Justification: Why do we do these things in our library? (CeLIBration, PART 6 – the finale)

September 14, 2006, 6:13 pm

Why do we offer Speed Dating? Why do we let students run wild in our stacks? Why do we go through all the trouble of hosting these elaborate events? Academic Libraries are about academics, right?

It’s larger than a welcoming event. It’s more than food and games. It’s really about who we are now. What is the modern library, or rather, what should the modern library be? It’s about really transforming, both our space and identity. On blogs we all post about the need to get beyond just books and service points—so what else is there?

I’ve said before : “I am much more interested in what a person can do in a library than what we can put in one.” Function is the key. Action is the key. Verbs, not nouns. And I am very pleased that our Admin is on the same boat. In fact, this had a lot to do with why I wanted to work here. But no more commercials for Georgia Tech, let’s get back to the question at hand.

What follows is summary of many conversations with Crit Stuart , our AUL for Public Services, who is very influenced by Scott Bennett . I’ve also been talking with Charlie Bennett (no relation), the coordinator of our social space, the Library East Commons . Their ideas are swirled with mine—a perfect example of the chaos that Mr. Gorman frowns upon .

Crit visited several locations around campus where students studied, outside the library. He watched, listened and asked: why here? What surfaced was the idea of the life cycle. Students sleep, attend class/labs, eat, socialize, study, and relax. All these things happen in various locations, yet sometimes they overlap. It’s important for us to understand this complete cycle and not focus on just the ‘study’ aspect, which most libraries do. There is more to students than just that, and there should be more to us too.

The major characteristics students liked about these other places include: refreshment, safety, aesthetics, friends, comfortableness, cleanliness, diversions, and unpredictability. They emphasized that they could only study in dorms (or anyplace) for so long before they needed a break; before they needed change.

This helped inform our renovation, both physically and philosophically. We wanted to offer these elements. After many focus groups, we aimed to create a heterogeneous mix of enterprises. An environment allowing students to be serious and focused, but also the opposite too: distractions, fun, self expression, and entertainment.

It’s the process of domesticating libraries; returning space to the users. If they are going to be studying for a long time, they need refreshment of the mind and body… otherwise they cannot sustain the effort. They are talking about a mental recess. A little time to play and then return to work. That’s what they told us and we listened.

They wanted physical things: tumbling mats, pool tables, outdoor sitting areas, legos, video games, Dance Dance Revolution. They wanted to escape the monotony of school work. (60% of our students study some type of engineering, so that’s a LOT of math!) They want space to be bright, clean, and active. They want to feed off of the energy of others. They want space that is intellectually therapeutic; space that is regenerative. They want to see and be seen. They want to share a sense of common effort and togetherness with peers.

It’s like recharging the batteries of the mind. They need to do something different to change or shift their perspective. They wanted visual stimulation: color, art, varied lighting, physical structures, 3D models, moveable furniture, adaptive space.

We also want to nurture academic socializing. Offer an inviting space for them to blend personal and academic discussions. I am actually there now writing this blog entry. The person beside me is reading notes on WebCT and a few of her friends are nearby at a table. Every 20 minutes or so they’ll all stop, chat, share notes, and then get right back to work. There is also a Teaching Assistant providing help with MatLAB to several students. The TA addressed them collectively and then they disappeared to work through problems—and every so often they will check back in to receive more guidance.

This is what we encourage. We want to be flexible for different study styles. Some people want to sit quietly next to their friends why they work individually on assignments. Some people want to talk, draw, sketch, and bounce ideas off their peers. Some people need to use computers in groups to prepare presentations. And of course, some people want to hide away and not be bothered. We accommodate all and this is where I think many academic libraries fail. It takes more that just resources to support learning.

An interesting experiment is the use of temporary walls (see pics below) which Crit calls Nextwalls and French Curves, but I’m not buying into those terms just yet. The gist is that they allow us (or them) to reconfigure space in a matter of minutes. These walls are customizable for group or individual use. Students said they wanted open areas, but not just a grand wide open room, yet they also didn’t want small closed areas either. Our compromise was open space with hints of separation, yet without isolation. We’re noticing that people like to have their backs to a wall. Since wall space is limited in an open room, the moveable walls help provide this instinctual comfort, the sense that people are not lurking behind you.

We also have a lighting system that allows us to flood the walls with different colors. One wall can be green, another blue, another red, and so on. Since windows are limited, this helps add visual stimulation. Plus it just looks cool.

So getting back to the point: why do we do this stuff?

Let’s be honest, school work is not fun. Studying, papers, formulas, coding, it’s wears you down. Libraries get a bad rep because that’s where students go to do all those things. They associate the Library with the negative aspects, the struggle, the boredom, the frustration. The place where fun goes to die . That’s why we offer events and amusements. Maybe a student is struggling with calculus, and remembers, oh yeah, I did speed dating here, played tag in the dark, listened to music, played Mario Brothers, ate pizza, played Risk, met an actress, etc. It can’t always be fun and games, but sometimes it could be.

We want to let students see that others are sharing in the same struggle. You look up and can appreciate what they are doing. You get a chance to see and hear them, see what they’re working on, what they’re talking about. Again, academic socializing. The library doesn’t (and shouldn’t) be all about resources and studying. College isn’t all about blood, sweat, and tears—there are good times too; moments of fun and freedom. That’s why we want to regularly offer interesting events. Give them something to look forward too. Use humor in our marketing. Let them associate the Library with good times too.

Another aspect is building a sense of community. I know that’s a big buzzword these days, but we want to feel that the Library is becoming theirs (and less ours.) We are trying to give them a sense of ownership. This is your space, do what you want, and let us get out of the way. I imagine we’ll continue with focus groups and other assessments to tweak the space and our efforts, but eventually I hope our presence will be minimized (or ubiquitous!) It’s not locked down. It’s not monolithic. It’s arranged differently everyday. It can be whatever you need right now. Events, programs, entertainment, activities, speakers, art, displays, games… all that should come from within, with us lurking on the fringe.

So how far do we go and is it possible to take it too far? Our focus remains student productivity, but we need to blend other aspects to. We still offer four floors of quiet space. We let them choose where they want to be, and what they want to do. Some people (like me) can only concentrate in isolation, others prefer noise, music, or television. Sometimes you might want to be around lots of people, and other times escape from them completely. We let the student decide. We give them options. It’s their Library.

So again, why do we do this stuff?

  • It’s about serendipity.
  • It’s about retreat.
  • It’s about refocusing.
  • It’s about re-imagining libraries.
  • It’s about chilling out.
  • It’s about teamwork.
  • It’s about academic socializing.
  • It’s about breaking away.
  • It’s about being inspired.
  • It’s about distractions.
  • It’s about discovery.
  • It’s about recess.
  • It’s about maximizing productivity.
  • It’s about laughing and not taking things too seriously ALL the time.
  • It’s about seeking and providing epiphanies.
  • It’s about caring for your patrons and not about circ stats, gate counts, or the number of articles accessed via Science Direct.
  • It’s about them.

I know this was a terribly long post, but if you want to read more, check this out: The Information Commons: Adapting to the Culture of Net Generation Students

PS: Crit tells this story so much better than I do. Tell your admin you need to come and see this for yourself; label it “strategic planning” or whatever. Actually, stop listening to me or those other bloggers. Talk with your patrons. Let them tell you what to consider in your Library.

PS2: I doubt he reads my blog, but thanks to Rich Meyer for the $upport and letting us try new and crazy things. And thanks to Crit for letting us use our imagination and making things happen.


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