Friday, March 8, 2013

Field Trip! NC State Hunt Library and Spaces to Think With.

On Wednesday I visited not just NC State for the first time ever, but I got to have a comprehensive tour of the new James B. Hunt Library.  They had an open house yesterday, and the place was full of people who work in libraries (visitors came from all over the region, including out of state) being led around the amazing spaces.

There are pictures of the Hunt library all over the internet--I reproduce mine here not because they are fantastic photos, but because I took pictures of things that help me think about library spaces, and about what is possible in our own spaces at Atkins (which I've been uncharacteristically (for my blog) chatty about  recently).  It is an objectively spectacular space, and the fact that not everyone has the resources to create such a space should not deter people from going into what NCSU has created, learning from it, and dreaming big.   I intend here (and everywhere) not just to think about spaces, but to think with spaces, not just fancy ones like there are at Hunt, but in the more mundane everyday spaces in which our students and faculty find themselves.

The small 3-D printer that NCSU students
can use for prototypes for classes, or just having fun.
I am going to blog here mostly about space, although the tech stuff possible in the Hunt library is just as cool, and just as worthy of anyone's attention; for example, the fact that students and faculty now have 3-D printers at their disposal in the Hunt makerspaces. 

The Hunt library is, to my mind, the biggest branch library I have ever seen.  It is the library for the new Centennial Campus at State, which means its primary users are in Engineering, Textiles, and other science programs.  It is also envisioned as a "second main library" for the entire university, and I will be interested to see what other constituencies use the spaces in that building.  They are undeniably attractive.

Color has been used in simple but effective ways to mark places that students need to look for.

Yellow is for Stairs.

Blue is for Elevators.

                                                                                             Orange is for restrooms.

Red is for Asking for Help (as well as the Wolfpack).

All people going into and out of the library have to pass by the Ask Us station, which is not just an info point, but an all-services point, where students can go to for reference, technical, and circulation help.  In addition, workers can be deployed (via walkie talkie) to parts of the library where people need help (this is apparently very popular for IT type help).  Reference specialists can be called from other parts of the building if a question is particularly in-depth.  Books that are retrieved by the "Book Bot" are put in this space within five minutes of the request.

And hey, let's talk about that Book Bot.

Entering on the 1st floor of the Hunt Library gives you a great view of the "back" of the automated vertical storage unit, which holds 1.5 million volumes.  Books, folios, microfilm, and DVDs (among other things) once requested, can be made available for patrons in 5 minutes (and retrieved from the Ask Us station), or delivered to faculty offices.  They are sorted by size, and bar-coded for identification (although they are also RFID-ing each thing that is circulated, with the hope that at least the most circulated things will be RFID-tagged eventually, if not the entire Hunt collection). 

This is the "front" of the system, showing one of the robots that retrieves the books, with one of the bins, showing how the books are sorted. 

So, yeah, the system is cool, and really makes me think about the future of stacks maintenance, but what I was struck by was what NCSU's library IT has built to make it possible to browse closed shelving (it's currently in Beta).

They call it Virtual Browse, and it's a touch screen that is currently mounted on the 1st floor, before you enter the library proper, between the large windows that give you a view onto the back of the Book Bot. 

This allows for browsing the Hunt collection in a way that is simply not physically possible anymore, given that the books are all in the automated storage system, and that it was never possible to look at the physical collection and browse the electronic resources at the same time.  The Virtual Browse includes electronic resources as well as physical.  This exercise in stacks virtualization, I think, is not just useful for libraries with closed/automated/off-site collections, but for all of us.  In my experience, many of our patrons experience our stacks as "closed" even if they are technically open, because they don't know how to navigate or read the stacks.  This tool allows them to navigate the stacks and find things even if they don't understand the call number system, even if they aren't exactly sure where in the building those books are.   I think I'm more excited about the virtual browser than I am about the book-finding robot.

The collaborative work spaces in open parts of the Hunt library (spread across 3 floors) are colorful and configured in a variety of ways (with very attractive and fancy furniture). 

                                                                                                                                                                         Some booths.  This one has a view beyond to the Graduate Reading Room.

Some tables with task chairs, rolling whiteboards, stools.

Some bar-type computer banks.
 (the computers were Coming Soon).

And so on.

There are also spaces that evoke the design trope of the reading room, also spread across at least 3 floors of the Hunt Library.

I especially appreciated the simple trick of integrating physical books into spaces for effect.  The silent study reading room at one end of the main floor is lined on at least two sides with book shelving.

The rain garden reading room just before that integrates some of the reference collection, faculty book collection, and new books into the furniture arrangements.


What books do here is set expectations, they read "library" to people, and they say, without any signs of any kind , volumes (ha) about where people are once they walk into those spaces.  When we start downsizing our physical collections, I think we who work in libraries would do well to think about the other properties of books-- to think carefully about all the different ways that books speak to our communities, beyond the delivery of content.

