By Alicia Potter
After grabbing her favorite table in O’Neill Library, Boston College’s main research library, Bridgette McDermott ’15 sends out the group text: “I’m studying on the third floor.” For the next few hours, her friends drop by to join in, do homework, or say a quick hello in the 4,500-square-foot reading room. On other days, McDermott might head to O’Neill to work on a group project in a private study room on the fifth floor, map out a presentation on a wall coated in whiteboard paint on the first floor, or consult with a librarian about a research paper.
A philosophy and communication major, McDermott says she spends about five hours a day or more at O’Neill. “The library is a huge part of my routine,” she says. “It has so many different types of spaces that I’m able to do the bulk of my work there.”
McDermott isn’t the only one. Gate counts at BC’s main library have more than doubled to 1.4 million students each year during the past five years, says University Librarian Tom Wall, who arrived in 2009 from Duke University and has led the University’s effort to turn O’Neill into a destination: a multi-service hub designed for a generation raised on the Apple Store and bookstore cafés, and a place that integrates students’ technology and social needs with serious scholarship.
“In the old days, students would come in, get their book, and leave. Now they’re coming in and they’re staying,” says Wall. He points to the new and reconfigured resources that attract students to O’Neill, and to its expanded hours: as of the fall semester of 2014, the library is open 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday—an extension of almost 30 hours a week.
Situated at the edge of Middle Campus, across O’Neill Plaza from Gasson Hall, the library is named for the late Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. ’36, the longtime Massachusetts congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The five-floor, 198,000-square-foot building opened in 1984 when Bapst Library, then the main library, could no longer effectively serve a growing student population. In 2009, an entrance was added to O’Neill’s first floor, making it easier for students to enter from the Lower Campus and Maloney Hall.
Wall worked with undergraduate and graduate student-advisory panels to plan the renovations, making sure they reflected the specific needs of plugged-in students and coursework that frequently requires collaboration.
Where studying meets socializing
The most prominent change at O’Neill is the capacious third-floor reading room, where McDermott and her friends frequently can be found at their table by the back wall. A library reserve room and staff space until four years ago, the multi-purpose area now features floor-to-ceiling windows, diner-style booths, burnished tables, and a relaxed vibe that is more accepting of quiet conversation. Leslie Homzie, a senior reference librarian, reports that students are already using the room “around 7:30 in the morning, just as I’m coming to work.” Meanwhile, students say that if you’re not in by 11 a.m., especially on a Sunday, then you may not get one of the room’s 150 seats.
“The third floor gives me a place to get some work done but also meet friends and relax a little,” says Ryan Penhallurick ’16, a chemistry major. “It’s definitely more social than what you usually find in a library.”
Walls made to write on
While the reading room tends to double as study hall and social hangout, other areas are designated expressly for collaboration and group work. An open room on O’Neill’s first floor offers movable tables, rolling whiteboards, and walls covered in dry-erase paint. “I’ve seen everything from differential equations to the Cyrillic alphabet written there,” says Wall. McDermott and a classmate used the room to chart scenes from House of Cards for a Communication Methods: Critical/Cultural project.
Higher floors, lower volume
Students also visit O’Neill for its expanded quiet zones. Tina Lin ’15, an education and mathematics major, frequently studies and does homework on the hushed fourth and fifth floors—designated quiet areas that recently were reconfigured to allow for more views of the Boston skyline.
She reports that she once spent “about nine hours” working on a take-home final in one of the fifth floor’s study carrels.
She’s also booked one of the fifth floor’s nine private study rooms—glass-walled spaces with whiteboard walls, flat screen monitors, and large tables. While Lin might bump into friends and chat at other study spots, on O’Neill’s top floors, she says, “I can work undisturbed, with no distractions.”
Connected to growing technology needs
Besides the private study rooms, booths on the first floor feature flat screen monitors—often showing a flickering fireplace during exam time. Students who need to scan, print, copy, or get basic computer support can visit the library’s Technology Support Center. And the library is working with Information Technology Services (ITS) to further integrate its services with the library’s tech support services. Already, ITS operates a walk-in help center on the second floor of O’Neill, yet the long-term goal, explains Associate University Librarian Scott Britton, is a “more cohesive system of support” to reduce the technology problems that students might encounter while researching or studying.
Still, says Wall, this “mixed landscape” of technology and traditional library services isn’t only about increasing convenience and efficiency. “It’s about using technology for academic purposes,” he explains. The newly opened Boston College Libraries Digital Studio, a 2,000-square-foot space on the second floor, features 16 workstations—nine with 27-inch Macs—two meeting areas, and a meeting room. It was conceived and designed to support faculty, staff, and students conducting multimedia research and projects, including digital audio and visual production, text mining and encoding, and data analysis, says Wall.
The low-tech challenge that remains
Yet for all the new reasons to come to O’Neill, its 25 librarians still face an ongoing challenge: getting students to ask for help once they’re there. “Students think they’re disturbing us or that their question doesn’t have value,” explains Wall. Britton estimates that students sometimes spend a couple of hours of valuable time researching wrong avenues on their own before seeking assistance.
In addition to information sessions and ongoing work with academic departments, Wall and his staff have launched several smartphone-friendly services that put students in touch with librarians. Students (and their parents) can e-mail or text a librarian and receive an answer quickly, usually within one day. Students report using online library tools for a range of requests, from reserving a book for pickup to double-checking the format for a research citation. The library also offers a “Personal Librarian” service for freshmen, in which research specialists reach out by e-mail to initiate assistance and invite students to workshops and other library events.
Wall hopes that O’Neill’s increasingly diverse blend of services will give students “skills for life.” However, the students cite a more immediate benefit of the library’s newfound status as campus hotspot. “When I’m surrounded by people who are focused and doing work, it motivates me and helps me do better in my classes,” says McDermott. “I just love coming to the library.”