Case Studies

Grand Valley State University

In June 2013, Grand Valley State University opened the doors to its new Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons in Allendale, Michigan. The design process for the new facility began over a decade ago and was initially based on the American Library Association’s design standards, which were largely focused on the ratio of books and seats to student enrollment.

In the years since planning began, the role of libraries changed significantly, mainly due to the growth of digital media and evolving student learning expectations. Space devoted to books was freed up as books went electronic. As a result the library space had to adapt and change to become more of an academic hub, to facilitate learning outside the classroom.

And that’s exactly what the new facility has achieved – in a wide variety of ways. It features open spaces designed to encourage cooperative learning along with a blend of work environments, ranging from pin drop quiet reading rooms to an upscale tea café – encouraging academic and social interaction.

As part of their planning effort the University conducted research to gain a deeper understanding of student behavior with the goal being to create a rich environment in which independent learning could take place.

There was also a need to move away from the highly controlled library environments of the past, with their heavy furniture and large immovable tables, to one that allowed for students to create spaces to suit their needs. Furniture that’s easy to move, designed to support unscripted movement, now allows students to manage their own experience. It was important to accommodate the wide range of postures, attitudes, and alone and together modes that were happening within the space. As a result, the library features 29 different types of chairs.

Research conducted in the old library showed that inside seats near windows were favored study spaces.  A large four story atrium featuring floor to ceiling windows lets natural light stream through the space which includes a range of seating and study areas – all with views to the outdoors. A terraced outdoor space with a large patio along with a roof terrace deck and garden are some of the special outdoor areas offered for studying or socializing.

The learning alcove on the main floor features an interactive video screen that plays a variety of content including videos, TED talks and lectures.  It’s intended to be a place that students can walk by, see something interesting and engage with the content and each other– a space designed to facilitate “learning moments” serendipitously.

“This library is all about the students.  We started by turning completely inside out the common understanding of what an academic library should be.  We focused on all the things today’s students might like to do, or need do, in a library-type space, including things not generally associated with a library.  Then we created the spaces where they could do those things.

Multitasking is a fact of modern life. It’s the way most of us work today. We see students cycling repeatedly and effortlessly between social and academic tasks.  They prefer environments where disparate tasks can be managed simultaneously. We selected furniture that was flexible, comfortable, colorful, often wired, and sometimes playful.  We installed 29 different kinds of seating.  I really think if we hadn’t had the furnishings we have in this building we wouldn't have been able to elevate this environment into something new.  Our students tell us we did exactly that.”
Lee Van Orsdel Dean of University Libraries at Grand Valley State University


  • 14 000 m²
  • 1/3 of the space is quiet and contemplative
  • Approximately 20 collaborative work areas
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