Best (and Worst) Practices for Designing Learning Spaces

A new report is out from Project Information Literacy. Make sure you read it before you get too far into a library renovation.

December 6, 2016

A new Project Information Literacy report by the ever-curious researcher, Alison Head, has just been published, the first in a new “practitioner’s series.”  Planning and Designing Academic Library Learning Spaces involved interviewing 49 librarians, architects, and consultants involved in 22 library construction projects that were completed between 2011 and 2016. The research probes how these three parties negotiate their values and incorporate them into designs, what kinds of learning are these new and renovated spaces meant to support, and what best practices (and worst practices) might inform libraries embarking on a renovation.

It’s interesting to read this report against Scott Bennett’s influential study from 2003, Libraries Designed for Learning. He interviewed library directors about recent building projects and argued that we need to do a better job of considering “the library in the life of the user” rather than “the user in the life of the library,” that we should not focus planning on student learning rather than library functions. This study suggests we’ve made some progress. The most important goal for these renovations were creating flexible user-defined spaces for collaborative and individual learning. None of them focused on the needs of the library staff.

Bennett also faulted librarians for failing to consult with others to ensure that the renovations met campus-wide needs. On this point, we seem to have made a pivot. These 22 projects were entirely about supporting student learning, typically making room by scaling back traditional library roles, such as housing print collections. In many cases the planning was directed as much by campus administrators as by librarians. In fact, decisions about learning support services to be moved into the library were in often made by provosts, with librarians and their new partners left to negotiate how this would actually work. Apparently we have been so successful at convincing campus leadership that we are dedicated to student success that it’s assumed we’re happy to share our space to enable (ugh, I hate this phrase) “one-stop shopping” (it’s not shopping).  

Is this progress? Well, I’m not sure. I’m all for supporting student learning, and I recognize the increasing need for staffing in areas such as disability services and multilingual learner support. The students we are teaching today have different needs than our students did ten years ago. But one striking finding of this report is the campus partners for supporting student learning did not include faculty in the disciplines. This seems really odd to me. As much as we librarians need to work with academic support offices, we need to partner closely with the faculty, too, because the experiences they design for their students are key to students learning from the library, not just in it. Faculty were not formally included in the discussions leading up to designing these new learning spaces.

Which leads me to the other surprising finding of this report, one that suggests we haven’t made that much progress since Scott Bennett’s study. Students weren’t part of the discussion, either, or at least not in any depth, in a majority of these projects. Apart from gate counts and a focus group or survey here and there, studying student needs or asking their opinion wasn’t part of the planning process (though some libraries gave students a chance to try out furniture before it was purchased). Librarians were more likely to get ideas from other librarians through touring other libraries or going to conferences than from their own user community. Assessing afterward whether students were actually learning differently in those spaces was also not a priority.

This surprised me. Assessing student learning is de rigueur in libraries these days, so I assumed this would be baked in. Since Bennett’s report many libraries have used ethnographic methods and other means of analysis to gain a better sense of how libraries work from a student perspective. We’ve learned a lot about how to study students, but apparently that doesn’t necessarily factor into big expensive decisions that we’ll live with for a few decades. I wonder if we’ve gone from devoting space to stacks with little thought to whether the books on those shelves are actually useful to devoting that space to academic support offices, assuming that is a better use of space but not bothering to test that assumption.

I nodded along as I read the four major recommendations in this report. We must do better to study students use of space before and after renovations. Librarians must be part of campus-wide conversations long before a renovation is approved, not simply told after decisions are made. Flexible spaces should be designed with the unique needs of the local community, including both students and faculty, in mind - needs of today and those we can anticipate for the next few decades.

The good news? Alison's next research project will be a large-scale mixed-methods study of how students use library and other spaces for their learning. This should give all of us who might have a renovation in our future valuable insights to factor into our own local studies - which clearly we should conduct both before construction begins and after the dust settles.

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