Monday, April 28, 2008

changing spaces in academic libraries

Over the past few years, I haven't been much interested in library buildings and their interior spaces. My feeling has been that the revolution is happening online and that building new libraries, renovating existing ones, and filling them with fancy furniture are just high ticket distractions, designed to please the eyes of donors and add feathers to the caps of administrators as much as to address real needs.

I must admit, however, that throughout my career, I've enjoyed working in a couple great library buildings nestled in forested areas in Oregon: Watzek Library perched up here on Palatine Hill in Southwest Portland and the recently renamed Barber Library at Central Oregon Community College, which sits among ponderosa pines on the COCC campus on Awbrey Butte in Bend, OR. There, I had a view of Mt. Jefferson from my office. Even back in Wisconsin in grad school, I had an affection for the dreary stacks of Memorial Library. I've always liked the library as place, even if sometimes I've taken it for granted.

I came across this piece in The Economist by way of Lorcan Dempsey. It's a fascinating discussion on the "nomadism" enabled by computer networks and how that is breaking down traditional patterns of where people live and work. The article describes nomadism as an approach to work that is one or two steps evolved past telecommuting with a fixed home office and a fast Internet connection.

One major point in a section that discusses architecture (that Dempsey highlights) is that specialized spaces are not as important anymore because of ubiquitous, networked technology. It used to be that spaces had to be specialized: you worked in your office because it was close to files that you needed, work colleagues, a phone line, etc. In the networked world, specialized, compartmentalized spaces like cafeterias, offices, meeting rooms are going out of style for multi-functional spaces. The traditional library is a good example of a space that had a fairly specific function (information storage and retrieval).

There's also a sense that there is a higher expectation for aesthetics in these newer, multi-functional spaces:
The new architecture, says Mr Mitchell, will “make spaces intentionally multifunctional”. This means that 21st-century aesthetics will probably be the exact opposite of the sci-fi chic that 20th-century futurists once imagined. Architects are instead thinking about light, air, trees and gardens, all in the service of human connections.
For a long time now, there has been a lot of discussion about redeploying library space in the digital age to make it more flexible and usable for a variety of purposes. As the footprint of library stacks slowly recedes, the library can expand into other roles: cafe, meeting place, group study, teaching and learning center, etc.

In a future vision of the library, "lending out" flexible multi-purpose physical space becomes just as important as lending out books. Whereas in the past, academic libraries and stacks had a kind of dismal if sometimes charming, utilitarian quality, the new expectation is that libraries will be beautiful, comfortable, and social places.

Once the goal is a comfortable and beautiful space rather than one that serves as a utility for information retrieval (library stacks), expectations become much higher and harder to meet. For instance, the library is trying to become a cool hangout, it's going to be competing with other places on campus like the student union that want to be the same thing. When the library tries to become an art gallery or a cafe it really moves into new territory. Do librarians even have the training for this kind of thing in planning, architecture, interior design, etc? Maybe we need to find ways of bringing in that kind of expertise.

In academic libraries, I don't think we've really grasped the ongoing strategic importance of offering flexible library space as a key service. When it's time for a new building or major renovation these ideas are brought to the forefront, yes. But shouldn't space configuration and deployment be an ongoing part of library work? Shouldn't we be reorganizing and adjusting the layout and look of our buildings as regularly as we reconfigure our virtual spaces?

At Watzek Library, we have many aspects of our building that we'd like to adjust. Potential changes on the radar include:
  • a new spot for the recently acquired William Stafford archive
  • a combined IT/library computer lab space
  • office space for new staff
  • reposition reference/instruction librarian workspace so that it is more accessible to students
  • a broad shift in the collection to accommodate slow and high growth areas
  • move audiovisual materials from behind closed stacks
  • trim the space taken up by print reference books and journals,
  • reduce our traditional A/V machinery (VCRs, DVD players, etc.) because more happens via the network
  • bring in other service units like the visual resources center and a faculty teaching/learning center
These kinds of changes should be able to made flexibly and incrementally on an ongoing basis. Many of them are the result of forces happening in the quickly changing virtual environment. They shouldn't be things that need to wait around for a major building renovation.

The reality is that these we tend to get somewhat immobilized because of the costs and planning involved in moving physical objects. Highly modular building design and furniture might really help. But the problem also exists because we're just not used to doing this sort of thing as part of our regular work.

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