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 science. How 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!
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.