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 Her old lab had been crowded and outdated: her graduate students made coffee in her office and there were women’s restrooms only on every other floor.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?

Author: Maura Smale

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

10 thoughts on “Collision Spaces”

  1. The 30 January 2012 issue of the New Yorker features a great article by Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink,” that includes a description of a decrepit old building on the MIT campus that brought all sorts of researchers together in creative collisions.

  2. Well said, Laura! I owe quite a few “eureka” moments to chance collisions and conversations.

  3. Here’s to the happy collisions! Actually, I began a response to the Lehrer article Stephen mentions above on “Groupthink,” but it has been stalled as I wrestled with the complex reactions I had to the original article. Your posting may have unlocked the logjam. Thanks!

  4. Hi Laura. I am glad to see that you are going to be contributing more regularly to ACRLog. I wanted to bring to your attention and older ACRLog post I wrote in 2007 about “contact zones” in the library. I think this is much the same idea as the “collision space.” This post was based on an article about the contact zone concept. Take a look. I agree with your observations. The best designed libraries are the ones that holistically bring together students, faculty and librarians by virtue of the placement of spaces where all can interact.

  5. My mistake. Actually it was Susan Cain who wrote in the Times two weeks ago about “The Rise of the New Groupthink.” Must be a common topic of late.

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