Research Commons!

This part of the Penndora’s Box is my space for thinking about moving towards a true learning commons in the Van Pelt Dietrich Library Center.

The area in which reference librarians work is prime real estate.  We want to design the space so that students who could most benefit from interacting with a librarian for their work at hand are actually attracted to work in our area.

Here’s a paper I wrote to provide context and background for this project.

Informal learning we need to support in our space or in the library:

  • Students actively practicing library research who might intermittently ask questions as they work for an hour or more in our space
  • Students who need a coach to really get started with library research
  • Students who have context needs — want to find general background or use reference like materials, and will need help figuring out what is good
  • Students producing their research for [teachers, publication, etc] and need help with issues like citation practice, formats, versioning, intellectual property issues, etc.
  • Students who need help figuring out how to manage their research materials (getting several articles together, knowing what they have, ensuring they have proper citation information, proper back-up systems)
  • Students trying to master useful research tools or applications, everything from citation managers to qualitative data analysis tools, and want expert help at hand to get them over confusions or rough spots
  • Anyone [faculty, students, staff] who needs help selecting which resources are appropriate for their info needs
  • Librarian-student in-depth consultations about formulating complete or complex research strategies (when student research requires a subject expert, such as the history liaison or the social science data librarian)
  • Small group “clinic-like” training that may consist of some formal demonstration or teaching but is mainly geared to student hands-on practice
  • Larger group clinics, same as above
  • Self-help learning about research and/or about library services through handouts, signs, access to reference material

Activities that have been happening in our space and (may) still need a home:

  • Directional questions
  • Large volume printing  (many articles, or long articles)
  • Quick printing of a single document (a final essay)
  • Scanning and photocopying
  • Quick computer look-ups
  • Prolonged computer use

When we are operating from a more mature design, the picture will look like this:

  • Students working in the core learning commons area (where the librarian is) will have room to spread out their research materials, work comfortably with a librarian at the side, store their backpacks and coats without putting them in a walkway, and work over periods of time (getting up to get books or use the restroom) without losing their place or having their laptops stolen.  Laptop locks and recharging facilities will be plentiful in this space and elsewhere without having to wait in line, to encourage students to work from their own devices.
  • The ambiance will support activity and conversation and a sense of fun, rather than signaling an impersonal and anonymous institutional space.  Furniture that is clearly intended for quiet individual study is moved out of the vicinity to avoid mixed signals. Signs, posters, charts, and bulletin boards will express things of interest to students with regard to research skills and reflect their sense of how best to express concepts.  Through design, we will indicate that this is a student-centered space.  We will make our staff more personally accessible through picture walls or other creative means.  Students will begin to know staff as people, and we will be on first-name basis with many students as a result of their use of the learning commons.
  • We will continuously be examining our services and resources in order to serve workflows of users on various mobile devices. We will accommodate some users requiring library desktop computers and extra large monitors, but we will design in order to encourage students to work from their own devices.
  • Technologies available for use in the Learning Commons will be decided in an annual cycle in conjunction with ITaDD, with careful attention paid to the reports from liaisons about digital scholarship and new needs emerging in their disciplines.  We will always know and be transparent about the applications available, and will be good ethnographic observers of student use and potential struggles with the hardware and software we are making available.
  • Our space design will have an easily readable “interface” so that students can intuit what the overall learning commons is for, and more easily identify and equip special zones as appropriate:  data use, consultation, quick printing, impromptu instruction
  • Formal and semi-formal instruction will blend more seamlessly into everyday reference work.  We will have a research clinic space big enough to accommodate 40+ students that can open into the learning commons for extra space.  Modularity will be our watchword, and clear space dividers will help to manage noise and flexibly optimize activity spaces, so that without enormous administrative overhead of planning and scheduling, we can invite groups from 3-60 into our space for curricular-based support.
  • Faculty will have space in which to hold “in library” office hours or consult with librarians, get caught up on good resources for their assignments, etc.
  • We will do our best to support self-help, through better linking of online and physical resources, and with a clear and organized “self-help” zone that includes handouts from Penn Libraries as well as other relevant campus organizations.  As a “hub” we will always have campus maps and give good directions to other campus locations.
  • We will provide the best designed help for students who need background and contextual materials.  This means that we will reduce the print reference collection to provide more space, connect the remaining print reference collection to the online reference collection in meaningful ways, and ensure far more self-service access through signs and aids. For example, if we have materials useful for international students whose second language is English, how do they know we have these materials, how do they find them?  If we have materials useful for a particular course, how do the students discover this?  We will understand how and when users need maps and provide physical space and technology for using maps effectively.
  • There will be a comfortable space for librarians to work with patrons who need to be slightly out of the general milieu, without resorting to a “behind-the-desk/in-front-of-the-desk” paradigm.
  • We will staff this area with a vibrant “learning community” that includes undergraduate student workers who are part of a library research learning group (modeled loosely on the Hoesley program) library school interns, and librarians who thrive on interactivity and teaching.  As a learning community, there will be ongoing and explicit programming to improve the skills and institutional knowledge of everyone staffing the space.  We will use a knowledge base to support superb service.  There will be adequate spaces for student workers and interns to put their stuff, and the place will offer so many advantages to student workers that they will tend to hang out in the space (the way lab rats hang out in their research labs or film makers hang out in media labs).  We will staff efficiently, so that questions are answered by learning commons staff with the appropriate expertise, allowing subject matter experts to spend more of their time at a higher level of teaching and partnership.
  • Our virtual services will be more integrated with the learning commons so that service is given no matter which “door” the user enters.  Our conversations with users via social media channels and face to face meetings will both inform our development of the learning commons and be a way to announce changes and solicit continuous feedback about how we can be more useful.

