Telling the stories of our spaces

Space is a challenge in my library. With limited square footage, we sometimes don’t have enough seating for the number of students seeking to use our space. We can’t accommodate all the furniture types and configurations we need for students’ assorted library space uses. We’re further challenged by the competition of different space uses (read: noise levels) in such close proximity. It’s not a surprise, then, that space improvement is a topic that’s on my mind quite often. We’re working to address these issues and needs with both small enhancements and larger-scale improvements, thinking about adjustments to our existing footprint while also advocating for an expansion.

Collecting and using data effectively is vital to our ability to identify, plan, and implement improvements. Relying on our assumptions about how students use and feel about space and services won’t cut it. So we’ve been using a variety of methods, both formal and informal, to inform our understanding of students and space–and how it could better meet their needs. Quantitative data like gate counts and service transactions document foot traffic and usage patterns. Occupancy rates show how many (or how few, as the case may be) seats we have in the library in relation to how many students we have. Enrollment trends and projections for our campus provide important context. Qualitative data–gathered through informal focus group meetings with student government and clubs and through questions posted on whiteboards in the library inviting students’ comments on space use and needs–contribute important, albeit selected, student perspectives to our understanding. And there are surely more data pieces we could gather and fit together in this puzzle. All this data can help us understand our current physical constraints and usage patterns and plan improved spaces.

Of course, space is tight on our campus for many departments and needs, not just the library. And competition for money is stiff. Funding for these improvements hinges, at least significantly if not entirely, on sharing the data in a meaningful and compelling way and effectively demonstrating our students’ needs. I’ve been searching around a bit for some inspiration or insight into how I might best tell the story of our students and space and stumbled across this from Jonathan Harris at just the right moment: “I think people have begun to forget how powerful human stories are, exchanging their sense of empathy for a fetishistic fascination with data, networks, patterns, and total information… Really, the data is just part of the story. The human stuff is the main stuff, and the data should enrich it.” Right when I was drowning in all the data visualization best practices and software recommendations–helpful in their own right to be sure–this timely reminder re-focused my view on the students at the center of our space story.

What has helped you tell the story of your students and spaces? How have you made your story and advocacy most compelling? Your planning most effective? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


2 thoughts on “Telling the stories of our spaces”

  1. Get students involved (and faculty). Two years ago we worked with one of our communication studies professors on a project where a class of students spent the semester designing and conducting a student survey on library space. The Library was essentially the client in this project. The students met with us, did research (e.g. reading the library literature on library building and design), created and administered the survey, and then analyzed the results and presented them to the Library. It was a very successful project that provided us with valuable insight. It also had the benefit of being a learning opportunity for these students both within their discipline and about the survey topic. Working on a class project that had “real world” implications excited them.

  2. Thanks, Eric, for sharing your thoughts and experience! We did what I think is a similar project with a class of students (and the faculty team teaching the course) this past spring. Students worked in groups to identify their needs for and propose improvements to library space. The students’ presentations were interesting and useful. Evident throughout all the presentations, for example, was the importance of quiet space for students–and the importance of furniture comfort! In addition to the specific recommendations they made, the priorities and values they articulated in their presentations will inform our continuing advocacy for larger and longer-term improvements. And, as you suggest, it also seems to me that projects like these have benefits beyond the scope of library space planning and improvements specifically. In addition to serving as a “real world” learning experience for students, they can help shape a sense of community, communication, and shared investment. I’m curious to learn more about the themes and recommendations you heard from students in your project and if/how they impacted your planning and next steps.

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