Rebuilding a Law Library, Part 5: Library as Place

[This is the fifth in a series of columns about the trends, theories, principles and realities that have influenced the redesign of the new library of Osgoode Hall Law School – part of the renovation and rebuilding of the School currently underway.]

The topic of this column was suggested to me when I read Karen Sawatzky’s interesting column on “Future Ready Libraries”. In her column, Karen refers to The ARL 2030 Scenarios (Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, October 2010), which imagines four possible futures for our research libraries. I find such exercises interesting and a good catalyst for thought, but don’t put much stock them. I would refer Slawyers to Canadian journalist and Osgoode alumnus Dan Gardner’s recent book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway (New York: Dutton, 2010), reviewed recently in the The New York Times. Rather than ARL’s prognostications, I would refer readers to Library As Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space (Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, February 2005). Though older than the ARL Scenarios, this work, too, addresses a likely future – “What is the role of a library when it no longer needs to be a warehouse of books and when users can obtain information without setting foot in its doors?” – but is grounded in solid statistics reflecting documented trends. It’s had a real influence on our planning for the new library of Osgoode Hall Law School.

For law libraries, the most relevant and interesting of the papers in this collection is “Righting the Balance”, by Scott Bennett, Yale University librarian emeritus (p. 10-24). Bennett argues that, just as universities are transitioning from a teaching to a learning culture, academic libraries must make a paradigm shift from a service to a learning culture. Our purpose is not to circulate books but to facilitate learning by the circulation of knowledge. Library space planning must begin by asking the right questions, guided not by our collection and operational needs but by student learning and their learning habits, and by preferring learning needs over operational needs.

Libraries are not just book warehouses with attached study halls and a reference desk; rather, they must be purposefully designed to promote study and learning. This is best done by first studying how students manage their study time and their study environment. Studies show that, while the library is the place students go for serious, sustained study, there is also a strong social context to their relationship to behaviour in libraries. As one student put it, especially when you’ve been in the library for hours and studying hard, “You’re not gonna not talk to somebody.” 

Study spaces must be more like domestic spaces, responsive to both the academic and social dimensions of study in ways that allow students to control them both. Such study space fosters both study and learning by

  • supporting a distinction between studying and socializing that does not deny the social dimension of study
  • providing choices of space, ranging from personal seclusion to group study, that variously reinforce the discipline needed for study
  • permitting territorial claims for study that enable students to govern the social dimension of their study space
  • fostering a sense of community among students, allowing them to be seen as members of a community while they take strength from seeing other community members.

Just as the classroom traditionally underscores the authority of the teacher and prefers teaching over learning, traditional library design reinforces the authority of the library staff, affirms the cognitive nature of learning and restricts students’ ability to manage their space and time by encouraging only traditional forms of “serious” study. “Domesticated” library space, on the other hand, fosters active learning. It affirms a nonfoundational view that holds that learning is a community project and that knowledge is community property, constructed by people working together in groups, interdependently.

So what have we done differently in the new Osgoode library to domesticate the public space, enable students to manage the social dimensions of learning in the library, and to foster active learning behaviours? To start with, we have tried to plan the library space not around the collections or library operations but around the students. First, we’ve ensured that the library entrance is in the centre of the school, across the “galleria” from student services and next door to the IT support desk. The wall of the library space fronting the galleria is glass, to encourage accessibility and transparency. We’ve provided generous social space at the entrance to the library, where students can meet and greet, sit and chat, collect and disperse, and directly access library services (circulation, reference), all without disturbing any of the study areas. This space features exhibits from the Osgoode History & Archives Project (described in my last post) as well as displays of the school’s trophies and awards plaques. And, while we don’t plan to go so far as to allow food in the library, the cafeteria (“bistro”), Junior Common Room and café are just down the hall.

Studies show that, when given a choice, today’s students prefer large tables to study where they can spread out and, even if intending to study seriously, can be surrounded by friends in a comfortable and secure community space. Where our old library offered only secluded carrels arranged along the perimeters of the library, in which the students were strictly secluded from each other, the new library offers large study tables arranged in two large reading rooms (194 seats total). For those students who prefer private, secluded study, we do still provide some study carrels (48 seats) in a separate area. We’ve provided lots of soft seating to allow for quiet, comfortable reading as well as napping, interspersed around both floors of the library, usually in front of windows, in small groupings (total 40 seats) and in one large, attractive “den”-like setting (16 seats). Most important, there are 12 group study rooms, each seating from six to 12 students. All these arrangements are intended to facilitate the social aspect of study, recognizing that students need to collaborate, share and discuss in order to learn. These community activities are as important a part of the learning process as is quiet study, and play and distraction can be equally conducive to learning and non-disruptive if we can provide the students with a space in which they can control those activities.

But what are the implications for law firm libraries, where the library-as-place is used for research rather than study and learning and the “community” has a completely different dynamic? How and where will law firm librarians interact with lawyers in a future environment of virtual information? Perhaps the more likely model for our private law libraries is that being developed at the Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University, where the direction is to meet the changing needs of both researchers and patients and to deliver virtual information and services at the place where the information is actually used. To achieve this, the library is dispersing both its collections and its facilities. The print collections are being disposed of or digitized and services are being dispersed among “touchdown suites” located throughout the school and the hospital. Librarians (now referred to as “informationists”) circulate through laboratories, classrooms and clinics and “touch down” in these appointed library service spaces where librarians and users (including not only researchers, clinicians and doctors but also patients) can interact in the users’ own environments. The touchdown suite offers a base close to users that encourages encounters, both planned and casual, with the librarians. It’s a fascinating concept, completely different from the student-centred model, but still recognizing the importance of “place”, even in a virtual information environment. If you’d like to read more about this concept, I would refer you to Kathleen Burr Oliver’s article “The Johns Hopkins Medical Library as Base: Information Professionals Working in Library User Environments” on p. 66-75 of Library as Place.

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