Open Libraries, Closed Spaces

Though we’re a month into this unprecedented continuing pandemic semester at the college and university where I work, I’m still finding myself getting used to these remote working conditions. I work at a commuter college in New York City; at our university campuses have been mostly closed since last March, and we’re offering classes overwhelmingly online this semester. At my college there are a few health sciences courses that require specialized equipment that are being held on campus, adhering to social distancing and health reporting requirements from the state, but other than that our campus is inaccessible to our 16,000 students, including the physical library.

Among all of my other thoughts and feelings, I’ve been mulling over how very strange it is that I’ve spent over a decade researching how and where students study in (and beyond) our libraries, and now there are no students studying in our library. I’ve been in the library sporadically to check on the facilities, and while it’s odd to be in the completely empty space, I’m grateful for my office there as an occasional complement to my workspace setup at home. I also appreciate that my 2BR apartment has enough space for my spouse, kid, and I to each work mostly privately if need be (though I wouldn’t say no to an extra room if one were to spontaneously appear). Walking or biking to work is an option for me, so I’m lucky to be able to avoid public transportation, too.

My colleagues and I are hearing from students on chat reference and via email and social media, many with the kinds of questions we’ve come to expect: Can I return my book? (if you can, please hold onto it until campus reopens) Am I being fined for returning books late? (no, we’re waiving fines while campus libraries are closed) Can I access databases and ebooks from home? (yes, here’s how to login). And while we have had a few students seeking access to our physical space for studying and computer use, those requests have been much less numerous than I would expect given what my research partner and I have learned about the challenges our commuter students face in doing coursework at home. The general caution among many NYC residents after the enormous toll that Covid19 took on the city last spring is probably a factor, as is the college’s location in downtown Brooklyn; while we’re very convenient to public transit, not everyone is comfortable returning to the subways and buses yet.

I suspect that the pre-pandemic challenges that our students shared around finding a suitable location to read and study for their classes, and to research and write papers and assignments, have grown enormously for them in the past six months. They may have inadequate computer or internet access at home, and shared technology may be even more stretched as siblings, parents, roommates, and others need access for their school or work (though I should note that the university has provided laptops and hotspots to many students). More people in the same amount of space for more time means more activity and noise (in our neighbors’ apartments, too), making it even harder for students to find a distraction-free space for studying. And the virus is still with us — students and their loved ones may be sick. I look at the empty carrels in the library and think about the appreciation so many students expressed for them, how the enclosed desk afforded them the privacy and interruption-free space they needed to focus on their academic work.

How can we support students’ need for study spaces while campuses are closed? Here in NYC there are still limited indoor spaces open, so many of the third places students may otherwise have had access to are still unavailable. There are outdoor locations with wifi, plazas and parks, and I’m sure some students are studying there. Are there digital ways we can support students, virtual study groups, perhaps, or would that just lead to more Zoom overwhelm?

It’s hard to figure out how to fill some of those academic needs that our physical library space satisfied for our students. While the college has faced budget cuts this year, we’ve been able to keep some of our part-time library assistants this semester working remotely. Many are students or former students, and I’m hoping to find time this semester to plan a few informal meetings with them, if they’re amenable, and to listen and learn from them about what their academic experience has been like, and how the library might support them in digital spaces while we wait until it’s safe to return to our physical spaces.

Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

My Space, Your Space, Our Space, New Space?

For this week’s post, I had the unique opportunity to review a recently published white paper by Brian Mathews, associate dean at Virginia Tech Libraries and Jenizza Badua, interior design student at Virginia Tech entitled, Curating the Campus, Curating Change.  This fascinating conceptual piece is based on a mixture of ideas, conversations, and some actual realities relating to physical learning spaces across college campuses.

Mathews’ responsibilities for facilities, space planning, and management, combined with a background in user experience, naturally inform his research in this area.  While writing his book Encoding Space (also recently published), Mathews explores “the philosophy and texture of physical spaces and what they enable and inspire people to do”.  Curating the Campus developed out of this research by taking those same concepts beyond the library.

