Evolving the Learning Commons

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
4 min readDec 8, 2020


Learning Commons are a microcosm of the higher education experience, used in a diversity of ways by all members of the campus community. Our practice has been exploring changes to this layered ecosystem through our work with Ramapo College of New Jersey, where we’re re-envisioning the existing George T. Potter library, recently renamed as the Peter P. Mercer Learning Commons. In addition to significant changes to collections access and technology resources, the design integrates new areas for interaction and collaboration.

The Peter P. Mercer Learning Commons at Ramapo College of New Jersey © Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

As the project moves toward completion in the summer of 2021, this series will explore the evolution of the learning commons model to support higher education in the 21st century.

The changes to campus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been top of mind throughout the year, as we convened experts in our Year of Gathering series to discuss ways of safely gathering on campus. As campus life continues to be impacted, learning commons, vital to the campus experience, have adapted to support their communities. Some, like the Sawyer Library at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, have offered limited access and have reduced seating capacity, as well as providing non-contact services for materials access. Others have organized curbside pick-up of materials, requested through an online reservation system.

Sawyer Library, Williams College © Peter Aaron/OTTO

From maker spaces to student centers, our academic work is informed by a holistic approach to design and the belief that how we live, work, learn and gather is rapidly evolving and increasingly connected. Perhaps no building on campus has seen more change in recent years than the learning commons. As information increasingly moves online and a place to collaborate becomes as important as a quiet area to study, the framework with which we approach learning commons design shifts to address blended, complementary environments for interaction as well as contemplation. And, if done right, these spaces foster an emotional connection with visitors, reflective of an academic institution’s history, mission and values.

The new Peter P. Mercer Learning Commons will increase the existing building’s capacity from 60,000 to 80,000 square feet, and completely re-envision a range of functions. In addition to integrating state-of-the-art classroom and laboratory space, media rooms, a design lab, lounge seating and a café, the design team observed the study and collaboration habits of students and developed varied, flexible options in response.

Peter P. Mercer Learning Commons entry level diagram © Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

The entry level at the Peter P. Mercer Learning Commons (shown in the diagram above), emphasizes a range of collaborative study and active learning environments, including:
1) Entry Plaza
2) Cafe
3) Open collaborative study
4) Group study
5) Digital Research
6) Active learning classroom

Like the Ramapo design process, our work at Williams’ Sawyer Library explored how blended environments can create a multifunctional destination for individual and group scholarship. Our approach to Sawyer Library created distinct zones for collections and collaboration, which also provided for easy navigation through the building.

A diagram illustrating the core components of the Sawyer Library, including the Collaboration and Collections zones.

Individual study carrels on the perimeter of the collections zone offer mountain views, light, immediate collection access, and a quiet study environment. Across the central atrium, the collaboration area represents the vision of the modern learning commons as a space for co-operative learning and group activities.

The Sawyer Library’s reading room looks onto the central atrium and helps bring visibility to the library’s special collections section. © Peter Aaron/OTTO

This balance of collaborative and focused study space will be further explored in our series, alongside upcoming stories on the enduring importance of special collections, changes to collections management, and more.

Further Reading

Ramapo College of New Jersey Learning Commons
Watch a Fly-Through of the Ramapo Learning Commons
Sawyer Library, Williams College
Extending the Life of Outdoor Campus Spaces



Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.