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.

The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!