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.

 

New Growth

April has arrived, and with it the first week of Spring quarter here at the University of Washington. The blossoms are blooming on the lovely old cherry trees that line our quad. Throngs of people; UW students, locals, and tourists alike, have been mobbing our campus for a glimpse at this spring ritual. It’s a chance to have a picnic, spend time with family and friends, and yes, take a ‘selfie’, surrounded by the promise of new growth, renewal and ephemeral beauty. Spring promises to be a very busy time in the Research Commons as well.  It’s also a pretty exciting time for me, because I’m starting to see a lot of projects that were in their infancy when I took my position back in September finally begin to take shape and come to fruition.

Cherry blossoms on the UW campus
Cherry blossoms on the UW campus, with Odegaard Undergraduate Library in the Background.

A renovation project to one of our study spaces is finally underway, after months of talks with the vendors and other stakeholders.  A presentation proposal which my boss and I submitted many weeks ago was accepted to a conference.  A partnership with a campus organization that was begun in Fall quarter is now blossoming into a more permanent programming opportunity.  A planning group that I lead is finally making significant headway on creating a new program model that the Research Commons will debut next fall.

All of this is nice, but I’ve only been in my position for half a year. So most of these projects had already been dreamed up or set in motion before I took them on. It’s great to feel that you are getting somewhere with the projects that were laid out for you by others, but it’s an even greater feeling to see a project that you initiated through from start to finish.

One of the cool things about working in the Research Commons, is that we work with a team of up to four graduate student assistants, three of whom are in UW’s MLIS program. I want to give them a shoutout here, since my  last column focused on our terrific undergrad assistants! We’ve been lucky enough to attract a great group of grad students, who bring a lot of valuable skills to their work here. We strive to give these students some freedom with the projects that they work on, and we want them to develop their own ideas too. So, part of my job is to help nurture some of these projects, which is exciting and inspiring.

But even with this great atmosphere of creativity around me, I’ve struggled to find inspiration for projects that will fit the scope of my position and the amount of time that I have to devote to them.  This failure of creativity on my part is distressing  to me, because I tend to think of myself as an ‘idea person.’ I’m hoping that some upcoming conference travel will provide some of that inspiration.  Of course I want to spend time on passion projects and make my mark within my institution, but I’m driven to be a “team player” too, and at times I feel stymied by fears that I’ll end up spending way too much time working on something that will turn out not to be a good fit for the Research Commons.

So, over the next few weeks, I plan to try to shake up my routine; read outside of my usual blogs and publications, meet with folks that I don’t ordinarily see around campus; take some time to think and reflect.  I want to incubate the projects that I’ll be bringing to life this time next year.  I want to think big about what’s next, and enjoy this energetic and creative time while it lasts. Because let’s not forget the dual nature of those cherry blossoms; they are fleeting, and when they’re gone, they’re gone until next year!

 

New at the DPLA: There’s an App for That

Like many librarians in all kinds of libraries I was delighted when the Digital Public Library of America launched last Spring. I’m probably not alone in having lost time searching through the content that the DPLA’s portal website provides access to, marveling at the images, objects, and information held by libraries, archives, and museums across the U.S. I’m still not exactly sure how I can intentionally use the DPLA in my practice as an instruction and reference librarian, but I’m continuing to think on the possibilities.

One of the great things about the DPLA is its API (application programming interface) that allows developers to access the metadata collected by the DPLA and create applications that use the DPLA’s searchable content. So far ten apps have been created — all are highlighted on the DPLA website. I’ve read a bit about (and played with) several that seem to have the potential for use in academic libraries:

WP DPLA Plugin
During this past June’s THATCamp at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University, developer Boone Gorges won the Maker Challenge with this plugin for the WordPress blogging/website software. Once installed, the plugin uses the tags attached to a blog post to search for and display random items from collections available via the DPLA website. The resulting illustrations are fascinating, especially if the words used as tags have very different meanings. Boone is also the lead developer on a WordPress-based teaching and learning platform at my college, the City Tech OpenLab; my colleagues and I are looking forward to installing and playing with this plugin soon.

Serendipomatic
The most recently released DPLA app also seems to have lots of promise for use by academic librarians and researchers. Just three weeks ago the RRCHNM* held its National Endowment for the Humanities-funded One Week One Tool institute, in which twelve folks from academia, museums, and libraries came together to create a digital tool for research and teaching. The resulting website, Serendip-o-matic, strives to inject some serendipity into browsing digital collections. Simply paste text into the box on the website’s homepage and Serendip-o-matic returns items from collections at the DPLA as well as Flickr Commons, Europeana, and Australia’s Trove. Serendip-o-matic can also search tags from a Zotero account, which is pretty nifty. Here’s a snapshot of the results I got with some text about my research on undergraduate scholarly habits (click image to embiggen):

serendipomatic

DPLA Bot
Finally, just for fun (and because so many academic librarians use Twitter), who couldn’t love the DPLA Bot? Created by Davidson College professor of Digital Studies Mark Sample, DPLA Bot is a bot (short for web robot, an automated application that runs over the internet) that uses a random keyword to search the DPLA and tweets out a link to the result. The bot runs several times per day; here’s one of my favorite tweets from this week:

I can install a WordPress plugin and tweak HTML or CSS, but that’s about the extent of my programming chops these days. For those of us who are unlikely to create DPLA apps ourselves, how might we use the existing apps in our academic library work? What other kinds of apps could be developed for academic and research libraries to use with DPLA collections?

