Category Archives: Buildings

Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, the Digital Access Librarian at Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat (http://bohyunkim.net/blog) and can be found at @bohyunkim (http://twitter.com/bohyunkim) in Twitter. She also writes regularly on ACRL TechConnect blog.

Today’s library users do not carry pencils and notebooks to a library. They no longer want to be isolated to concentrate on deep study or contemplative reading when they are at a library. Rather, they have the dire need to be connected to the biggest library the human race ever had, the World Wide Web, always and even more so when they are at a library walking through the forest of fascinating knowledge and information. The traditional library space packed with stacks and carrels does not serve today’s library users well whether they are scholars, students, or the public visiting a library for research, study, or leisure reading. As more and more library resources are moved to the fast and convenient realm of the World Wide Web, libraries have been focusing on re-defining the library space. Now, many libraries boast attractive space almost comparable to trendy, comfortable, and vibrant coffee shops. The goal of these new library spaces are fostering communication, the exchange of ideas, and social learning.

How the loss of book stacks and carrels affects library patrons

However, some library patrons complain about this new and hip research and reading environment that libraries are creating. They do not experience comfort and excitement, which today’s libraries strive to provide in their new coffee-shop-or-makerspace-like library space. These patrons rather miss the old dusty moldy stacks packed with books, many of which were left untouched except by a handful of people for a very long time. They miss the quiet and secluded carrels often placed right outside of the stacks. They say that browsing a library’s physical collection in those stacks led them to many serendipitous discoveries and that in those tiny uncomfortable carrels, they were completely absorbed into their own thoughts reading away a pile of books and journals undisturbed by the worldly hustle and bustle.

This is an all-too-familiar story. The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

How much of this environment made our research more productive in reality?

What we really love about browsing book stacks at a library

In the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at Standford University Libraries noted the phenomenon that library patrons often describe the experience of using the physical library collection in emotional terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ characteristic to our right brain whereas they use non-emotional terms such as ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’ to describe their use of a library’s online/digital resources. The open question that she posed in her keynote was how to bring back those emotional responses associated with a library’s physical collection to a library’s digital collection and its interface. Those terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ are often associated in a library user’s mind with their experience of serendipitous discovery which took place while they were browsing a library’s physical book stacks. Sadler further linked the concept of serendipitous discovery with the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszentmihalyi and asked the audience how libraries can create such state of flow with their digital collections by improving their interfaces.

One of the slides from Bess Sadler’s Closing Keynote

This was a very interesting question to me because I have been mostly thinking about the concept of flow in the context of library services (and more specifically, gamification applied to libraries) and the usability of the systems that serve a library’s online resources.

The most annoying thing about the e-resources that today’s libraries offer is that the systems where these resources reside do not smoothly fit into anyone’s research workflow. How can you get into a zone when the database you are in keeps popping up a message asking if you want to renew the session or demands two or three different authentications for access? How can you feel the sense of smooth flow of thought in your head when you have to navigate from one system to another with puzzling and unwieldy interfaces in order to achieve simple tasks such as importing a few references or finding the full-text of the citation you found in an e-book or an online journal you were reading?

Today’s research environment that libraries offers with its electronic resources is riddled with so many irritating usability failures (often represented by too many options none of whose functions are clear) that we can almost safely say that it is designed anything but for the ‘flow’ experience. The fact that these resources’ interfaces are designed by library system vendors and light years outdated compared to the interfaces available for individual consumers and that librarians have little or no control over them only exacerbate the problem. So I always associated the concept of flow with usability in the library context. And considering how un-user-friendly the research environment offered by today’s libraries is overall, asking for ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ or ‘beautiful’ appeared to me to be a pretty tall order.

