by Jill Porter
At a time when endless information is available with the push of a few keys on the laptop, a rapid tap-tap-tap across an iPad or a thumb dance on a smartphone, does anyone need to go to the library anymore? College students today can research topics and communicate with classmates and professors without leaving their bedrooms or favorite coffee shops. Why would they want to spend time in a building long known for dusty tomes, absolute silence and the availability of far too few computers?
Welcome to the future — it’s actually because of this advanced technology that the library on a college campus can become one of the most vital hubs of academic life.
When the doors to the John and Maryanne Hennings Post Learning Commons at Drexel Library opened to students for the first time in March, the academic potential for Saint Joseph’s students changed dramatically. The soaring, light-filled building has been a center of student life on campus ever since.
“It’s been packed since the first day,” says Library Director Evelyn Minick, who oversaw the $16 million expansion and renovation of the Francis A. Drexel Library.
"If I heard the word ‘awesome’ once, I heard it 100 times,” Minick says. “My very favorite comment is, ‘This place makes me feel smarter.’”
As well it should. The new facility provides space and atmosphere for every kind of learning: 150 study carrels for solitary studiers who need quiet; 20 group-study rooms for collaborative projects and presentations; and ample space for “social studiers” who alternate work with socializing.
“Everyone seems to find their niche — little microclimates with the right level of noise,” Minick says.
The 35,000-square-foot addition to and renovation of Drexel Library, together named the John R. Post ’60 Academic Center, doubled the amount of student seats to 1,100 in the combined buildings. High-tech tools to support student work are also abundant. Students can videotape and refine their class projects in the Presentation Practice Room; develop support materials in the audio/visual multimedia lab; and use computers with dual monitors, comprehensive research content and sophisticated software in the Digital Media Zone.
Along with cutting-edge technology, the Post Learning Commons incorporates progressive theory about collaborative learning. “Research over the last 10 years has shown that students learn as much from each other as from faculty,” Minick says. “This was an opportunity to create physical spaces that would let them do that.”
The building also accomplished another goal: to bring expertise to the students in one location. Service desks are staffed by research librarians, circulation and reserve staff, and technology aides; satellite offices of the Writing Center, Career Development Center and Learning Resource Center offer specialized knowledge in a central space. “All the tools students need are in one place,” Minick says. “We’re not asking them to walk all over campus. This was designed around one-stop shopping and collaboration.”
And yes, there are books — 350,000 of them, as well as 3,700 electronic books, 5,000 DVD/video and audio books, 65,000 print and electronic journals, newspapers and magazines and 140 databases.
Equally as impressive as the breadth of resources is the striking architecture and its carefully composed vistas. The seating was designed to allow students to see outdoors, to the new rock garden and plaza where they gather in good weather, from most locations. And, in a meaningful gesture, Becker Winston Architects designed a soaring atrium that connects the new Post Learning Commons with the invigorated Drexel Library and features stunning views of the University’s signature building.
“You get repeating views of Barbelin Tower, with the sun shining on it,” Minick says. “It’s very clever.”
On a bright spring afternoon, James Yul, who is completing his M.B.A. in international marketing, sat at a desk, hunched over his work.
“I think it’s great,” he says of the new facility. “I like how they didn’t tear down the old,” but incorporated it in the new, he says.
Other students shared their reactions to the changes on a rolling whiteboard at the entrance after the dedication: “Wonderful! Brilliant! Best addition ever!”
The Drexel Library has always been positioned at the middle of campus, geographically. Now, enhanced and part of the new John R. Post ’60 Academic Center, its central location is much more than a physical site. If student reaction is any indication, it has quickly become a vital hub of academic life at Saint Joseph’s University.
Technology and Collaboration
Anthony DelConte III, M.D. ’80 (B.S.), visiting assistant professor of pharmaceutical and healthcare marketing, believes the Presentation Practice Rooms, Digital Media Zone and other group study areas in the Post Learning Commons made a key difference in his students’ final presentations last spring.
Dr. DelConte’s students spend the semester working at a service site — in this case, Mercy Fitzgerald Wellness Center. At the end of the semester, teams of two to four present final reports of their work to hospital and University staff. This semester, students not only practiced their presentations at the Learning Commons, but also made their final presentations there.
“Setting up an environment that really facilitates collaboration can spark innovation and foster creativity,” he says. “I can see a lot of that in the presentations.”
The students benefited from working in dedicated spaces that were large enough to rehearse and refine their presentations, but the best aspect of the new facility for this class may have been the technology. After working together and creating videos in the Presentation Practice Rooms, students could also view and critique their work in the Digital Media Zone, making adjustments and improving their presentation skills before the big day.
