A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Dusting Off the Library

By Colleen Kearney Rich on November 2, 2016


With all the information we could possibly want just a click away on our devices, do we still need physical libraries?

George Mason University Librarian John Zenelis would suggest you ask the more than two million visitors to the George Mason University Libraries last year.

Mason libraries have never been busier, and if you haven’t visited Fenwick Library lately, you might not recognize it. This spring the 51-year-old library had a bit of work done. Now, with the opening of a 157,000-square-foot addition, Fenwick Library has a new look, a greater purpose, and an extraordinary following. In fact, people have started calling it the “new” Fenwick.

Mason librarian Jason Byrd, head of the University Libraries Information Services. Photo by Ron Aira

Mason librarian Jason Byrd, head of the University Libraries Information Services. Photo by Ron Aira

On the night before start of spring 2016 exams, there were 478 students in the Fenwick Library near closing time. This is part of the reason the new addition to Fenwick has a 24-hour lobby with its own Argo Tea Cafe.

“The students and faculty have really taken to the space,” says librarian Jason Byrd, head of University Libraries’ Information Services. “We have been impressed with the number of students who just want to be in the space and the number of faculty members who want to hold events here.”

Shepley Bulfinch, the architects behind the design of the new Fenwick Library, have used bright colors, flexible seating, and lots of natural light to create an inviting space for students to study and work collaboratively. And the administrators love showing off the space as much as students enjoy using it.

Fenwick is one of Mason’s most treasured spaces. A rare building that nearly everyone on campus visits, regardless of what we study or when we attend. Its value goes beyond the information and resources contained within these walls and shelves. Fenwick connects generations—a link to our past, and a bridge to our future. —President Ángel Cabrera at the March grand opening

“The new Fenwick Library opens during a truly transformational era for academic research libraries,” says Zenelis. “Now more than ever, libraries are essential in building academic community and in advancing the stature of universities such as ours.”

Although the space has been in the works for five years, if you ask Zenelis how long it took to get the addition built he will tell you, with a chuckle, 17 years. That’s roughly the time the man who is also dean of libraries has worked at Mason.

The two-story main reading room also converts into a meeting space with teleconference capabilities. Photo by Anton Grassl/Esto, Shepley Bulfinch

The two-story main reading room also converts into a meeting space with teleconference capabilities. Photo by Anton Grassl/Esto, Shepley Bulfinch

Since he joined the university in 1998, he has always been focused on the future and how the libraries would keep pace with the university’s mission. He orchestrated the President’s Library Task Force in 2004-05 that resulted in Mason’s commitment to develop and sustain a research-level library, and he led a library facilities feasibility study for all of Mason’s campuses, conducted by Shepley Bulfinch, in 2007. Shepley Bulfinch is known for its library designs. They designed Virginia Commonwealth University’s recent library renovation and have created libraries for Princeton, Duke, and Notre Dame.

The new addition is brimming with technology (and places to charge your devices or check out a laptop if you need one). The flexible “smart” seminar spaces are in demand for classes, and there is a laboratory classroom, run with assistance from Information Technology Services and the Center for Teaching Excellence, where faculty can test drive technologies before the university decides to purchase them.

Even while users are in Fenwick, information and assistance are only a few clicks away. Students can get help from a librarian virtually using a chat mechanism on the website. They also go to the Information Desk, or schedule an appointment with a subject librarian for assistance with a specific topic.

The new Fenwick Library foyer. Photo by Anton Grassl/Esto, Shepley Bulfinch

The new Fenwick Library foyer. Photo by Anton Grassl/Esto, Shepley Bulfinch

Surprisingly, students still prefer face-to-face interactions. During the 2015-16 academic year, 4,257 virtual conversations took place with librarians. During that same time, 15,000 inquiries were made in person at Fenwick alone.

Most Mason undergraduates are digital natives, which means they have never known a time without computers and the internet. Although Byrd is not a digital native (he remembers using a card catalog in elementary school), he specializes in this kind of library user.

“Digital natives have always been inundated with information. There has never been a time that they couldn’t find out something they wanted to know,” Byrd says. “So the challenge [for these users] is how to sift through the ‘noise’ and find the good stuff. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish with our instruction.”

Instruction in the research and scholarship process is a big part of what the University Libraries do. During the last two academic years, University Libraries held more than 2,100 instructional sessions and other workshops, reaching more than 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Many are focused on bringing freshmen up to speed on conducting research and creating scholarly work at the university level. In addition, Scholarly Productions at the Research Commons (SP@RC) is a new service opening within Fenwick this fall where students can get help designing their research posters, receive tutoring from the university’s Writing Center on writing papers, and develop presentation skills.

And there is more to come. If you miss “old” Fenwick, it is just a few steps away on all five levels of the addition, where it is still rocking that 1970s vibe with its exposed brick and dark natural wood. The second floor of the library towers is also undergoing a transformation of its own. It is the soon-to-be home to a digital scholarship center this fall. The center provides high-end technology, sophisticated tools, and support for students and faculty to engage in multidisciplinary projects using original source material, big data, multimedia, interactivity, and data visualization to create new knowledge, integrate it into teaching and learning, and disseminate it through a variety of scholarly communications and publication modes.

The Fenwick Library addition has lots of study space. Photo by Evan Cantwell

The Fenwick Library addition has lots of study space. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Zenelis believes this new center will bring the Mason libraries to the forefront of academic research libraries nationally. “As I look around this new facility, I see a collaborative learning environment that offers great opportunities for innovative programming and one that can support contemporary scholarship and research—not only to meet the needs of today’s Mason students and faculty, but also tomorrow’s,” says Zenelis.

“We do have regulars. We see many students coming in to look around,” says Byrd. “I think this [new space] enhances the library’s role as the research heart of the university.”

Zenelis says that the new Fenwick Library has been designed to be student-centered and is certainly proving to be student-friendly. “It’s not at all surprising that the building is full at all times—day, night, and weekends.”


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