Thinking About Space, Still

About a year ago I was knee-deep in scheduling focus group sessions with students at one of the colleges at my university, along with my fellow team members as part of our Data Doubles research. The focus groups were terrific — I always appreciate the chance to talk with students and hear their perspectives, in this case on data privacy and learning analytics. Recently I’ve found myself thinking about one student in particular. We’d shifted the focus groups from in person to online, and with campus access still restricted at our university last Spring, most of the students were zooming in from off-campus, some from laptops, others from phones. As we progressed through the questions and discussion in one focus group, I noticed that one of the students had moved from sitting at a table to walking outside. And a few minutes later, that student climbed onto a bus, swiped their MetroCard, and sat down with their phone and laptop, all the while continuing to participate in the focus group during their bus commute.

I’m sharing this anecdote in part because it’s still, even nearly a year later, amazing to me that the student could so seamlessly move into a commute while thoughtfully considering and responding in our discussion. But now that we’re back on campus more fully, I’m also thinking more about space, and how the library’s spaces can meet needs for students that may have changed since the pandemic began.

ACRLoggers have written a lot about space over the years, both before and since the pandemic, and I confess that I am almost always thinking about space when I’m in the library where I work. Like so many academic libraries at institutions with high enrollments and space constraints (sometimes but not always in urban areas), pre-pandemic we were regularly one of the most crowded spots on campus; at our busiest students sat on the floors when all chairs were occupied. Pre-pandemic we were also a nearly completely in-person college, with I believe less than 10% of courses offered fully online. This semester we’re closer to 50% in-person, 50% online, and while it has been truly lovely to see more students in the library space this year, our onsite use is not nearly what it was before March 2020. And in many ways that’s fine — every student who wants a seat can get one, and it’s much quieter in the library, too, which I know many students really appreciate.

Perhaps the biggest shift we’ve seen (and I’m sure we’re not alone in this) is the drastic reduction in demand for our physical computer labs in the library. I’ve heard from the director of academic technology that she’s seeing something similar in the other computer labs on campus, too. While a huge change (and, honestly, a relief from the long lines we used to have), it’s not entirely surprising to see this shift: lab use is down, but we have many, many more students bringing their own laptops to work in the library. Printing is also down, and it’s clear that our terrific tech team’s efforts to implement printing from students’ own devices, beginning before the pandemic, are meeting the needs of students who do still want to print their course materials.

The return to our physical space has also meant a return to students sharing feedback with us. It’s been gratifying to read students’ comments, which have been overwhelmingly appreciative sprinkled with occasional grumbling about the noise of students taking their online courses in the library (and we’re likely going to restart lending headphones). We’re also back to our pre-pandemic practices of walking through the library to take a headcount a few times each day, and continuing to observe how students are using the space. It’s clear to us that students who are taking both in person and online classes aren’t necessarily coming to campus as often as they did before the pandemic, how can we shift services and spaces to better meet their needs? And the library is still in need of a renovation. I’m looking forward to revisiting our renovation proposal — especially for one underused area that might be reimagined for more student seating — and thinking about ways that we might make our space more accommodating and flexible for multiple different kinds of use by students.

Author: Maura Smale

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

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