But more importantly, the obstacles to the ‘flow’ experience are not unique to online resources or digital libraries. Similar problems do exist in the physical collections as well. When I was a grad student, the largest library collection in North America was available to me. But I hated lugging back and forth a dozen periodicals and monographs between my apartment and the university just to get them renewed. (This was the time before the online renewal!) After the delightful moment of finding out in the online catalog that those rare scholarly books that I want are indeed available somewhere in that large library system at Harvard, I grumbled at the prospect of either navigating the claustrophobic rows and rows of stacks at Widener Library in order to locate those precious copies or running to a different library on campus that is at least a half mile away. At those times, the pleasure of browsing the dusty stacks or the joy of a potential serendipitous discovery was the last thing that I cared for. I was very much into my research and exactly for that reason, if I could, I would have gladly selected the delivery option of those books that I wanted to save time and get into my research flow as soon as possible. And I did so as soon as my university library started moving many books to an off-site storage and delivering them on-demand next day at a circulation desk. I know that many faculty at academic institutions strongly protest against moving a library’s physical collection to an off-site storage. But I confess that many times when the library catalog showed the book I wanted as located on the stacks and not at the off-site storage, I groaned instead of being delighted. I won’t even discuss what it was like to me to study in a library carrel. As an idea, it is a beautiful one to be immersed in research readings in a carrel; in reality, the chair is too hard, the space is too dark and claustrophobic, the air is stale, and the coffee supply is, well, banned near the stacks where those carrels are. Enough said.

The point I am trying to make is that we often romanticize our interaction with the physical stacks in a library. The fact that we all love the library stacks and carrels doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them for the reasons we cite. More often than not, what we really like and miss about the library stacks and carrels is not their actual practical utility to our research process but the ambiance. Strand, the used bookstore in NYC is famous for its 18 miles of books. Would you walk along the 18 miles of books even if you know in advance that you are not going to make any serendipitous discovery nor find nothing directly useful for your research topic at hand? Yes you bet. Would you walk by the stacks in Trinity College Library in Dublin, UK even though you are not doing anything related to research? A very few of us would say ‘No’ to such an invitation.

Can you resist walking between these stacks? Our desire doesn’t always correspond to its practical utility.

But the fact that library stacks and browsing them may contribute very little to the actual research output doesn’t mean that the stack-browsing is therefore not useful. To borrow the words of Saint-Exupéry, something is truly useful because it is beautiful (The Little Prince, Ch. 14). Let me explain.

The library book stacks as high as the walls filling up the whole floor generate the sense of awe and adventure in us because it gives us the experience of ‘physically’ surrounded by knowledge. It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic. It is often at these moments that we serendipitously stumble upon something relevant to what we were looking for but have forgotten to do so. Between the magnificent tall stacks filled with books, you are distracted from your original mission (of locating a particular book) but are immersed in this new setting at the same time. The silence, the high ceiling, the Gothic architectural style of an old library building, and the stacks that seems to go on forever in front of us. These are all elements that can be conducive to a serendipitous discovery but “if and only if” we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. On the other hand, if you are zooming in on a specific book, all of this visual magnificence could be a nuisance and a bother. To a scholar who can’t wait to read all of the readings after physically collecting them first, the collection process is a chore at best. To this person, neither a serendipitous discovery nor the state of ‘flow’ would be no doubt more difficult to happen in between the stacks.

If this is a relatively accurate description of a serendipitous discovery that we experience while browsing the physical collection on library book-stacks, what we really miss about the traditional library space may well be the physicality of its collection, the physical embodiment of the abstract concept of knowledge and information in abundance, and its effect on our mental state, which renders our mind more susceptible to a serendipitous discovery. And what we are most unhappy about the digital form of knowledge and information offered by today’s libraries could be that it is not presented in the space and environment where we can easily tune our mind into the content of such digital knowledge and information. It is the same Classical Greek text that you see when you pull out an old copy of Plato’s Meno in the narrow passage between tall book-stacks at Widener and when you pull up the text on your computer screen from the Perseus Digital Library. It is our state of mind influenced by the surroundings and environment that is different. That state of mind that we miss is not entirely dictated but heavily influenced by the environment we are present. We become different people at different places, as Alain de Botton says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness (Ch 1). Who can blame a library user when s/he finds it hard to transform a computer screen (which takes her to many digital collections and online resources from a library as well as all sorts of other places for entertainment and distraction) into the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation?

