The concept and history of the IC

At the heart of the Information Commons is the idea of the integrated learning environment, where students can discover and use print and digital resources in the same space, and access the resources of our virtual learning environment, MOLE.

The IC concept was developed by the University Library and Corporate Information and Computing Services (CiCS) in the late 1990s and early 2000s as an answer to the shortage of study spaces, and the spatial separation of library spaces and PC clusters.

The objectives for the massive new investment that became the IC were:

  • a significant increase in the quantity of study places
  • the creation of new study spaces of high quality and low density, giving students room to use printed and digital resources at the same desk
  • a variety of learning spaces to support a range of learning styles, from silent individual study to bookable group rooms
  • accommodation for a core collection of some 110 000 student textbooks
  • pervasive IT including wireless networking throughout, and desktop PCs on most study desks
  • a fully accessible space for students with impaired mobility
  • an environment designed to be available 24/7, with good security
  • a building that would be both highly functional and flexible, capable of accommodating changing study patterns and technology
  • an iconic building that would represent a major architectural addition to the campus and the city and give the University of Sheffield a leadership position in the provision of student learning space.

Our brief to architects RMJM demanded a solution that, while it embodied many of the features of university libraries and IT centres, would not be constrained by the vocabularies of existing academic buildings.

From early discussion papers in 1998, through final approval by the University´s Council in 2004, to opening in 2007, the IC concept evolved into the award-winning building that today´s students enjoy.

The name

We´re not the first to use the term "information commons", though we´re one of the first worldwide to apply it to a facility on this scale.

The term "commons" has languished somewhat in the UK in the last couple of centuries – apart, of course, from its use to describe the lower house of Parliament. But it´s a good old English word that was originally used to describe common land before the enclosures of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries.

In the US and Canada, and to a lesser extent in Australia and New Zealand, the concept of the "commons" as a shared resource or facility persisted, sometimes applied to buildings such as refectories. The term "information commons" has gained currency since the late 1980s, both to refer to a physical space, where information resources can be accessed and used; and to a virtual information space or community resource.

We chose to use this name because, like "library", it´s rooted in history. And by re-introducing it to the UK we´re signalling the exciting scale and innovation of this new learning environment, with its shared resources providing access to the world´s knowledge.