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NORMAL — College students still go to their campus library to study. That hasn't changed.

But don't be surprised to find them sipping coffee while engaging in group discussions or even writing on the walls — special whiteboard walls.

“We create space where students can learn together … whereas before it was more individual and contemplative,” said Dallas Long, associate dean of Illinois State University's Milner Library. “There's much more tolerance for noise in the library.”

Much of the furniture in Milner is moveable so students can adapt the work space to their needs.

ISU sophomore Mikaela Senycia, an elementary education major from Vernon Hills, said, “I like the background noise. … I like to see fellow classmates and ask them questions.”

Nile McCammond, a junior in animal science from Stillman Valley, was part of a group recently studying together on Milner's third floor for their organic chemistry class.

“It's a nice place to stay focused,” said McCammond.

Students still check out books. But they also check out everything from cameras to video projectors to graphing calculators.

ISU and Illinois Wesleyan University also have places where people can record presentations to show to others or to practice and critique their performances.

Reference librarians are available to help with research, but students don't necessarily have to show up in person. They can ask questions via email or live chat.

If they need more in-depth help, they can even schedule one-on-one sessions with a librarian.

The reference librarians don't do the research for the students, of course.

“We're here to teach students how to find information and how to evaluate its objectivity and reliability,” said Heartland Community College librarian Rachelle Stivers. “The biggest misperception is that we are not needed anymore.”

More materials, especially journals and periodicals, are available in digital format rather than print.

Pointing to an area outside of her first floor office in Ames Library, IWU librarian Karen Schmidt said, “When I came here 11 years ago, shelves were filled, end to end, with unbound periodicals.” Now, she noted, only a small area is devoted to printed periodicals.

But despite how libraries have changed, Schmidt said, “At the end of the day, it's still about critical thinking, finding good resources and helping students become part of the scholarly conversation.”

One thing that's been lost to some degree with the increasing use of digital rather than printed materials is what's sometimes called “serendipitous discovery” — material randomly stumbled across while searching through stacks of books or an old-fashioned card catalog.

For example, Schmidt said, when a student picked up a printed journal for a particular article, they might find related, helpful material in the same journal. In the digital age, they just get the article requested.

However, Stivers said, even though “serendipity is kind of gone, ... you run across rabbit holes,” where one digital article or book leads to links to others.

And, to paraphrase an old Mark Twain quote, reports of the death of print are greatly exaggerated.

Schmidt said although today's students grew up reading on computers, they still like to hold a book and often print out what they find on the internet.

While some students like the camaraderie they find in group study areas such as Milner's third floor, others still seek out quiet spots.

“We have study areas, nooks and crannies, and they're next to books,” said Schmidt. “Students recognize they're sitting next to volume after volume of books. There's a visceral sense to that, even if they don't read them.”

One way libraries make best use of their resources is through “robust interlibrary loans,” which lessens the need for every library to have every book, explained Long.

The libraries at ISU, IWU and Heartland are among 86 belonging to the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois.

Members of the consortium can access books and materials from other members through I-SHARE if they don't have something a patron needs or if their copy is checked out.

Looking to the future, ISU is in the midst of a planning process involving the entire university, which includes looking at “spaces where we can work together” and possibly expanding technology spaces.

Heartland recently reconfigured the position of a librarian who retired to create a digital services librarian.

IWU is among a number of universities that use something called “Digital Commons” to preserve and digitally publish research work by students as well as faculty and make it accessible.

Schmidt said, “I think open access is going to become the next game changer.”

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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