Accessible Navigation. Go to: Navigation Main Content Footer

Find Us On FacebookTHE MONTANAN

The Magazine of The University of Montana

Raising Montana

Reinventing How the Library Helps Students Succeed



The plan for the Mansfield Library includes creating a Learning Commons on the first floor with a wall of windows.
Artwork by Ben Tintinger, Mosaic Architecture

The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library was built in the time of the card catalog. It was 1973, and a massive wooden cabinet filled with long drawers was a student’s portal to the world. Today, with iPhones buzzing in our collective pockets, that’s kind of hard to imagine.

It’s especially hard to imagine when you look at what UM President Royce Engstrom wants to do to the main floor of the library. President Engstrom and Dean of Libraries Bonnie Allen intend to create a Learning Commons with movable furniture, multimedia pods, presentation space, and natural light they believe will usher in a whole new way of learning for UM students. They’ve launched a private fundraising effort to fund the project, and look forward to the day when contractors begin moving bricks, knocking holes in the walls, and bringing a little bit of Montana’s outdoor beauty into the library through new, giant windows. There are even plans for a coffee shop.

“The Learning Commons will offer a collaborative space where all the pieces come together,” Allen says. “It will combine a physical space with technology, tutors, and resources.” All of these elements combined make it easier for students to work and learn, she says.

When the library was built—way before Google, Twitter, and Facebook—there was an emphasis on independent learning, Allen says. This competitive, do-your-own-work learning style resulted in the sprinkling of small study carrels throughout the library. Today’s student is more of a collaborative learner, one who is used to working in groups and with people not necessarily in the same room.

Engstrom agrees and has made the Learning Commons one of the top priorities in UM’s new strategic plan. The plan, titled UM 2020: Building a University for the Global Century, focuses on five major initiatives for UM. Partnering for student success tops the list.

This means collaborating with K-12 educators to better prepare students for university-level work and assisting students with their transition to college. It also means finding ways to increase the number of students who return after freshman year and the number of students who graduate.

“The Learning Commons is a cornerstone of our student success effort,” Engstrom says. “It’s a tool for achieving student success. It also ties into our goal of education for the Global Century.”

The new space speaks to nearly every element of UM 2020, Allen says.

“This project addresses student success and our goal of creating a dynamic learning environment specifically,” she says. “And because the Mansfield Library is already such a resource for students, it contributes every day to the entire ten-year vision for the University.”

The initiative to improve student success has been in motion for years, but Engstrom and Allen say they believe the time is now to take a very visible step toward helping UM students succeed. They hope to have the project under way by 2013.

“We’re enthusiastic,” Allen says, adding that other institutions that have remodeled in similar ways have had library use double. Allen expects UM students to flock to the Learning Commons. The collaborative learning that takes place there will help students succeed both in their studies and in their lives. Positive outcomes will include increasing the student-retention rate and graduate rate, and ultimately making an impact on the number of college graduates in Montana and beyond.

To donate or to learn more about the Mansfield Library Learning Commons project, call Bonnie Allen at 406-243-6800, UM Foundation Director of Development Laura Bianco-Adams at 406-243-5354, or make a gift online at