“So when you apply things like design thinking and look at the campus as a system, you start to notice areas that could be improved. We have been so focused on improving our libraries, but these skills and insights we’ve been developing could apply elsewhere.”

The paper challenges readers to build their own new ideas on classroom buildings, research buildings, labs, studios, exhibits & displays, atriums & lobbies, living learning community, and incubators from the 8 vignettes offered. Below are some of the questions the piece brought to my mind that I posed to Mathews.

 

ACRLog: I recognized examples of these ideas occurring in reimagined spaces within the library, can you talk more about how you see this model differently?

Mathews: I think the Hunt Library Teaching and Visualization Lab at North Carolina State (NC State) gets to the point. They have established their expertise in this area.  But, should they not just be contained within Hunt or Hill Libraries, they could extend service delivery — sort of in a franchise model.  For example, maybe the focus is more on data visualization for the social sciences. Working with that College they develop a space and some adaptive service models. Then staff together go in with a designer and informaticist to support teaching and research for this discipline.  I think a “phase one” would be looking at current spaces around campus to see how they could be improved. And the next level is service design and partnerships. When I visit buildings around campus I enter thinking “how could the library enhance what’s happening here.” That doesn’t mean setting up a reference desk. In the paper I tried to outline a few of the possibilities.

 

ACRLog: Where else can we see this is currently happening in academic institutions?

Mathews: Each campus has its own politics and geography. What works at one university might not work in another. So the point of the paper was to express a general ethos with the hope of sparking conversations. I tried to imagine the next five to ten years in the profession and it seems we will reach a point where we burst from beyond our buildings and start applying these ideas and principles in other locations.  I think the Active Learning Center at Purdue provides somewhat of an example: a shared building between libraries and registrar. At Virginia Tech we are working on this concept within a new classroom building. I’m also a co-chair of a campus-wide task force looking at renovating lobby areas of academic buildings and developing a better mix of quiet and collaborative areas.  But the paper isn’t really about spaces, it’s about partnerships. I used the word mash-ups—and that’s the creative challenge. It’s not just taking the library and putting it in Building X, but rather, working with Student Affairs and the Business School to develop an entirely new service or environment within a location that isn’t the library.

 

ACRLog: I’m intrigued by the significant role of partnership that comes up here, and you mention in the beginning of the piece the term interaction scienceHow do you see interaction science in this context? How is it changing the librarian profession?

Mathews: Interaction science to me is about how people work together. How they collaborate. How they cooperate. How they communicate. How they frame and explore problems. How they overcome differences. How they produce. Really — big picture — how they interact with each other and their environment. In the different stages of group work, it’s how they form and perform. In my library we study this. We want to learn from these interactions so we can improve our spaces and services. It’s the difference between offering a few tables and chairs and building a curated learning environment. The former is what I tend to see around campus buildings, whereas the latter is what librarians have been building. I think we can export our knowledge, particularly group commons areas, to other locations.

 

ACRLog: In addition to new opportunities, what problems are solved by decentralizing the programs, librarians, and spaces across campus buildings?

Mathews: Most of us don’t have a lot of free space in our buildings, [but] we would be able to offer emerging services elsewhere. I think we would be better able to integrate across campus rather than with a library-centered service perspective. I think it would open new partnerships and strengthen existing ones. I think it could provide better access to tools, resources, and expertise. I think it could help expand people’s thinking about what a libraries does or has to offer.

 

ACRLog: Yes, the idea (perceived or real) that our libraries are no longer filled with books, has in some cases, put pressure on libraries to re-imagine their own spaces for other campus purposes.  Do you see this an opportunity for, or in opposition against what is proposed here?  Or how does the role of the library building change in this new arena?