Using Perseus Digital Library is way more efficient for research and study the classical Greek texts than using the physical collection on your stacks. However, we still miss and need the experience of browsing the physical collection on the stacks.

How to facilitate the ‘flow’ and serendipity in today’s libraries

The fact that today’s libraries no longer control the physical surroundings of a library patron who is making use of their resources doesn’t mean that there are nothing libraries can do to make the research environment facilitate serendipitous discoveries and the state of ‘flow’ in a researcher’s mind, however. Today’s libraries offer many different systems for library users to access their online resources. As I have mentioned above, the interfaces of these systems can use some vast improvement in usability. When there are as few hindrances as possible for a library patron to get to what s/he is looking for either online or at the physical library space, s/he would be able to concentrate on absorbing the content more easily instead of being bogged down with procedures. The seamless interoperability between different systems would be very much desirable for researchers. So, improving the usability of library systems will take library patrons one step closer to obtaining the flow state in their research while using library resources online.

As far as the physical space of a library is concerned, libraries need to pay more attention to how the space and the environment of a library emotionally affects library patrons. Not all research and study is best performed by group-study or active discussion. Baylor University Libraries, for example, designate three different zones in their space: Silent, Quiet, and Active. While libraries transform more of their traditional stack-and-carrel space into vibrant group study rooms and conversation-welcoming open spaces, they also need to preserve the sense of the physical environment and surroundings for library patrons, because after all, all of us desire the feeling of being in a sacred and dedicated space for contemplation and deep thoughts from time to time. Such space is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Where else would people look for such space if not a library, which the public often equate to a building that embodies the vast amount of knowledge and resources in the physical form.

Facilitating the serendipitous discovery in browsing a library collection in the digital environment is more tricky because of the limitation of the current display mechanisms for digital information. In emulating the experience of browsing books in the physical form on a computer screen, the Google WebGL Bookcase has made some progress. But it would be much more efficient combined with a large display mechanism that allows a user to control and manipulate information and resources with gestures and bodily movements, perhaps something similar to what we have seen in the movie, Minority Report. However, note that information does not have to be bound in the form of books in the digital environment and that digital books do not have to be represented as a book with pages to thumb through and the spine where its title is shown . If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content). If libraries can succeed in designing and offering such interfaces for digital information consumption and manipulation, the serendipitous discovery and the efficient browsing in the digital library environment can not only match but even exceed that in the physical library book-stacks.

 

Summer Projects

Ah, summer! A time when we all get to take a deep breath and work on all those things we put off during the school year. I’ve always thought that summer at an academic library is sort of a strange time. Even though it feels more relaxed in and around campus, we’re still  quite busy getting things ready before the students return. Last week when I realized that it was already August, I had to stifle a feeling of panic—the summer feels like its slipping away along with the time to work on all my projects.

Three projects that I’ve been working on over the summer include:

  • Reviewing the collection: Our library is doing a massive and much needed inventory and collection review project. This has involved the efforts of practically every person in the building. For my part, I’ve been looking at each of our music and theatre arts holdings and determining what could be withdrawn (–teaching faculty will get the final say). There have been endless book trucks coming in and out of my office. Nevertheless, it has been a great opportunity for me to see the strengths and weaknesses of the collection.
  • Processing opera scores: A few years ago my institution received a large donation of hundreds of music scores from the wife of a former opera professor. Most of these are opera scores. The collection has sat untouched awaiting cataloging and processing. Thankfully I was able to hire a music cataloger this summer and we are almost finished with cataloging the entire collection. Some items include incredibly rare 18th century first edition opera scores. In the future, I would like to apply for a grant to digitize some of these rare materials. But for now, I’ll just be relieved and satisfied once they officially join our collection.
  • Combining the Olympics and information literacy: While I am not a huge sports fan, whenever the Olympics roll around, I find myself glued to the television practically every night—especially for gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. Lately I’ve been thinking that there must be a way for me to incorporate some sort of Olympic-themed activity or research inquiry into one of my information literacy sessions this Fall. So far nothing has come to me, but I have had a lot of fun perusing the official website for the Olympics—including their photo gallery which contains over a hundred galleries based on year and sport.  The photos go as far back as the 1896 games in Athens.

