October 19, 2006

Space, the final frontier

What are some of the kinds of physical spaces scitech students need on campus?

  • Classrooms
  • Labs
  • Informal indoor space, such as common rooms, pubs, restaurants, lounges, cafes. This is a very important kind of space, as it's where a lot of the actual learning happens. So much of what we take from our educational experiences we learn from our fellow students and these spaces are where students gather to just hang out and talk. A lot of the collaboration and team work that is so important takes place in these spaces.
  • Informal outdoor spaces, such as parks, fields, walks, benches. Ditto with the above. On a nice campus, these spaces can really add to the experience of being at school. Relaxing and collaborative at the same time.
  • Computer labs. Places where students can work on online research and on preparing their assignments. We always think of students as being hyper-connected, but lots (more than we think) still don't have off-campus access to good computers. They're definitely expected to hand in or perform work (presentations, media, papers) that is generated on computers and institutions of higher education must provide access to these tools.
  • Quiet space. Often forgotten. Students, especially science students, need quiet space to read, study and absorb the complex material they have to master. Whether they are reading books, paper journals, printouts or off a screen, they need quiet. This is still true in our online world. To do assignments, to think and reflect.
  • Formal collaborative space. Also very important. Science and engineering are almost by definition collaborative these days, both in industry and academia. Students need to have spaces that will model the kind of work they will be doing later in their careers. To work on projects, to study together, to have informal tutorial/bull sessions. These spaces need to have good access to computers and software suites that meet the students' needs. Black/white boards, cork boards, all that stuff is still relevant.
  • And of course, lots of other spaces too, that will vary from place to place, like departmental lounges, faculty offices, drop in centres, student services, etc.
  • I'm not forgetting virtual spaces, like blogs, wikis, virtual communities, gaming environments and so on.

So, what kinds of spaces should libraries be in the business of providing to students?

A tough question, but one that is vitally important to the future of academic libraries. As content becomes less and less dependent on physical space, I believe our roles will become much more tied to the kinds of physical spaces we can provide to supplement and enhance the student's experiences. We have to use our physical spaces to provide services to students that they find valuable, that they will come back to, that they will recommend to their friends, that they will remember fondly later in life when the fundraisers come calling. We need to care enough about them to provide them with the spaces nobody else will.

To me, the most neglected one of those spaces is quiet study space. Sure, it's important for us to provide computer labs, group study space, relaxing space and classrooms. And to provide the staff to support and assist students in the activities they engage in in those spaces.

What falls through the cracks? Quiet.

At my library, whenever the ambient noise levels would rise too much, we would start getting complaints. All the staff work hard to make sure that we balance the need to collaborate with the need for quiet. It's hard in a relatively small space, but students need it and want it and they complain bitterly when they don't get it.

The challenge? Using our limited physical spaces, often in older buildings, with limited renovation budgets, to find a balance between those competing space needs. It's not going to be easy.

(For those that are interested, it was reading A Place to Read By Terry Caesar over at InsideHigherEd that got me thinking about these issues.)

(Update: I swear, this posting was totally not inspired by this article from York's student newspaper, Excalibur, about the noise levels in one of the other libraries in the York system, Scott Library. But the article is also a perfect example of the kinds of space that students want us to provide. )


Anonymous said...

Great points, John. At MPOW we try very hard to provide both quiet and group study spaces, and I'd have to say both are equally welcomed by students.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, CW, sometimes I think we all tend to forget about nurturing our physical spaces in the mad rush to improve our virtual spaces. Students need a variety of spaces and libraries should try and concentrate on the ones we can provide best.