A Third Place for Faculty

Libraries pay a lot of attention to designing spaces for student learning. What do we do to support faculty learning? 

May 1, 2013

We’ve come a long, long way since Scott Carlson kicked off a firestorm of defensiveness and soul-searching with a 2001 feature in the Chronicle titled “The Deserted Library” (subscription required). In the ensuing years there has been so much chatter about “the library as place” that the idea of designing libraries for learning rather than for storing and accessing collections is no longer radical; libraries clearly are places for learning and library spaces should be designed accordingly. Granted some faculty aren’t thrilled with challenges to the dominance of the stacks, and many libraries have some way to go in making their libraries attractive and effective sites for student learning, but nobody thinks it’s a crazy idea. 

What we haven’t done nearly as well is create libraries that are effective sites for faculty learning. I am not sure why that is. Are we so depressed that faculty appear to need libraries very little these days (except as a purchasing agent) that we don’t even try? Or have we so identified our libraries with students that inviting faculty to use the space might confuse everyone? I know when we discussed setting aside some space for faculty in my library, the idea stalled because it would mean either taking space away from students (unthinkable!) or making it a shared space, which could mean the best seats would likely be taken when faculty showed up. On the other hand, some students were nonplussed when we discussed the possibility of encouraging faculty to hang out in the library, as if they feared they’d have to be on better behavior or might be suddenly called on to defend a thesis. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and find a way to be hospitable to everyone in our community. 
We don’t have a good informal meeting space on our campus for faculty to drop in and hang out, and the library would seem an excellent location for that. It’s conveniently between most faculty offices and the campus post office. There’s a lot of natural light, big tables, soft chairs for lounging. Our 1972 building design didn’t include plans for a café, now a fairly standard feature of academic libraries, but there’s no reason we couldn’t put a coffee maker and electric kettle on a cart in a pinch. (Though everyone is frantically busy all the time, I have been told good coffee would be all the invitation some folks would need.) 
The kind of learning I have in mind doesn’t involve actual teaching, mind you. Libraries are particularly well suited for self-directed and conversational learning. I wouldn't try to bring faculty to the library to be taught anything, nor do I expect faculty to come to the library to get help with their research. We are not a research library, and in any case most discovery and work with publications happens outside of libraries these days. The kind of faculty learning we could support would be more along the lines of a third place (to use Ray Oldenburg’s phrase) or a tiny bit of Habermas’s public sphere (to draw on John Bushman’s argument that libraries could be places for democratic discourse) – a place for people to gather and exchange ideas or simply to hang out together in a location that is neither home nor work. 
Libraries are the intellectual common ground for their institutions. They belong to all disciplines, and by design encourage the mingling of different perspectives. Some of the best ideas for teaching and learning, some of the best serendipitous knowledge I’ve picked up, has come from informal discussions with other faculty. I’d like to see if we can provide a setting for more of that. 
In the interests of full disclosure, I am also thinking about the role faculty across the curriculum play in teaching our students how to frame good questions, find their way into the scholarly conversations that relate to those questions, develop confidence in their ability to propose answers that are reasoned and informed, to value evidence-based reasoning in the solving of problems. Librarians call this "information literacy" and we take a great interest in it, but ultimately there's a limit to what students can learn from us. I'd love to have more cross-curricular conversation about how this kind of learning can best take place, because I think it's terribly important. Serving alcohol is a non-starter, but if putting on a pot of coffee might help, why not?   
Gentle readers: does your library provide this kind of informal gathering space for faculty? What's worked? What hasn’t worked? What should I be thinking about as I ponder making the library an inviting place for faculty conversation? 


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