What huge projects are you working on this summer and will you actually finish them?

The New York Public Library Central Library Plan and its Critics

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Polly Thistlethwaite, Acting Chief Librarian at the City University of New York Graduate Center Library.

NYPL made public its general plans for Reimagining the 42nd St. Schwarzman Building (now called the Central Library Plan or CLP) in February 2012 following December 2011 publication of Scott Sherman’s alarm in the Nation. Sherman condemns the plan as costly and ill-conceived. He alleges repeatedly and sensationally (e.g. on the WNYC Leonard Lopate show) that NYPL seeks to construct “a glorified internet café” to replace the closed book stack below ground level. Sherman’s compatriot Caleb Crain also blogs against nearly everything the CLP represents, with special focus on the MaRLI pilot program. Crain fears that loaning NYPL research library books to vetted scholars may someday deprive someone of quick onsite access to a desired title. NYPL’s new lending practice is undemocratic, he argues, on that account. NYPL’s President Tony Marx has responded to CLP criticism on Leonard Lopate’s show, in the Huffington Post, and in Inside Higher Education. There is new detail in Frequently Asked Questions about the CLP on the NYPL site.

Critics express anxiety about the CLP’s return of the SIBL and Mid Manhattan libraries (and their readers) to the NYPL Schwarzman Building. Moving books from the NYPL book stack to the New Jersey RECAP repository, critics fear, means books will be only inconveniently retrieved for on-site examination in Manhattan. Writers seeking texts and solitude in the Main Library will be forced to mingle with the non-writerly public under conditions unconducive to writerly activity. Scholarship will fail. Novels will not be written. Civilization will suffer.

These are visceral reactions to shifts in scholarship already well underway. Readers steadily consult a variety of digital and physical formats, and readers and scholars themselves intersect and overlap in non-exclusive combinations. Libraries must reconfigure to deliver and to preserve a changing mix of media to a changing mix of readers and scholars. Google Books, Hathi Trust, and other world repositories offer growing caches of resources already and perpetually available online. Digital delivery allows anybody to get more, faster and cheaper, than from print-only, building-bound physical volumes. Souped up printers like the Espresso Book Machine can supply print copies for those who want them. NYPL and academic interlibrary loan systems can, with adequate support, turn around requests for PDF articles and book chapters within hours. It is impossible to retain every book for retrieval for onsite only use from a closed, environmentally unstable book stack, and at the same time perpetuate and avail a first-rate research collection.

Leading research libraries, including NYPL, already hold a substantial portion of their holdings off-site (also see the British Library, The Center for Research Libraries (CRL), Harvard, Columbia, NYU). No research library, no matter how magnificent, is able to collect everything. There is too much. All research institutions rely on resource-sharing and lending networks; retrieval and delivery systems are crucial to even the largest collections. The CLP adds an open, circulating collection where there is currently none. Selected special collections and heavily-used scholarly resources remain at the Main Library. Repeatedly requested works stay onsite within reach by NYPL scholars. In addition, the CLP improves retrieval service for every reader. Online retrieval requests made before 2.30p.m. are promised by opening the next day, an improvement over the onsite paging service in place now. Rather than doubt the NYPL’s capacity to provide this delivery, we must insist on it. Weekend retrieval is important, and NYPL says Saturday deliveries are possible. But to insist that all scholarly materials be retained in Midtown, just in case promised deliveries fail, is to subvert the mission of the NYPL and to undermine real improvements in space and service.