And here's the thing:  we don't have to have all the resources in the world to engage in the kind of thinking that NCSU put into its Hunt Library spaces.  I think (to be utterly immodest) that we are trying to do that kind of thing in Atkins at UNCC, right now.  Every library should aspire to be:  clear about what is where, beautiful in its execution of design, deliberate in providing a variety of spaces, and thoughtful about how and where to deploy appropriate technology, and dedicated to the staffing levels that create seamless access to services and resources.  We need to think with the spaces we already have, pay attention to what is trying to be done in those spaces, and imagine beyond what is there now to what could be.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Guest Blog: Mitchell L. McGregor on groupwork, observing spaces, and the Prequel to our new spaces

Last time I blogged on some of the work my current architecture student, Allison Schaefer, is doing in the new ground floor spaces of Atkins Library.  This time you are going to hear from Mitch McGregor, whom I advised last year during his MA (architecture) thesis research.  Mitch did his work in our ground floor before it was reconstructed, and the work he did helped inform decisions we made about furniture and technology in our new student spaces.  All of Mitch's work was covered by the Atkins Library Ethnography IRB Protocol.


I wanted to find a way to design a space based on research of what inhabitants really expected from the space. I chose the Atkins Library due to the amount of people that use its spaces,  and the variety of activities done there. My intent was to observe the activities that were taking place, and to try to understand why certain group spaces that had been tried in the library were not being very successful. What was causing these spaces that were equipped with new useful technology to be overlooked?

After observations and a few low technology experiments in different parts of the library, I decided to find a specific space that would be more conducive for group dynamics.  I chose the corridor on the Atkins ground floor connecting the main stair and the coffee shop as the area of study.

Part of the ground floor in Atkins Library, Spring 2012.
This space had areas that allowed both private and group work mainly due to the type of furniture and arrangement of it. I observed that people wanting to be alone would come and sit at the long tables between each "bay" with a whiteboard, couch, coffee table, and soft chairs.  This “living room” arrangement of furniture facing white boards promoted group use of the space. The space was adjacent to a busy travel corridor, and people working there seemed comfortable communicating aloud to group members. During my observations, I sketched diagrams to analyze the types of activities that were happening in this space.  Here are some examples of the cleaned-up drawings (created in Adobe Illustrator): 

The long table that tended to attract students studying alone is on the left.  The "living room" arrangement is in the center, comprised of a couch, chairs, and coffee and end-tables.  In this sketch, 2 students are working at the whiteboard, and using the coffee table to hold the laptop and textbook they are consulting for their studies.

Here one student is taking notes on the couch, referring to material on the laptop, while the other sketches out thoughts on the whiteboard.

The student at the long table is referring to a textbook and laptop while the other uses the whiteboard to think through the reference materials.

My goal was to understand what people were already coming to this space to do. Rather than recreate the space with a new type of activity in mind, I wanted to think about redesigning the space to enhance the current use. I observed the space for about 12 hours, and found that I groups were coming to this space for a few main reasons. One was that groups would come to the space to work on problems or brainstorm, often using the whiteboard while referring to a book or laptop.  This often became difficult because there was no place to put books or laptops that was adjacent to the white board. Other groups used the space to work on group presentations, by sitting in the couch area and working from one or multiple laptops, discussing a group project.  I then derived scenarios for additional activities that could happen in this space if certain amenities were added.  I thought the space could benefit from a large screen adjacent to the whiteboard that students could hook up their laptops to. To allow for multiple uses, I decided the screen should be able to be connected to while near the whiteboard, as well from sitting in the sitting area facing the screen. I chose this arrangement:
 In one week I spent about 56 hours observing this space, varying my time of observations from early morning to after midnight. I observed the screen station was used for every thing from a cell phone charging station , to practicing power point presentations, to solving physics equations.  The first few days proved to be difficult, because some things that I as the designer took for granted were not obvious to new users. For example, I thought it would be obvious how to plug into the screen, but ended up having to make the cords far more obvious than "sleek" designs would allow for.  
As I worked through these issues and tried to make the installation more user friendly, I also conducted several interviews. I asked users of different varieties what they liked and disliked about the space and what could be improved. Most students said they really liked how they could move things around in the space, such as the furniture or where they connected to the screen. The space met their basic needs, yet was manipulable to specific groups’ needs.  The more flexible spaces can be the more apt people are to use them. 

This process showed that with research into what a space is currently used for, and how those current uses can be enhanced proves much more efficient than just creating a space and intending for specific activities to take place there. Students wanted a semi-private space that they could adapt to various types of group work. The possibility of multiple types of media showing information at the same time, in this case, whiteboard and media screen, allows the group to function even more efficiently. Students also want this technology to be easy to use; if the technology in this space takes too much of a learning curve it is possible that students will avoid it. Overall, a research-based process allows designers and educators to greatly increase the success and efficiency of a space.

Looking at the new spaces now, a year since the original research started, it is great to see how the new spaces have implemented some of the discoveries of the research. The new spaces that have both white boards and media screens where students can connect allow for the group collaboration and efficiency.  The type of furniture and dividers being used also give the students power over the space they are working in. 


I would add to what Mitch has written here that while his research was just part of the information we compiled and responded to in thinking about and designing the new ground floor, it was a crucial part.  Because it was grounded in the actual behavior of our students, we could use this work to think through ahead of time the details that demanded our attention.


McGregor, Mitchell L.  Principles of Space and Interaction (unpublished M.A. thesis) Department of Architecture, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, NC.