Mathews: I explore this a bit in my book. The problem I see is that many libraries are trying to do too many things. We want to accommodate digital humanities centers, visualization studios, maker spaces, quiet areas and collaborative areas, and collections, and on and on. There is a lot of pressure on our buildings. I love libraries being filled with books. I think the diffused approach helps us to push out services so that we can maintain collections or repurpose our space accordingly. But it starts by establishing expertise in this area. That’s what I really admire about NC State — their laser focus on learning environments. They have built a solid reputation and could probably advise and partner other units on their campus.I view libraries as prototyping environments. We can test emerging service designs and technologies, improve upon them, and then spin them out elsewhere on campus. I think that is an exciting possibility for our spaces. Our expertise is shaping environments, services, and resources for communities so we can serve as a testing ground for new ideas until they can move on.

Wrapping up our interview by phone, Mathews and I talked further about issues around partnership, like the geopolitics of space and the important role a supportive University administration plays.  The fun things about a piece like this is the way it generates new ideas and connections.  It’s a conversation-starter.  And it seems that reality underlies the whole premise of these spaces – to foster imagination and partnerships that are not just intentional and deliberate, but also spontaneous.  You don’t know what you don’t know, which is my favorite opportunistic problem!

References:

Mathews, B., & Badua, J. (October, 2016). Curating the campus, curating change: A collection of  eight vignettes. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/73191

Mathews, B., & Soistmann, L. A. (2016). Encoding space: Shaping learning environments that unlock human potential.

 

Serendipity’s Not Just for the Stacks

The past week or so has been filled with the rush and excitement of the beginning of the academic year, new and returning faculty and students arriving on campus, a huge change from the quiet days of summer. I’ve just finished up a couple of commitments at my college and university that seem quite different at first glance, but have similarities that I find especially interesting at the beginning of a new semester.

One is a large collegewide grant that focuses on General Education at the college of technology where I work. A core activity of the grant is an annual professional development seminar that draws in full-time and adjunct faculty from across the campus to read, work, and learn together, and ultimately redesign the courses they teach. In the four years of the grant thus far we’ve seen participation from faculty members in nearly every department: from English to Nursing, Hospitality Management to Architectural Technology, and Biology to Computer Systems Technology, just to name a few.

The other commitment is a course that I co-taught last semester at my university’s graduate school in a certificate program in technology and pedagogy. I taught the class with fellow CUNY faculty member Michael Mandiberg, who has a background in art, design, and media culture; my background is anthropology and LIS, and we complemented each other well in teaching the course. Our students were also drawn from a range of disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Most were near the end of their coursework and preparing for their exams and dissertation proposals.

The biggest raves from faculty participants in the grant project at my college were about the opportunity to work with colleagues in other departments. Again and again, faculty have told us that they appreciate having the time and space for interdisciplinary conversations about teaching and learning. And it was fascinating to me to see the same enthusiasm in the graduate students I taught as well, their desire for conversations outside of their disciplinary silos happening before they’d even finished their degrees.

In libraries we often talk about offering opportunities for serendipity in the stacks, recognizing that sometimes browsing can suggest productive tangents or reveal connections that aren’t obvious. Reflecting on the end of my work on the grant and the course I’ve been thinking about serendipity of people, too: human resources, not just information sources. Laura wrote about this a couple of years back when she described a colleague who moved from a crowded building to a new lab, which, while spacious, was no longer in the thick of things, and how much she missed running into colleagues.

Small college libraries like the one where I work are all about students from different majors working and interacting: the library is an inherently interdisciplinary space. Can we encourage the serendipity of interdisciplinary conversations for faculty, too? A dedicated faculty area of the library is one option, though that may be a challenge for smaller libraries where space is at a premium. At my library we’re also thinking about forming a faculty advisory group to encourage regular discussion between librarians and faculty at the college, which may also provide opportunities for interdisciplinary conversations. Partnering with other offices on campus like the Center for Teaching and Learning or the Writing Center to offer workshops or brown bag discussions is another possibility.

Have you found success in fostering interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty in your library? Let us know in the comments!