The MaRLI program affords CUNY faculty and graduate students unprecedented access to local research collections. About 1/3 of MaRLI registrants are CUNY affiliates, the largest class of NYPL registrants. MaRLI offers longer loan periods than CUNY now provides, and the prospect of resource-sharing among NYU, Columbia, and NYPL libraries and their faculty and grads is the most democratic gesture under discussion. Should the institutions agree, a request for a NYPL title unavailable from RECAP could be satisfied for an identical copy from the NYU or Columbia cache. CUNY researchers would continue to tap CUNY libraries and a substantial Interlibrary Loan network. Books are durable objects intended to be loaned, pored over, and shared. With the exception of certain singular, fragile, or expensive titles, books collected by the NYPL research collections are not irreplaceable. A book’s value is realized only if it is read. To encase a book, to leave it undisturbed, to restrict its distribution, is to deny its purpose. Books are built to circulate.

CUNY scholars will gain from the CLP call for expanded 2nd floor scholarly study space and longer hours (til 11 p.m. – better than the current 8 p.m.). NYPL’s Wertheim Study hosts around 300 vetted scholars, 1/3 of whom are CUNY grads or faculty, and a smaller number of Cullman Fellows and Allen Room scholars. Tourists and branch library borrowers will not be herded from the lower levels toward them. The CLP offers scholars and writers more room and more time to work alone or together, but different classes of library users needn’t mingle unless scholars decide to break for coffee or tourists put cameras down to settle in the Rose Reading Room. Thankfully the NYPL, like every other library, will offer vended caffeine shots, but the CLP doesn’t replace the reading rooms with an internet café. That scholars mix it up with the hoi polloi, just a little, in a few spaces, is hardly a detriment – it’s a gift to scholarly life. The New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan, embracing a future mix of readers and reading material, promises that the world’s premier urban library will continue to shape and reflect the city’s cultural capital.

Collision Spaces

Please welcome Laura Braunstein to the ACRLog team. Laura is the English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College’s Baker-Berry Library. She has a doctorate in English from Northwestern University, where she taught writing and literature classes. She has worked as an index editor for the MLA International Bibliography, and serves as a consultant for the Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. Her research interests include collaborative learning, using archival materials in teaching, and the impact of the digital humanities on teaching and learning. She coproduced the ACRL Literatures in English Section promotional video, “Literature Librarians and Faculty: Partnering for Academic Success.”

A biologist friend just moved in to a beautiful new laboratory building on campus. Her old lab had been crowded and outdated: her graduate students made coffee in her office and there were women’s restrooms only on every other floor. Now she has state-of-the-art research facilities, a spacious office, and her graduate students have their own lunchroom. There’s a restroom right around the corner. So why does she miss the old, inefficient building? Because she never sees anyone anymore. Gone are the chance encounters and serendipitous meetings that would happen, even in the restroom, when a colleague in another department would ask how her research was going.

What my friend misses are the “collision spaces,” those informal physical gathering places, corridors, and hubs on campus where people collide and interact. In a recent blog post, the Ubiquitous Librarian wrote of his visit to TechPad, a collaborative office environment for startup companies near his campus. He mused that academic libraries could learn from the way that business incubators build into their floor plans collision spaces for “serendipitous conversation and discovery.” What does it take to enable an academic library to become a collision space? A cafe? Comfortable seating? Shelter from the elements? A fortunate position in campus geography? Tolerant food and drink policies?

As many lament the coming irrelevance of the academic library, I keep seeing evidence that these rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The most vibrant collision space on my campus is the library. Day after day it is packed with students, faculty, community members, and visitors to campus. Since we’re in a rural area, we don’t limit access to ID holders from our college. We have long embraced our identity as a resource for the community, and we value the connections that are enabled by being a crossroads for different kinds of users.

Social networking has certainly helped many of us make opportune connections in the virtual world. I would be truly sad, however, if our face-to-face arenas for networking disappeared. Day after day my work is enriched by being able to say: hey, it’s great to run in to you! How is that project going? What are you teaching this term? What can I do to help?

The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!