If our spaces could speak, what would they say?

Over the summer, we updated a small lounge area in my library. We had multiple goals for this project; chief among them was to add seats in our often packed-to-the-gills library and also reduce noise problems that the area seemed to foster. Previously, this area was home to two clusters of chairs separated by a tall double-sided bookcase. Each cluster included four lounge chairs and a coffee table. The updated area now seats twelve rather than eight (not a huge difference, but meaningful for our small library) with four work tables and eight chairs overlooking a courtyard plus four lounge chairs. We removed the bookcase that bisected the area and also repurposed the shelves lining the walls to now feature a browsing area of periodicals and displays, rather than the general collection, and an assortment of succulents. The new space is more open and brighter with a more modern sensibility.

Now that we’re a few months into the semester, it’s gratifying to see how consistently and heavily students are using the space and to observe significant changes in how they’re using the area. In the previous configuration, students who didn’t know each other would be reluctant to sit together in the clustered chairs so just one or two filled seats would deter students from using the other open seats. At other times, large groups of students would gather on and around the clustered chairs to loudly socialize, disrupting students working in nearby spaces. Now, it’s not unusual to find every seat in the area filled. Students appear to be using the space for various purposes in very close proximity: working individually or with a friend, tutoring each other, meeting with group project collaborators, and relaxing. When working or chatting with friends and collaborators, they generally speak in lower voices. While I expected the new furniture would have some impact, it’s been surprising to see the degree of impact. With just a few changes, the space has been transformed.

Meanwhile, other areas in our library continue to be beset by noise conflicts (which I’ve reflected on before). We are brainstorming other ways to improve our current space while also advocating to expand our library with a Learning Commons model in collaboration with our learning center and other departments. Reflecting on the aesthetic and configurations of our current and (hopefully) future spaces is making me think more and more about how space design influences users’ attitudes and guides their behavior. 

I was chatting with a colleague in the English department recently about this and she offered this term: rhetoric of space. I find the phrase–new to me in this context–a meaningful lens because it helps me focus on the explicit and implicit messages embedded in our spaces. It helps me consider the values our spaces communicate, the behaviors and attitudes our spaces foster and impede, and the interactions our spaces support and hinder. I think frequently about how the configuration of a classroom impacts students’ participation or a meeting room impacts engagement between colleagues. But how do our other spaces also condition us? This means not only asking how our students want to use a space, but also how does the space shape their expectations and use? 

What is the rhetoric of your spaces? What is the rhetoric of the spaces you want to create? If these spaces could speak, what would they say? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

A Day for Design

Last week I attended the ACRL/NY Symposium here in New York City. It was the first time I’d been to my local chapter’s annual program and a fun day: great speakers and posters and a nice opportunity to catch up with colleagues from libraries in the NYC metro area. The theme of this year’s program was Innovation by Design: Re-Visioning the Library which, as the day’s first speaker reminded us, could not be more timely. Bill Mayer, University Librarian at American University in DC, started us off with his talk “Redesigning Relevance: Creating New Traditions in Library Design.” He noted that in this economic climate renovation is often the new new construction: many of our institutions won’t have the budget for new buildings, so it’s important to make the most of what we have.

Mayer reminded us that the recent Ithaka report reveals that faculty use of our physical spaces is declining. He encouraged us to think about how we can make the library best for students, our primary users. He sees library-as-warehouse as an outdated model, and recommends reducing the collections and materials kept onsite as well as increasing reliance on consortial collections to free up more space for students to use.

Mayer shared some of the ways that this kind of redesign has been implemented at American University. After moving many volumes to offsite storage, they discovered that the additional space available for the books that remained made it easier for students to find books. Students wanted more computer workstations and access to wireless, so they added more space for student work too. Mayer cautioned that of course local conditions matter — there’s no one size fits all approach. He suggests making our process inclusive and asking faculty, students, and administrators for input during the process.

The next speaker was Lauren Pressley, Instructional Design Librarian at Wake Forest University, who presented “Re-Visioning Teaching: Adapting to a Changing Educational Environment.” She began by acknowledging that libraries are changing, as is higher education: there’s more information and technology, and higher expectations and costs. How can academic libraries adapt to these changes? Pressley suggests that instructional design can help. Systematic design can provide structure for our library instruction and produce data we can assess, which is becoming increasingly important for demonstrating the value of our libraries.

Pressley assured us that we are already engaging in instructional design in our libraries, we just might not be aware of the vocabulary that can be used to discuss it. She described the ADDIE model: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. Most of us probably follow these steps when creating library and research instruction, whether for in-person one-shots or multiple sessions, or for other forms of student research support like tutorials or research guides. Pressley encouraged us to find the best instructional solutions for our students and situations.

Aaron Schmidt, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the DC Public Library and one half of the consulting team Influx Library User Experience, was up after lunch, with “Librarians as Designers: Making Deliberate Decisions.” He wants librarians to be proud of what we offer, and provide our users with better experiences. Schmidt began by showing us examples of poorly-designed signs and experiences. He emphasized that everything is designed, even if by neglect; design is arranging things for a purpose, and we can choose to have good design in our libraries.

Schmidt thinks that libraries are spread thin trying to be lots of things to lots of people — we could make 50% of people ecstatic about our services rather than 100% lukewarm. He recommends that we practice design and look at the actions of our users more than their motivations. What are people doing in our libraries, and how can that knowledge guide our design? One interesting suggestion is to implement a “work like a student” day in which we use only the resources that students have access to, for example, public workstations and study areas. Schmidt reminds us that ultimately libraries are about solving problems for people, and well-designed experiences can help.

The day’s final speaker was Leah Buley, Experience Designer (with an MLIS) at design firm Adaptive Path, who spoke about “User Research in the Library: How to Understand and Design for Patrons’ Needs.” She noted that user research can help us understand how people really experience information and how we can help them use the tools that are available in our libraries. Buley began by mentioning a few exemplary user studies, for example, the University of Washington’s website redesign revealed confusion over what is available on a library website, which suggests that users may be confused about what is available in the library. In a study at Cal Poly, students led the research to evaluate a federated search product, which helped students broaden their views about library services.

Buley reminded us to “Know Thy User,” and detailed a variety of user research methods we may want to implement. We can examine log files to find out what search terms are being used, which can help us learn what users are looking for. Ethnographic methods like observation, timelines, and diary studies can give us a window into user needs and experience. Paper can be put to good use to prototype design ideas, or we can invite our users to codesign by drawing their ideas. Buley suggests that we ask what we need to know about our users — the answers will guide us in choosing our research methods.

The Symposium gave me lots of library design possibilities to think about and I’ll definitely need some time to digest it all. The program organizers will be adding notes and slides from the speakers to the Symposium website soon, so head over there for more information. And if you’re interested in reading more about design thinking for libraries, our own Steven Bell blogs regularly at Designing Better Libraries. Thanks to everyone involved for a great day!