kindle content. So to provide a full range of options for access to Kindle titles, the school purchased a number of Kindles for checkout purposes. The library purchases Amazon eBooks on demand by patrons and checks out the physical Kindle to the patrons. One student who was determined not to transition to eBooks realized that a specific book she requested could be delivered overnight in eBook format or she could wait a few weeks for the title in print. She chose the eBook, renewed the Kindle over the semester, and became an avid eBook reader, continuing to request additional titles that were delivered seamlessly to her. Print is still popular, but eBooks are increasingly in demand for casual reading of novels and nonfiction among students and faculty.

The only collection in the USIC that has migrated completely from print to digital format is in the browsers, particularly eMagazines and some eNewspapers. Although not by design, this migration seemed to delineate the end of the traditional library and the beginning of the Information Commons within the community. Even the faculty, who are usually less inclined to be early adopters of technology, have provided positive feedback. One faculty member liked the fact that “the articles are more easily accessible and can be saved or emailed on for further reading.”6 Another said, “I love the digital access to magazines and NY Times. The resolution is great, and I don't have to carry around so much; everything is easily accessible on my iPad.”7 All eMagazines are available on iPads in the USIC. 

Some of the most enthusiastic users of Zinio For Libraries (ZFL), one of the largest eMagazine subscription services, are the faculty who appreciate 24/7, year-round access to casual reading materials. Faculty as well as students use the sharing features connected to individual articles, forwarding articles to others or posting on a personal site such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Pinterest. And, as might be expected, users want to see all digital titles available with the same high level of flexibility, no longer satisfied with in-library use only.

Technologically rich. If the definition of an Information Commons includes being “responsive to new technologies,” then it is fair to say that an Information Commons must be technologically rich. Well-planned and executed one-to-one laptop programs provide great opportunities for teaching and learning.8 TAS began the rollout of the one-to-one laptop program in 2007. By 2010, all students in grades six through 12 had laptops, and an initiative to leverage and document usage of this new technology began across the school. For the library, going one-to-one meant eliminating the need for banks of computer stations. It also meant students had unlimited, simultaneous access to the library catalog and library databases. As part of the one-to-one initiative, wireless connectivity and the network infrastructure were upgraded to provide adequate support in anticipation of increased technology integration. As one faculty member said, “Students are able to access, analyze and discuss information from a great variety of sources without having to leave the classroom.”9 The one-to-one initiative brought the library to the classroom, along with increased learning expectations for students to access and interact with that information as well.

Researcher Michael Fullan says that “information … only becomes knowledge through a social process.”10 To support knowledge creation, four “productivity spaces” allow students to collaborate using different options: (1) students’ personal laptops are projected to a large LCD monitor or (2) an iPad is mirrored via Apple TV (AirPlay). Wireless headphones provide sound reduction without limiting students’ ability to incorporate multimedia in their work. These productivity spaces support social-academic relationships that are critical to learning and provide evidence that TAS values a community of learners.

Except for the iPads that replaced the stand-alone card catalog previously used in the library, the ways in which the productivity stations would be used was purposely ambiguous. Technical instructions were posted, but usage has developed creatively and organically. Students collaborate on group presentations and rehearse the delivery, or they project study notes or browse the Internet as a group. An English teacher requested an interactive eBook format only available for iPad and then brought students to experience the classical work. I use the mirroring function and photo screensaver to highlight services and content in a rotating series of slides. The process to use this technology is easy and accessible, so I expect that students will continue to drive usage with their natural creativity and curiosity.

Current students’ social and learning environments are naturally infused with technology. If libraries are to bridge traditional learning with cutting-edge, social-academic activities, then — besides the print and digital collections — there should be technologies that have a “Wow!” factor, technologies that engage students and produce a sense of wonder or fun. The school’s IT department designed and implemented a number of these technologies this year: an interactive four-screen video wall with a live feed of news headlines; a survey screen where students text their views and see immediate results; a touch-screen calendar with posted school and library events; and an interactive, touch-screen book “shelf” for exploring new or highlighted digital books. All of these technologies engage students, encouraging them to actively interact with information available to them in an environment that they find most interesting, one naturally infused with the technology they have come to expect.


To go digital or not to go digital is no longer the question for libraries; there is tacit agreement that as the world goes, so shall the libraries. The more pertinent question for librarians and administrators now is how to get there, including defining what it means to be an Information Commons (or whatever name you choose), deciding the pace at which a school library should transition to digital, what the transition means for the existing collection of print and other physical media, how the current physical space of the library will be used, and what role the librarian and assistants will have within the new environment.

Having made the transition from a traditional school library to an Information Commons, TAS has grappled with these questions and more. Our story is one example and a potential model for the transition, something TAS accomplished with readiness factors in place and through the strong support of a transition team. Although an ongoing process, the current result provides strong evidence that a digital library and accompanying services provide increased usage, greater relevancy, and more personalized service for students and faculty. In fact, I believe that our transition team would agree that TAS provides strong evidence that independent school libraries are best positioned among all library types to lead in the transition to digital libraries.

Students and faculty sometimes express surprise that the USIC provides the breadth and depth of information that they have available to them, as well as the services in support of their work. Of course, it is wonderful to surprise and delight, but perhaps it would be even better if faculty and students were not surprised, if they saw and expected the school library to be naturally innovative and responsive to new technologies. With the support and vision of the administration, the TAS Upper School Information Commons (USIC) is well on the way toward that understanding.


1. David Penniman, quoted in Stephen Abram and Judy Luther, “Born with the Chip,” Library Journal, May 1, 2004, p. 37; online at

2. Fernanda Santos, “In Lean Times, Schools Squeeze Out Librarians,” The New York Times, June 24, 2011; online at

3. Martin Halbert, “The Information Commons: A Platform for Innovation,” Journal of Library Administration, January 2010, p. 67.

4. Ibid.

5. Jude Clapper, “USIC: WOS Usage,” email to author, March 10, 2015. 

6. Robert Bruce, “USIC: Magazine iPads,” email to author, March 11, 2015.

7. Annemarie Costello, “USIC: Magazine iPads,” email to author, March 12, 2015.

8. Jing Lei and Yong Zhao, “One-To-One Computing: What Does It Bring to Schools?” Journal of Educational Computing Research, vol. 39, no. 2, 2008, pp. 97–122; Binbin Zheng, Mark Warschauer, and George Farkas, “Digital Writing and Diversity: The Effects of School Laptop Programs on Literacy Processes and Outcomes,” Journal of Educational Computing Research, vol. 48, no. 3, 2013, pp. 267–299; online at

9. Brandon Maguire, “USIC: Comment on 1-1,” email to author, March 11, 2015.

10. Michael Fullan, “The Change Leader,” Educational Leadership, May 2002, p. 18; online at

Candace Aiani

Candace Aiani is upper school librarian and K–12 library coordinator at Taipei American School (TAIWAN).