November 21, 2017

A Place to Belong, A Place That Belongs | 2016 Designing Libraries Conference Report

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Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
Photo credit: Emily Puckett Rodgers

It was the last day and the final panel of the Designing Libraries for the 21st Century conference. Leonora Crema, the scholarly communications librarian at the University of British Columbia, told the audience that “to carry innovation sometimes you have to create something seismic.” In the same discussion, regarding organizational change, both Mary Ann Mavrinac, vice provost and dean of River Campus Libraries at the University of Rochester, and Catherine Murray-Rust, dean of libraries at Georgia Tech, reminded audiences that, yes, sometimes change is big, but it can also be incremental, and big wins can come from small but thoughtful, planned shifts in organizational culture and service models.

The fifth annual conference, held this year at the University of Calgary, Alberta, spotlighted “Innovations with Impact,” and featured voices from the design, library, and education worlds. And it wasn’t all focused on building design. Invited speakers discussed a variety of topics ranging from designing active learning classrooms to advanced visualization spaces, from the development of vibrant Maker spaces to digital scholarship centers.

The conference brought together about 250 practitioners from across the world. Cohosted by North Carolina State University Libraries, the University of Calgary, and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), the robust response proves there is still a need for engagement and critique of libraries as placemakers in the 21st century.

Participants were treated to a variety of building tours, from those just at the start of construction (Calgary Public Library’s Central branch and the Riddell Library and Learning Centre at Mt. Royal University) to those which have been open and operational for years (Taylor Family Digital Library and its High Density Storage Library). Tours also included the newly opened Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

Joan Lippincott, associate executive director of CNI, moderated many of the panels and challenged attendees to consider what distinguishes library learning spaces from other campus or civic learning spaces, such as academic student services, museums, or civic centers. Libraries, she stated, need “to make connections to learning” through deep community or organizational partnerships by setting strategic goals, assessing the impact of stated connections to learning, and by looking to the future by allowing for unanticipated uses of space, programs, and services.

The ways in which these new buildings embody the community are apparent: they are light-filled and offer visible paths through the building; they offer a variety of spaces, furniture options, and technology that are customizable by community members; they are versatile and designed to allow for unanticipated use scenarios by packing in power and data; they inspire in their design by incorporating creative expression from their communities; and, most important, they house staff and community members who are excited, engaged, and strategic.

Mission Driven Design

Conference convener and vice provost of libraries and cultural resources Tom Hickerson advocated for library staff to find ways to situate services, activities, and value around the core mission of our communities—be they universities, cities, or counties. And he wasn’t the only speaker to address the importance of mission alignment. Adam Rogers, emerging technology services librarian at North Carolina State University Libraries, and Peter Schoenberg, manager of digital literacy and web services at the Edmonton Public Library, both spoke to the power of defining core values and principle-based library design in Maker spaces. Every tool, workshop, and experience in the Maker spaces at North Carolina State University Libraries is designed to provide both inclusive access for all campus members and develop technological literacies that translate into academic or research success. At the Edmonton Public Library, a small experiment with a Maker space (which repurposed space originally designated for a popular, well-used collection), turned into an incubator which has changed staff training and expectations, citizen behaviors, and programs across all the library’s branches. But all the change is centered around continuing to build digital literacy—in staff and patrons—and keeping the Maker space a platform that is open and flexible.

Mission is also core to the success of the Workshop at the James Branch Cabell Library, one of LJ‘s 2016 New Landmark Libraries. According to Eric Johnson, head of innovative media, this space (and staff, resources, and programming) serves to help the VCU community explore and communicate ideas in ways other than text. The Workshop offers a range of experiences, from 3-D printing to a gaming room, an array of equipment available for checkout, and sound and video editing studios. By articulating each element of this mission, Johnson and his team are able to develop effective experiences that guide what is and what is not included in their service model and in their physical space and can focus on creating a culture of hospitality and creativity that is aligned with the mission of the university.

What helps both of these spaces is that they are prominent and transparent. They are easy to find, easy to see into by use of glass walls, and feature a service model which is focused on the experience of the patron and building capacity.

Measuring Impact Throughout

For libraries to function and to flourish in this century, we face interrelated challenges to reimagine not only our physical spaces and collections but also our service models; expectations of staff capacity and skill; and organizational structure, culture, and approach to planning.

During the “Innovations in Teaching & Learning Spaces” preconference, John Danneker, director of Odegaard Undergraduate Library (another 2016 New Landmark Library), spoke to the value of ongoing assessment in the first phase of the Odegaard Undergraduate Library’s 2013 renovation. At the point of considering the renovation, the library needed to be more explicit about how it provides value to the academic campus. Because the library has a strong expertise in assessment, staff were able to capitalize on the opportunity to both envision a 21st century model for teaching and learning and to illustrate interdisciplinarity at work and prove its success. Today, the library is recognized on campus as a “living lab.” Assessment, according to Danneker, was critical to informing both the building design and post-occupation use. By using actual data paired with observations, assessment plans can position the library as leaders in practice in both civic and academic contexts. The resulting design of the Odegaard yields “data diners” (IT packed booths), continually functioning active learning classrooms, a commons area fit for local classical concerts, and deep partnerships and new service models with an innovative Writing and Research Center. All are housed within a beautiful, newly light-filled library with a glassed-in quiet floor (a feature not available in the original building design).

Create Delight

Bill Ptacek, Calgary Public Library’s CEO, inspired the audience when he spoke of “activating” Calgary’s new Central Library, scheduled to open in 2018, by defining the community and finding creative new ways to be relevant to the city and its residents. In order to do this, he and his staff have embarked on creating and piloting new service models in their existing building and have hired a team to “script” the first six months of the new building’s operation, based on research conducted and ideas cultivated over the past few years. The result is a vibrant existing library which will burst into the new building along with its patrons. The new building will offer a range of personalizable spaces—from light-filled collaborative spaces for community connection—to fostering playful learning in the children’s space with “mini-houses,” scaled stacks, and even a modern twist on the iconic reading room at the pinnacle of the building.

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Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
Photo credit: Emily Puckett Rodgers

As the first building in Canada completely focused on improving higher education teaching and learning, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is an outstanding example of how design can align with mission, vision, assessment, and teamwork. Lynn Taylor, vice provost of teaching and learning, spoke about the need to articulate a strong yet versatile vision, informed by community input. User research, assessment, and even workflow analysis contributed to the design of the physical, staffing, and service models of the Institute. Built on the steel structure of the previous building, the new building features both a translucent glass (skylight) and a powerful technological spine—to enable transparency, flexibility, and collaboration. Skyboxes create a “floating” floor, designed for small group collaboration, and hover above the atrium to offer a playful view through the building to a second story amphitheater-staircase. The price of admission to use the building: faculty trying something new and committing to sharing their teaching experiences with others. Subjects taught in the classrooms, which feature completely modular furniture and versatile multimedia display, range from anthropology to kinesiology and entrepreneurship.

From Mine to Ours

The Taylor Family Digital Library, and indeed the campus and city of Calgary, provided conference attendees with ample inspiration and examples to take back to their home libraries or design firms. At the last panel, Mary Ann Mavrinac reminded us that the movement of our culture from “my” library to “our” library is as much a symbolic change as it is a physical or organizational one. The fifth annual Designing Libraries for the 21st Century conference proves that inspiration can inform not only building design but organizational culture—and everything in between.

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