“They could do things on the monitor as well as on the big screen and make changes and improvements on the fly as they were finalizing and polishing their presentations,” DelConte explains. “The Learning Commons is built for collaboration, and that’s very important for any of our classes where students are working as teams.”
In previous years, students presented their final reports in a conference room at the hospital site. “It wasn’t an optimal situation because connectivity wasn’t always consistent, and students didn’t get to practice or prep in the room where they’d ultimately be presenting,” DelConte says.
This time, they presented their final reports in the Wachterhauser Seminar Room, a space both intimate and grand, on the third floor of the Post Learning Commons.
“The student presentations were outstanding,” says DelConte. “I could tell they had all done their research and prepared their presentations well.”
Rare and invaluable artifacts and historical records that have long been in the University’s possession are better prepared for the future now that they are stored and maintained according to prevailing standards of conservation — and ready to be properly displayed — because of new storage and exhibition space on the third floor of the Post Learning Commons.
“This is the first time the library has had any kind of environmentally controlled storage for rare and fragile materials, and real exhibit space so we can show off the collections we have,” says Marjorie Rathbone, director of resources management.
“There are collections coming to us now because we’ll be able to take care of them,” Rathbone says. “We have a lot of possibilities we never had before.”
Carmen Croce ’71 (A.B.), director of the University Press and curator of the University’s art collection, has been accumulating documents and art for more than 40 years. Before the Learning Commons opened, the collection could have been considered the University’s best-kept secret. Now, Croce can properly display these materials and offer a large and comfortable space for scholars to study them.
“We have art hanging all over campus, but to mount a curated exhibit is different,” he says. “We had no protected space. I couldn’t leave a case full of important objects in the middle of a corridor without security and temperature control.”
A gift from the Jesuit Community at Saint Joseph’s has established the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Special Collections Room, named for the esteemed 19th century Jesuit Victorian poet. The inaugural exhibit in this space is focused on Jesuit illustrated religious literature, part of the University’s Jesuitica collection of 600 16th to 20th century books, manuscripts and relics, some quite rare. Saint Joseph’s can now exhibit such valuable collections on a regular basis, and Croce is planning a schedule of at least two major exhibits each academic year.
Other collections include artifacts from Thomas Foglietta ’49 (B.S.), who donated his papers and furniture from Rome, where he served as U.S. Ambassador to Italy. Most important, many of the records in the University’s possession will be digitized in the Digital Preservation Lab and eventually made available to the public.
That includes records from Old St. Joseph’s Church, Philadelphia’s first Catholic church — and the University’s birthplace — which are “among the oldest sacramental records in the entire United States,” Croce says. “Sacramental records include the Church’s official registry of the baptismal, matrimonial and burial records of the faithful. In addition to serving that canonical function, these records are invaluable to laymen as a genealogical archive.”
Less historical but equally important documents also will be digitized and made available, according to Chris Dixon, director of archival research. Dixon will be using an archival-quality upright book scanner and software in the Digital Preservation Lab to convert archival records to an electronic database, including yearbooks, historical documents, departmental papers, theater group photos, oral history interviews and other collections.
“Once the materials are scanned and we can make them available electronically, people will be able to look at them remotely,” Dixon says. “It’s gratifying.”
David Wolfe '60 Art Collection
David Wolfe '60 (B.S.) was a student at Saint Joseph’s in the 1950s when he walked by an art gallery in Philadelphia and saw something he liked. It was a foiled and embossed work on paper by Victor Vasarely. He walked in and bought it for $112, money the accounting major had earned giving music lessons.
That was the unlikely beginning of a lifetime spent collecting art during Wolfe’s world-traveling career as a fashion executive. He recently bequeathed the valuable collection, which represents the best of 20th century art, to his alma mater.
“St. Joe’s was my beginning point of exposure to the world, and from that, I figured this is my way of giving back to the school what it gave me to begin with,” says Wolfe, who lives most of the time in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Wolfe spent 25 years as an executive with Neiman Marcus, the high-end retailer, traveling the globe for work, and visiting galleries and buying pieces that fit one criterion: he liked it.
“I liked colors and forms and shape,” he says, adding that he never paid attention to the names of those who created the art. He acquired works by seminal artists such as Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and others.
The artwork in Wolfe’s initial donation to the University — including the Vasarely — is framed in silver, matted in white and displayed in a defined pattern along the wall that greets patrons as they enter Drexel Library’s second floor. The rest of the collection, including the most valuable pieces, will come later.
He says he has no idea how much his collection is worth; he never had it appraised because he never wanted to sell it. Wolfe hopes his collection will inspire students to “make art part of their life.”
“It’s one aspect of life, but it’s an important one,” Wolfe says. “It’s one more part of the human experience.”