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.

Impending Building Renovations

So last year when I started writing for the ACRL Blog, my first post was about the tightrope I was walking trying to balance programming during a pandemic. Things started to look up during fall semester, mostly because my college was able to lift some COVID restrictions. However, with the Omicron surge in our area, the campus administration has made the decision to re-implement some policies and procedures. We’re back to rotating work from home, and I expect to hear more about classes shifting from face-to-face and back to online. So, we’re back on the tightrope. But here’s the thing: We also have an upcoming building renovation.

Facepalm | rue89.nouvelobs.com/2016/10/17/proces-dune-ado-co… | Flickr
Facepalm, by Luigi Rosa

This has been in the works since long before the pandemic, and our library needs it. However, this has thrown a significant wrench into planning, well, anything. The timing for National Library Week (which we always try to celebrate) makes it even tougher. My team is looking to move out of our building around the same time, then we have a semester break, and then I’m off to the Texas Library Association’s conference! April is going to be crazy!

Staring all this down at the beginning of the semester plus the back-and-forth of COVID-19 is a lot. So far, my coping strategy has been taking things one week at a time. I have most my contracts in for guest speakers, and I’m working on planning two more events for National Library Week. This week’s goal is to arrange a speaker from the Library of Congress (fingers crossed!), and next week’s is to start the process of getting a virtual author panel together.

Breaking events down into smaller, manageable tasks isn’t a new idea to me, but I really like planning months ahead! Resisting the urge to set everything in stone hasn’t been easy. I sincerely don’t know where I will be in a few months’ time, though, both physically and mentally. Will we still be dealing with variant surges? Will I be on another campus? Will everything be pushed back as it has in the past? On-campus, off-campus? As a female role-model from my childhood would say: ACK!

Wherein the author dates herself with a Cathy reference. Cathy is copyright Cathy Guisewite. https://www.cathyguisewite.com/

I don’t have the answers for any of that. I’m learning to be better about not knowing. As anyone in librarianship probably understands, not knowing something is anxiety-making for me, but I can’t research my way out of the uncertainty.

At least I know I’m not alone. I hope everyone else is handling the balancing act we’ve found ourselves in as we start a new semester. We can do this!

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.