* If it seems like the RRCHMN and DPLA have close ties, there’s a good reason for that: DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen was formerly the Director of the RRCHMN.

Responding to Change

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, and John Unsworth, vice provost for Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University, speak on The Hathi Trust, Google Books, and the Future of Research. The event was the part of the BNN Symposium on the Future of the Academy sponsored by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and the Boston Library Consortium (BLC).

The theme of the day was institutional responses to technological change: how do we keep libraries relevant in supporting research? How can emerging technologies enable new kinds of research using traditional materials? How can we take advantage of changing technologies while preserving our values and services? This event was a great opportunity for thinking about these questions from a big-picture perspective.

Courant had a few central messages to his talk, which I summarize and comment on below. His words, paraphrased, are in italics, and my thoughts and questions follow.

  • Technology is a set of mechanisms that get you from input to output. Libraries produce value by making things reusable and sharing them; that’s a technology. We’re all using technology; there’s no such thing as a “technophobe.” Hardware and software, devices and databases, are all tools that function within this technology. Books are a technology: they move ideas along, from authorial input to reader output.
  • In a disrupted world, build things to see what works. Don’t wait for all the ducks to line up in a row. Dedicate time and energy for new initiatives, but don’t require that they be perfect, or have buy-in from an entire organization. Create and support spaces that enable experimental projects. (Is the Harvard Library Lab still operational? Are there others?) Learn from the things that don’t work.
  • The old system doesn’t tell you what to build. What do we do because we’ve always done it? Are there traditions (services, functions, processes) that we preserve for their own sake? What is worth preserving and what can we leave behind?
  • Look to purposes, not to things, although things can be the only way to some purposes. Is a traditional reference desk the only way to provide drop-in research help? What are other ways that we can provide time-of-need assistance? Must we be in the physical space of the library to provide this kind of help? Or does having a physical service desk in the centralized public space of the reading room encourage patrons to use librarians’ services? Does the presence of a reference desk enable user interactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise?
  • The library isn’t there for itself; it’s there to enable scholarship and learning. This is one of the “no-brainers” that I forget sometimes, especially with collection development. Creating an ideal collection with its own integrity can be very rewarding, but so can assembling connections to materials that enable and enrich research, teaching, and learning.
  • Preserve outcomes, not business models. Use the language of learning outcomes to help shape the direction of new projects. What do we want users to be able to do as a result of this service or product? What do users want to be able to do? How can we meet those needs using the resources we have?

The Ebook of My Dreams

We all have our frustrations with ebooks. The problem isn’t just one of print vs electronic or Luddite vs early adopter. Even as I happily consume Kindle books on my iPad and the new Project Muse collection for work, I find that ebooks simply don’t do the things I want them to do – the things the electronic format seems to promise. In an ideal world, what would ebooks do that would make them not a substitute for print books, but better than print books? What features would make ebooks represent a true new step in the evolution of information delivery systems? Here’s what I’d like to see :

Interoperability: Ebooks need to take advantage of the spatial navigability of the electronic environment. For example, the index should not exist separately as an additional PDF file, as many ebook indexes do. Instead, I should be able to click on an entry in the index (say, “deckchairs, rearrangement of”) and be linked to the place(s) in the text where that topic is discussed. With endnotes, it’s frustrating to flip to the end, especially when it’s just a bibliographic citation. Can you give me the information without taking me away from the text? Can I mouse-over and get the information in a pop-up window? How much more work would it take to link up index entries and notes? How much more of an intellectual payoff would we get?

Intertextuality: Does the book cite other books? Journal articles? Blogs? Websites? Well, connect me – not just to bibliographic information that I can port into a link resolver and then cross my fingers. Take me there: right to the page that the author discusses. Make the connectivity that we expect on the web a standard feature of ebooks. Is there an allusion to some other text? Identify the allusion and give me the option of linking to it. But also give me the option of turning off all of the annotations — sometimes I just want to read without interruption. Especially if I’m reading James Joyce.

Sharing: Hey, I just read this great essay in that new collection – it would really help with that project we’re working on. Want to borrow my copy with all my notes?  Great, and you can add your annotations too. When we’re done with work, want to borrow this great new novel I just finished reading? Oh, sorry, I read it on my Kindle. You’ll have to pay $9.99 too.

Device Neutrality: You have a Nook instead of a Kindle? No problem! You don’t have a device at all and you need to borrow one? Sure! You need to put the book on reserve, or use it on your laptop? Be our guest! But most of all, you don’t want to have to download an app just to read a book. Well, neither do I, and in my flying-car, jet-pack, futuristic fantasy world of ebooks, we don’t need to.

Curating: As a bibliographer, I need to acquire for my library the information that will support the research and teaching needs of the faculty and students on my campus. I don’t want a package that has been created by a vendor speculating about the needs of liberal-arts college library collections. I want to buy ebooks for my library just like I buy print books — some on approval, some as firm orders, some through patron-driven acquisitions, some because a new professor has been hired in that subject area, and some because they belong in a collection of record. I don’t want to be told that I can’t have an ebook in my collection because my vendor’s conglomerate competes with its publisher’s conglomerate. If two print books sit happily next to each other on a physical shelf, why can’t they coexist on a virtual shelf?

Can we also decide: eBook? e-book? ebook?

Yes, some of these features do exist already, often as standalone apps. Many of these are features we’ve come to expect from ejournal (eJournal? e-journal?) environments. What ebook features do you dream about?