U. of Rochester students take advantage of a study area they helped design. (U. of Rochester photos)
One of the most popular articles The Chronicle has run in recent years was “An Anthropologist in the Library,” which focused on the University of Rochester's renovation of a library's student area. Students helped design the space under the guidance of an anthropologist.
On a recent trip to Rochester, I stopped by the university to see Susan Gibbons, the dean of the library who oversaw the renovation, which was finished last fall. It's a colorful room, with funky Herman Miller furniture, and the sunshine streams in. (The addition of big windows was a major part of the renovation.) Unfortunately, the room was empty, this being summer break, so I couldn't see the students working in the space myself. I had to imagine the students as Ms. Gibbons walked around the room, describing what she has seen here in the past two semesters.
From the beginning, students taught the librarians things about how the furniture can be used and where it should go. “When you come in, the furniture is in different places day to day,” she says, noting that the university “resets” the room only twice a year. “You can see by where they drag the furniture what [the designers] got right and got wrong.”
For example, a bank of computer workstations has backless steel chairs, but they are at odd heights that are uncomfortable for the legs. So librarians find ottomans from other parts of the room dragged underneath the chairs for support.
Students also took to writing on the walls of translucent cubicles, a Herman Miller product line called My Studio. “We were horrified,” Ms. Gibbons says. “We thought they had defaced them on day one.” Then the librarians realized that the walls, like white boards, can be wiped off. When I visited, the studios were still covered in equations, notes, and graffiti from some frenzied study session.
Some student adaptations are just plain fascinating. Take a row of carrels along a dark wall, each outfitted with an arm lamp. Librarians were baffled when the light bulbs went missing, then reappeared later when they saw students sitting in the spaces. The librarians realized that some students had figued out how to reserve carrels for their own use, using the light bulbs as a kind of key — the space would be useless to another student without ample light.
Among the other discoveries: The big window was a huge success. Students love whiteboards — as much as a barrier as a writing surface. Librarians had considered locking the room's flat-screen TVs on news channels, but reconsidered when they found that students were using them for Wii.
Overall, the atmosphere is casual — maybe a little too casual for university's facilities staff.
“There is something about this atmosphere that makes students think that they can leave behind their garbage,” Ms. Gibbons says.
The space is open 24 hours a day, and Ms. Gibbons says there have been no serious safety concerns so far. But there has been mischief: Students have brought kegs in. Librarians have found, shall we say, evidence of late-night romantic encounters. And the fancy furniture occasionally goes missing — librarians only realize this when they “reset” the room.
Once, three young women were caught stealing some chairs — they had casually stood in front of the security camera as they attempted to load the furniture into the elevator to take back to their dorm rooms. “You hear students say, 'It's my tuition dollars,'” Ms. Gibbons says. Blame it on the entitlement of the file-sharing generation, I guess.
Ms. Gibbons and her staff will soon get to witness how study space gets used by a completely different set: graduate students. Following a similar process of studying users, librarians and designers have come up with a scheme for a graduate-student study space in a former periodical room on the other side of the library building. That room, though, will have a more grown-up feel.