Library Design Research

Based on visiting seven independent school libraries in the New York City area last week, here are some of my takeaway ideas and notes about library design, use and technology integration:

  • Research is becoming more collaborative, and less individual.  However, spaces for individual work are still important.
  • Research is becoming noisier, legitimately.  However, the need for quiet or silent spaces for work continues to exist.
  • Reference texts are  being significantly reduced to essentials (dictionaries, atlases) as most reference materials are now online.
  • Non-fiction books are becoming more closely aligned to curriculum.  Very large collections of literary criticism may shrink.  Moderate sized collections of history or global issues books may increase.
  • Online access to primary source material is increasing.
  • VHS tapes are being jettisoned.  DVDs will be jettisoned in the near future, and replaced with streaming alternatives.
  • Some schools are reducing their online databases to the ones most used– there isn’t always a good reason to have 40 to 60 online databases.
  • eBooks have protection issues.  Overdrive Media has a good system, but a majority percentage of their books won’t work on Macs– PCs only are supported.  Also, unless you pay a lot, it is a one book checked out by one person system.  However, Overdrive Media may be a decent source for online video streaming.  However, some of these system are flash based, and won’t work on iPads.
  • Other vendors have options for online reference texts that can be used by many students simultaneously.
  • Schools are also looking into streaming media servers for protected access to fair use media materials (such as programs recorded off of Freeview in the UK, or school-created materials).
  • School libraries are different than public libraries, in that they need to provide production and discussion and one or more teaching spaces, and not just quiet tables and chairs for individual use.
  • School libraries are not book depositories– collections need to be weeded and renewed with greater frequency.
  • Once collaborative work or research is allowed in a library, it begins to play a social role in the school as well as an academic role.
  • Traditional libraries with long rows of open tables between long stacks of books were designed with more individual, non-collaborative work in mind.  Having two to three groups of 3-6 students doing collaborative work at three adjacent tables will likely be too noisy in a library environment.
  • One way to allow collaborative work is to create sound-limiting rooms for up to four students to work inside as a small conference room.  A modern library might have four of these.  These rooms normally have lots of windows so librarians can still see what is going on even if the door is closed (as it should be, to hold the noise in).
  • These four person conference rooms can have an online check-out system, where the students need to state the project being worked out, and the appointments can be approved.  This would limit purely social uses of the rooms.
  • Some of these rooms can have sharing screens on the walls– 42 inch LCD panels, for example, so that if one of the students wants to share a laptop screen while taking notes or discussing digital resources, the large screen can be used to share with others.
  • These four person conference rooms can be expensive to design.  Even though they are small spaces, they may need there own sprinklers for fire control and special air conditioning and handling units to keep them from becoming stuffy and uncomfortable.
  • Architects may argue that these four person conference spaces can be created with partial walls or flexible walls that are mid or three quarters height (meaning they don’t need the special fire or air handling systems), but librarians may argue that designs like this that work for adults in office spaces may not work for noisier students.
  • A library may also have one or two mid-sized conference rooms for collaborative work, with table and chairs for six to eight people (and possibly a sharing screen).  Again, the preference is that this would be glassed in, sound controlling, and checked-out.
  • A library may also have two to four small meeting rooms, with space for two people to meet comfortably.
  • All of these conference rooms have the effect of enabling collaborative work and discussions, but containing the sound of this work and protecting the members of these meetings from the surrounding noise of the library.
  • An additional effect of having these conference rooms is a reduction of meeting tables in the open spaces of the library.  In one library visited, the long open tables in a traditional reading room were replaced by long rows of study carrels (one person desks with side boards and back boards, often with individual lights and outlets for technology).  The idea is that work in the open spaces of the library should be individual (and sound limited), and not collaborative.
  • Soft seating in libraries (around windows and other spaces) is often one bum per seat, and not love seats or couches.  The coolest single soft seats we saw had integrated, rotating small table surfaces for a laptop or books.  In most spaces, there were two to four individual soft seats, but no coffee tables.  Two soft seats may be in the same area of two study carrels.  Again, the idea is to encourage individual reading or work, or quiet discussion between two people, but not larger collaborative spaces.
  • A modern library may also have a dedicated teaching classroom.  In the past, this may have been a computer lab with 20 fixed desktops, but going forward this classroom may be a more flexible spaces with move-able tables, 20 laptops dedicated to the room with their own storage and charging center, and a good projection and audio system, as well as room to roll in three or more book carts of specific books for the project in the classroom.  This is a space where students can learn how to use the online resources, but also to do research on both paper and digital resources at the same time.
  • The teaching classroom might be owned entirely by the librarians, or checked out to faculty who want the paper and digital materials together in one space (other than their own classrooms).
  • Modern libraries may have specific quiet or silent areas, possibly closed off by a glass wall, or not, where students who like quiet, individual spaces can work.  These spaces typically can have taller stacks, and mostly study carrels instead of group tables.  Or single soft seating.
  • Modern libraries can have 10 or more “open access” desktop computers, often in a back to back row configuration, with adequate space between the monitors for books and paper materials.  These open access computers are often adjacent to the main desk of the library, so the librarians can keep an eye on their use and the noise levels.
  • Modern libraries can have a single, large entrance, so that access control is easier for librarian staff.  Barrier systems and magnetic spines can reduce theft or accidental loss of books, but not all independent libraries use them.
  • iPads are too new to have a clear role in a school library, but some ideas are to have iPads with specific materials installed that could be checked out.  However, there will need to be some way to lock down an iPad for shared use to do this.
  • One library is working on “leap frogging” iPads by going directly to Entourage eDGe Tablets.  Main reasons: combined e-Ink and led screens, retains pagination of ebooks, allows stylus-based note taking and margin notes, better support of digital textbooks, etc.
  • Most libraries do not like the idea of food and drink being allowed into library spaces, because of the amount of trash and clutter left behind, the staining of carpeting and furniture because of spills, etc.  An interesting alternative is to build a school cafe (Starbucks style) right outside the entrance to the library.  This can be a place with hardwood floors, a place to get limited food a drink, and harder, cafe style furniture for the entire school community to use (students, faculty, and parents).  The goal of this space is to be where kids can take a social break and eat and drink, but the noise and clutter is kept out of the library in a more focused space.  Some parts of the library collection, such as magazines, may also be in this space.

In sum, libraries have the potential to be a comprehensive information access and productive work centers for a school.  In terms of research and academic work, the spaces can be designed to accommodate both individual and collaborative work.  Allowing group work (3-4 students in several spaces, 7-8 in one space, etc.) will increase the social component of a library as a learning center, but this can be done without converting the entire library space into a social area.  The idea of the adjacent cafe also helps with separating purely social spaces from academic spaces.

There’s more, but that’s enough for now.  This is my last day in New York, and I’d like to see Soho before my flight tonight.

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