Focus on Flexibility

This semester the information literacy course that I’m teaching started off in our main library classroom. It’s a fairly typical instructional space with rows of desks topped with computers, an instructor computer at the front, and a couple of projection screens. It’s a nice room – we got 30 new, faster student computers over the summer, internet connectivity is solid, and we have some nifty classroom management software that allows us to push out content to the student machines as well as project content from student machines onto the big screen.

About midway through the semester my class moved into a new workshop space in the library. This room is smaller – we can only fit about 16 students – and has an instructor computer, a lockable laptop cart, and a smartboard on one wall. I absolutely adore this room! Instead of long, hardwired rows of desks we have round tables that seat 4 students each, which makes group work so much easier. The space is so flexible – we can use the computers when we need them, but when we don’t they can be tucked away in the cart (rather than tempting students with Facebook). I do miss the classroom management software, and sometimes the wifi is a bit dodgy, but this room is about as close to my ideal instructional setting as I’ve ever had.

This midsemester venue change has me thinking about flexibility: of design, of space, of our library facilities. Like many colleges our enrollment is up and we definitely feel it in the library. Sometimes it seems like we are bursting at the seams, especially as finals week looms ever closer. How can we get the most out of the space we have?

Studying is another library use that could benefit from greater flexibility of our physical space. Students work in many different ways: in a group, individually, quietly, and in discussion. When the library gets busy our group study rooms fill up, and other groups studying in the library disturb students who want quiet, individual study space. We do have designated quiet and conversation areas, but it’s easy for a group working together to get too loud for an open area. What if we could use partitions to design flexible, pop-up group study rooms? Would that be a way to maximize our space for multiple uses? What if we left them open rather than requiring groups to check out a key? Would single students monopolize a group room for long periods of time?

What stands in the way of flexibility? I think funds play a big part. For example, during the busy parts of the semester our classroom is booked solid with classes and workshops, but at other times it’s empty. I often hear students complain that there aren’t enough computers available for their use at the college. Why can’t we use the classroom as a student computer lab when there aren’t any classes? In this case I can answer my own question: that room isn’t staffed when there are no classes in session, and we would need to add staff to open the room for drop-in use by students. I can also envision logistical headaches in the mixed classroom-lab scenario, for example, having to shoo out the students using computers when a class is about to come into the room.

Even small renovations to spaces that already exist require funding, which can be hard to come by these days. However, in this economic climate it’s probably unlikely that many of us will see expanded or new library buildings, especially in space-starved urban areas. Advocating for funds for flexibility might be in all of our futures, to help us get the most out of the space we have. Is your library moving toward more flexible use of space and facilities?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

6 thoughts on “Focus on Flexibility”

  1. We are thinking about this, too – would love to have some wheeled furniture and whiteboard partitions to create group study spaces on the fly – but need to find a way to build that into our budget. We also have two instruction spaces and one is much better for discussion.

    We make both available as public labs when not reserved for instruction, and it works pretty much without a hitch–and without staffing. Students sigh loudly when both are booked, but they are otherwise totally accepting of the need to be “shoo-ed” when a class is coming in. We post the day’s schedule outside the room so students can check it before settling in. As more students carry laptops the competition for seats is lessening, though enough students don’t carry (or own) laptops that we still feel providing access to computers in the library is important. These are the heaviest-use computer facilities on campus.

  2. Oh this round table setup sounds ideal! Our labs are in those traditional rows, abutting a wall. That means I can’t help the students at those seats at the end without squeezing behind four other students. I’m not the smallest person in the world, so this is often mildly humiliating for everybody. If we ever redesign, I’ll have to come look at your space!

  3. That’s great to hear, Barbara and Allyson. I love wheeled furniture, too — sometimes I wish everything was on wheels. Emily, you are welcome to come for a visit anytime!

  4. Hi, Maura,

    I’m going to chime in with Barbara and Allyson and say that our instruction classroom works fine as a lab without staff supervision. In order to combat the annoyance of shooing students out for classes, we write a note on the classroom’s marker board and post a notice outside the classroom to the effect of “This room will be closed for instruction from 11:30-1:20.” Other than students who haven’t left enough time to print their documents before class starts, it’s worked with nary a grumble!

  5. We’ve got another instruction lab that doubles as an open lab when it’s not in use, and it works fine. It helps that it’s right next door to the large (staffed) open computer lab, but the students don’t even grumble when we come in to teach a class. Half the time, they’re scampering out to get to their own class anyway. I’d encourage you to try it for a semester (the words “pilot project” have magical properties) and see what happens.

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