April 19, 2018

Cornell Puts a Lawn in the Library

The lawn in useIt’s increasingly popular for college and university libraries to soothe the savage undergraduate at finals time by providing a dose of contact with nature. Therapy dogs are a common choice, but the Cornell University Library went a more unusual route, installing a ”green sward”  which remained there through December 14.

According to Eveline Ferretti, public programs and communication administrator of the A.R. Mann Library, the idea was originally the brainchild of Gilad Meron, who graduated from the Department of Design & Environmental Analysis (DEA) last year, and is now a fellow with the Center for Engaged Learning at Cornell. Meron worked with Ryan Allen-Parrot, a master’s candidate in Sustainable Design Studies, on the project.

Meron originally installed an indoor lawn as part of a 2011 exhibit on the history of Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, and it proved so popular that “Gilad and his collaborators from the DEA department are working with Gannett Health Center to repeat the mental health benefits of the grass installation,” said Ferretti. This year lawns were placed in both the Mann and Olin libraries, as well as three other locations around campus, as part of the Cognitive Restoration initiative. The project is based on Attention Restoration Theory, which says that direct exposure to nature, viewing nature through windows, and even viewing images of nature are restorative.

Creating the Library Lawn

Installing the library lawnTo create the installation, Meron used a heavy duty tarp, fastened with duct tape, to protect the floor underneath. Sod, donated by Saratoga Sod Farm, was laid above the tarp, and the lawn only needs daily watering to last about two weeks. (Access to sunlight is the limiting factor.) Since the sod and work were donated, the lawn is very affordable: the only costs are for the tarp, tape, and transportation of the sod. Funding was provided in part by the Mann Library Excellence Fund, a donor-supported fund supporting new initiatives and improvements at the library. The project was also made possible by the Cornell Council on Mental Health, among other departments and organizations.

Kornelia Tancheva, director of Cornell’s John M. Olin Library, Uris Library, and Library Annex, told LJ, “One of the things that we had to make sure we do was prevent possible injuries if someone slipped between the two surfaces because of their different height, so at the end of the tarp which extends a bit further than the sod, we put a green tape to visually signal the difference.” Tancheva added, “Initially there was a lot of hesitation from library facilities (and I know there still is, especially about the state of the carpet underneath), but they also agree that it is a success.”

A university organization called “The Big Red Chill” provided a picnic basket stocked with snacks, and the library staff has been keeping it stocked “as a little ‘Easter egg’ find,” explained Ferretti. “I believe that it is this kind of playful and caring engagement that makes this installation so successful.” Other surprises included playful signs and a scattering of plastic frogs, and the library has used the lawn as the site of alumni association and library sponsored study breaks.

Why Go Green?

 Said Tancheva, “My goals with this project were manifold: clearly, providing help and support for our students during a very stressful period came first. However, I was particularly intrigued by the fact that it is a project conceived by students for students. Very often we in libraries work very hard to support the academic endeavors of our student population (and we do a great job of it), but not that often do we asks students what they think might be useful in those academic pursuits from their perspective. So, a student-conceived project, aimed precisely at the core mission of the library, seemed to me like an ideal attempt to do this. In addition, I am also very interested in ethnographic studies in order to design library spaces and services, so to me this project is also a study of use of space. And last, but not least, I just wanted to do something for the end of the semester that was fun for patrons, but also did not put undue burden on library staff or posed too many risks for the building and our collections.”

Measuring Success

an alumni association-sponsored pizza break on the library lawn

An alumni association-sponsored pizza break on the lawn

Ferretti and Tancheva agree, the lawns in both Mann and Olin libraries saw a lot of use, and got a lot of positive student comment. “We put up flip charts and invited patrons to comment. So far the response is overwhelmingly positive,” said Tancheva, and student comments indicate that they found the lawn useful, not just pleasant, with comments such as “Green relieves tension and eye strain,”  “Keeps me sane,” and “The color and additional oxygen makes it more conducive to studying.”

Perhaps because it has shown the library is open to playful and unusual projects, the lawn has also had the secondary benefit of encouraging students to propose others projects (some serious, others not), “including install UV lamps; install a pool on the lawn, play croquet, etc.,” said Tancheva.

And it’s not just students who have been enthusiastic. Ferretti said she saw a faculty member reading to his toddler on the lawn, and Tancheva said library staff from circulation to the café to the administration all tell her that they love it.

This article has been edited to correct the organization that provided the picnic basket.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Prof. Wagstaff says:

    Whether viewed as desperate attention-seeking stunts, or further molly-coddling of already pampered students, this nonsense is giving libraries a bad name. Libraries seem to be in an arms race to see who can come up with the most ridiculous excuse for students to waste time and distract themselves from what they’re on campus to do. Somewhere Professor Kingsfield (from the Paper Chase for you youngsters) is turning over in his grave. Give them a desk, a light, a power outlet, and tell them to get the hell back to work!

    • Gilad Meron says:

      Dear Prof. Wagstaff,
      As one of the students behind this installation I would like to clear up a few points so other readers don’t take your assumptions as fact. Contrary to your speculation, this project was part of a student mental health and wellness initiative at Cornell, designed to relieve stress and anxiety during final exams. The concept for the project builds off of research in the field of Environmental Psychology, specifically Attention Restoration Theory, which has shown that spending time near natural elements has significant beneficial impacts on cognitive functioning. Studies have shown that nature has the ability to help reverse the effects of mental fatigue, and improve ones ability to concentrate. Rather than an attempt to distract students from studying, this installation was designed specifically to help students study more efficiently by providing a small restorative environments. We had the full support of both the University Health Services Director of Mental Health and the Cornell Council on Mental Health and Wellness. Cornell takes issues of mental health and wellness very seriously and continuously works to foster healthy and safe educational environments on campus. The fact of the matter is that the spaces we live and work in have a significant impact on our mental and physical health, and ignoring those impacts and instead telling students to “get the hell back to work” is irresponsible, authoritarian and extremely antiquated. Frankly I am appalled that a professor would show such lack of concern for students’ well being.
      -Gilad Meron

  2. A more succinct paraphrase of Wagstaff would be simply raise one’s cane and shout “Get off my lawn!”