Universities in Western Washington are trying to create spaces that are casual, collaborative, chock full of technology and — yes — where it's OK to eat, drink and be noisy. For years now, college students have gravitated to "third places" in their communities — often, a coffee shop where they can spread out their books,...

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Seattle University senior Kevin Eggers has already found his favorite study spot in the school’s new $55 million Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons, a six-story building of glass and brick in the heart of the First Hill area campus.

Eggers likes a table just outside the library’s Byte Cafe, in a lobby space that’s open 24 hours a day and overlooks the school’s plaza. “I like to grab a little space by the window,” said Eggers, a philosophy/political-science major and student- body president.

For years now, college students have gravitated to “third places” in their communities — often, a coffee shop where they can spread out their books, fire up their laptops and study with friends while keeping tabs on e-mail and texts.

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Now, academic libraries are trying to lure them back with spaces that are casual, collaborative, chock full of technology and — yes — where it’s OK to eat, drink and be noisy.

Bad news for the area’s coffee shops, perhaps. “We’re trying to get a piece of that action,” said Seattle University librarian John Popko.

The Lemieux Library, which opened in late September, is a complete redesign of the Jesuit school’s old library, with an addition that expands the library’s size by 35,000 square feet, to a total 125,000 square feet. It was designed by Pfeiffer Partners of Los Angeles.

But more than just adding space, the remodel changes the library’s vibe, incorporating academic assistance among the bookshelves. It also gives a nod to the social dimensions of student life, with the cafe, the casual spaces and a wealth of computers.

“On Day One, the students were gawking,” Popko said of the library’s opening. “On Day Two, they were sitting down at the computers. They’re adapting very quickly.”

Admiring colleagues

Fellow librarians are admiring, as well. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful library, and they’ve taken advantage of a lot of new thinking,” said Cynthia Fugate, associate dean of libraries at the University of Washington. “The students are just going to love it.”

On the library’s second floor, there’s an open, airy space that serves as an academic-support center for students who need help in math, writing and other subjects. Students can also get help there from the library’s research services. Those services used to be scattered around campus.

The library has 15 study rooms, which can be booked in advance and accommodate anywhere from two students to 16. Each room is equipped with a large flat-screen TV, DVD player and whiteboard. The tables and chairs are all on wheels, so students can reconfigure the space to their liking.

On the ground floor, there’s a media-production center with a recording studio and video-editing stations. And the extensive art collection includes works by Henri Matisse and Chuck Close.

Similar ideas are being tried in academic libraries around the area.

In early October, the University of Washington opened its Research Commons in the Allen Library, a flexible work space for students to join together on research projects.

The trend is “toward what we think of as the future of the library — not a repository of books, but a place to get together to explore and create knowledge,” Fugate said.

The UW’s Research Commons is designed with workshop spaces, a large presentation area, tables and chairs on wheels, and lots of whiteboards.

It’s an experiment — librarians themselves don’t know exactly how students will use it, said Lauren Ray, librarian for the Research Commons and library-outreach services.

It shares a bit of DNA with the open-meeting spaces that high-tech companies have long used to keep things loose and ideas flowing, Ray said — companies that will no doubt hire some of these students one day.

Ray hopes that students working on one project might end up eavesdropping on their neighbors, and before you know it — instant idea-sharing. “It’s that kind of spontaneous collaboration that we’re really looking to foster here — how we can get students to be inspired to teach one another,” Ray said.

Over the summer, Western Washington University also took steps to create a “learning commons” area in its Wilson Library, where students can pull together whiteboards, plug in their laptops, rearrange the seating and collaborate on projects. The library has also added a bagel cafe on the first floor.

As you go up, each floor of the library becomes successively quieter, so students seeking calm spaces need only to go to the next level, said Chris Cox, dean of libraries for Western.

“The old shushing library is changing,” he said. “It’s not that way anymore.”

The libraries are borrowing a bit from book retailers like Barnes & Noble, and coffee shops like Starbucks, which made it OK to linger over coffee or books, to see and be seen, Cox said. “We want to be one of the ‘in’ places on campus.”

Eggers, the Seattle University student, said students are still exploring all the nooks and crannies in the Lemieux Library.

“There are a lot of cool features,” he said. “Students are still figuring it out. They say, ‘Have you seen this? Have you seen that?’ “

One of its best spaces, a sixth-floor student lounge that looks out to the east and has a stunning view of the Cascades, fills up fast.

It’s already so popular, Eggers said, it’s becoming hard to find a seat.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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