I had an excellent talk last Friday with a several freshmen who created a documentary about the Library as a class project. They were in an English course together over the Fall semester with the theme of “space analysis” (physical space not outer space). During the first part of the course they learned the vocabulary and philosophy of design, and their final project was about sacred spaces. So this class of 17 students worked together on a 20 minute documentary that explores and examines our recently renovated area that we call the East Commons. The film chronicles how the Library transformed from a quiet sacred space into a more dynamic environment. (I’ll post a link once it’s online.)
An interesting facet for them was that the Library had always been what it is; they had never seen as it was before. They were investigating something they had never experienced first hand. They also had no precedent, no experience with any other University libraries, so this space didn’t seem innovative to them, it was simply what an academic library was and should be.
What was fascinating was their level of sophistication and analytical ability when talking about the Library. This project made them more aware of the space and they recognized the different moods at different times as well as unusual furniture arrangements. They were constantly evaluating the space and how they and others used it. One of the students even mentioned that she text messaged some group members when we moved couches into our café and they were also amused by the Mario installation. Their awareness was not only limited to our main floor, but extended widely throughout the entire building. I would bet that they had more familiarity with the library than most of the people that work in it.
Some of the insights they shared with me:
- They suggested that during campus tours, the guides take students throughout the entire first floor of the Library in order to expose them to the full space. While they had used the Library during the first month of the semester, it was limited to the main computer cluster. They had not yet discovered the rest of the building. This reinforces the theory of offering a wide mix of social programs, which they agreed would make students more aware of the space. So speed dating, ninja tag, pirate poker (I’m working on that one) and other activities serve to offer a positive social experience, promote the Library, and ultimately can lead to increased long-term usage. In fact, I think we should be doing more “fun” stuff than we already are.
- They said that they didn’t know how the space worked. What were the rules? What was the protocol? The etiquette? They had to learn that they controlled the space, but it was not obvious. This is the transition from our space to their space that we’re working on.
- Being in the Commons made homework feel like less of a chore. In fact, sometimes the Commons is a bad place to study because it was too distracting, however it is great to have the option of other areas for solitude. They said that as they learned more about the Library, they stayed for longer periods of time, several hours each week in fact, and that it has continued into the current semester. I know that this was overarching goal, to create spaces that students actually want to study in.
- They liked the Commons for the social learning experience, but encouraged us to keep the rest of the library ugly. They liked the old fashioned furniture, even though it was uncomfortable, because it inspired them. It transported them back into the past, into a different world, into a different state of mind. The other floors were not about relaxation, but about focus and hard work.
While in theory the East Commons was designed to be manipulated by students, there are some limitations, such as the inability to adjust lighting or to move the walls around themselves. They also said that tables and chairs could get very crowded and create a mess.
They stressed the need to have more electrical outlets and plugs dangling from the ceiling on other floors. One student said she even started bringing her own extension cord so that she could plug her laptop in.
They love the big monitors and ample desk space to spread out materials. This was a large part of the appeal.
They said that we are weak in providing quick access to computers and printers. Sometimes they just wanted to get in and get out, but had to wait a long time for a computer to open. I touched on this before with the need to adjust furniture throughout the day to satisfy different needs.
They wanted more bean bags, we currently have four, because this could instantly create sitting space when before there was only just floor.
It was insightful and inspiring to hear patrons talk intelligently about the Library instead of just saying we need more computers. I am going to communicate with them regularly throughout the next four years to see how they grow into the space and how their perceptions of the Library and campus evolve. They have become my own personal Up Series project.
Interesting though, none of them mentioned resources: will that change in time? Do freshman primarily just need space to study and complete assignments? Should that influence our advertising around campus? Will they still spend as much time in the Library as they become seniors? What equipment do they check out? What software do they use? Do they encounter the reference desk? What do they think about our website? Do they attend any of our classes, workshops, or social/cultural events? And what do they tell their friends about the Library?
I am creating a tag (GTStudentDocGroup) in order to chronicle the experiment.