2.  What are some simple problems right now impeding students use of the space for learning?

Inconclusive signs about noisy/quiet spaces and signs that don’t help very well with way-finding

Mixing volume printing with research.

No good areas for group work on class assignments  (HSOC, as an example.)

Too many people trying to use library computers – why don’t we make it more convenient for users to bring their own devices?

As a researcher, it’s hard to stay working in the area for any length of time because you feel crowded, can’t spread out, have to plan ahead to get a laptop lock which is vaguely available somewhere else.

The librarian is too much “the other” in the work space.  We need to be sitting down amongst people, not perched up so high, and more clearly positioned as being available for repeated consultation in a socially normal way. (How do people signal us?  Raise their hand?  It’s weird!)

3.  Major Challenges hindering progress in designing an effective learning space?

We need better understanding of informal learning, agreement on our role and agreement on how to foster it via a staffing model in the Learning Commons.

The terrazzo “freeway” down the middle of our space is a bit daunting.

Activities could be moved to other areas of the library (Rosengarten undergrad ctr) but those spaces are dirty and not inviting.  Volume printing could go down there, but that space needs re-design for that kind of move to work.

Coordinating the extensive IT work for any floorplan redesign – we need to do the re-design together with IT, but in a timeframe that allows them to do the work over the least busy time in the summer.  How will we get these two units working together schedule-wise?

Student participation is needed for a successful design, but we also have to play our role as thought-leaders here.  We need a way to authentically gather data about students, gather student ideas and input and give it the right weight  (working with users in various ways rather than conducting census-like surveys means thinking about how to properly use the feedback and data we get).  We need to understand student problems and challenges without asking students to figure out optimal solutions for all users.  Working with people in this way requires skill and knowledge.

4.  What is happening now we can build on?

Moelis consultations are a good thing, but still seem kind of eclectic and not really designed into that space.

Coaching happens intermittently, we could use more.

Class assignments that bring students into the library in groups should be encouraged more, and we should provide space for them.

We have started to personalize the librarians with the picture wall and the photos at the ref station.  What can we do more of so that students see us more as partners, so that we can change the expectation that students have of librarians (ask them for help when you can’t find something).

5.   Channel any ELC/Moelis activities elsewhere?

Volume printing.

Non-school-related use of computing resources in our prime real estate.

Longterm parking in the ELC by students who don’t need or want interaction with librarians.

6.  Pilot any user feedback efforts on changes?

I think we should look first to the learning community model, and get student workers involved in efforts to get feedback.

7.  How can we support the department through all this change?

I think it is important to keep a focus on the students and to be evidence-based.  Most of us learned our jobs in a paradigm of librarianship that looked more like faculty, where we were honored for deep expertise and second degrees, we built up the collection and helped people who came to us, in our space, to use our collection.  We were pretty reactive about offering service, changing that only slightly as we began to lose relevance and needed to start “marketing” our services.  Our new paradigm is about understanding student learning and demonstrably fostering it, building our service through empathy (not sympathy, not being nice, but true and useful understanding the other person’s situation) and constantly assessing our effectiveness.  The area in which we work — our reference area — is our laboratory for observing students at their informal learning.  We need to know how to better do that observing, and make use of what we find out.  These are skills we have to develop, and they won’t happen “as time permits.”  We need to recognize and respect the thought leaders among us who are helping us develop in these new directions, and pay attention to new strategies that might help us organize our daily work so that the strategic activities and the high impact activities are getting most of our attention.

8.  General Strategies or principles we should adopt going forward?

We should iterate forward, avoid grand plans that are inflexible and assume that change and uncertainty are here to stay

Design with users and with a thorough understanding of their workflows and goals, and let them give us plenty of formative assessment.

Focus on user profiles (can we usefully develop these in our redesign efforts?) and user specific situations and needs.  Space design that tries to be “one size fits all” will end up fitting no one very well.  The library as a whole serves the entire community; the research commons serves users who have the kinds of informal learning needs articulated above.


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