Building a Community Space

Countway Library renovations aim to better serve users

Central interior stairs of current Countway Library
Inside the Countway Library as it is now. Image: Luca Ambrosio

As the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine prepares to start a transformative renovation this year, Director and Head Librarian Elaine Martin is excited about creating new ways to serve the academic and personal needs of the Harvard Medical School community. Mindful that she is at the helm of an institution with a storied past, she is charged with ushering it into the future.

“The goal of this renovation is to change the space in the library to reflect the new ways people are learning and to build community,” Martin said.

In the past, much of the library’s mission has centered around being a resource for print materials, she said. But as the internet has changed the way people access information, Martin said, users are interacting with libraries in different ways, and the Countway Library must respond to those needs as well.

In the vanguard

With the idea of moving forward in mind, Martin said that she and several planning committees seek to rethink the library mission, with a goal of prioritizing users over collections. She emphasized that the library’s books and collections are still very important and will still be available, but she said that they will be available in different ways. The library will also become more of a centralized gathering place for the Harvard Schools in the Longwood Medical Area.

Student feedback has been central to planning: Student advisory boards help design library programs, student representatives were on a committee for developing the renovation, they have been invited by the library to take surveys and engage in focus groups, and architects met with groups of students to get feedback on conceptual designs.

As the library engages students and creates programming more suited to what they need, Martin said, survey satisfaction scores are improving.

“You’re not just a physician or scientist, you’re a person,” Martin said, explaining that the library is collaborating with the Arts and Humanities Initiative at HMS to ask, “What do you need, and how can a library create a space and collections that help?”

One of the common requests from students is for relaxation spaces, because stress and burnout are issues within the health professions. The library already has therapy dogs but is looking to add more spaces to de-stress, whether quiet reading spaces or rooms for gaming.

The renovations will also include a café with food and drink, which will give students a place to meet colleagues or study “alone together,” since Martin said many students value the opportunity to be around other people in silence.

The rest of the library will be zoned for a mix of quiet reading spaces and collaborative study spaces.

Martin hopes that by providing more spaces for collaboration, the library will become more of an interprofessional, mutual space for everyone to go to, regardless of affiliation.

The change Martin is most enthusiastic about is the decision to move the library’s main entrance to Huntington Avenue because it will build a literal, as well as figurative, bridge between the library and the greater Longwood community. She said this will serve to “break down the walls of the medical school” and show that the library is welcoming.

Helping others

The library serves users from HMS, the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health and nearby hospitals, and while Martin is working particularly hard to support students, she is also concerned with how the library can best support the health information needs of the many other health professionals in the community, “no matter what role you play.”

“I have a wonderful team and staff who are dedicated to create the best service. It’s a privilege to work with them,” said Martin, who joined HMS to helm the library two years ago.

Martin’s sentiment is echoed by longtime employee Richard Pendleton, a serials assistant in Collections and Knowledge Management who has worked at the Countway Library for more than 50 years.

Pendleton said that it has always been easy to work with his library colleagues, which is “worth a million bucks.”

Emphasizing that the library is “a storehouse of medical knowledge” which will continue to accumulate more information moving into the future, Pendleton attributed his longevity on the job at Countway Library to liking his work, his enjoyment at keeping materials in order and making sure everything is available—and being in a position to assist people.

“Helping people find what they’re looking for is a good feeling, and if along the way I can work with good people, maybe that’s sheer luck,” he said. “If you can find that combination, grab hold and stick with it.”

The Countway Library is finishing the design phase of its coming renovations and will soon be moving into the construction management phase, with a goal of beginning renovations in August.

The building will remain open during renovations, with certain areas blocked off. The library will keep users informed as to what is available and what areas are open. Renovations are expected to be complete by the fall of 2020.