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Envisioning a library of the future with students in ARCH 353

A future library envisioned by Claire Joseph.

This post is written by Jesse Vestermark, Architecture and Environmental Design Librarian. Featured image: A future library envisioned by Claire Joseph.

In December 2013, I received and unusual request from Professor Richard Beller, an Architecture faculty member I have worked with in the past.  He didn’t (necessarily) need me to help his students find resources on the design of libraries.  Instead, he wanted me and a handful of my library colleagues to help advise his twenty or so third-year students in ARCH 353 Architectural Design 3.3 (Lab) through the process of designing a public library for Oakland, California for the year 2030.

In his words, “I will be asking the students to imagine the library of the future and consider the impact that the transition to a digital culture is having on the future existence of the library as a brick and mortar cultural institution.”

The advising process

Intrigued, I met with Richard before the holidays to plan out how the library could help. We decided to set up a Q & A panel of a handful of librarians and staff, so I set about coordinating the panel to include Associate University Librarian Sarah Cohen, Director of Facilities and IT Dale Kohler, Open Educational Resources Librarian Dana Ospina, and myself.  The panel met for and hour on January 15, responding to a variety of student inquiries covering, digitization and virtualization, homelessness, financing, location, transportation and the symbolic nature of libraries.  In gratitude, Prof. Beller reported later to the panelists that, “Your ideas from the panel discussions have been extremely valuable and I am hopeful that we can continue our discussions…”

Later in the quarter, more staff and faculty from Kennedy Library were invited to critique both the mid-term and final designs the students had created. (Originally, the project was to run two-quarters but was abbreviated so that the students could participate in designing for the “Solar Decathlon” in the spring.)  Engineering Librarian David Beales and Communications and Public Programs Coordinator Karen Lauritsen came out to participate. Kennedy Library faculty and staff were matched up with a different student roughly every 20 minutes, participating in a one-on-one discussion in which the student explained and justified their design choices while also absorbing reactions and recommendations from us as practicing professionals.

Students gained real-world experience

A future library envisioned by Alexis Spicer

I was really impressed not only that all five of these busy colleagues were able to stop by, but also with the amount of time and energy they each spent there. It’s rare for the students to encounter real-world, thought-provoking critiques by professionals in the field they’re designing for, so this grounding was an important developmental experience for them. However, not only was this of value to the students in shaping their ideas, but it gave our faculty and staff a chance to engage with students and reflect on their perceptions of the library world in a focused, intimate, conversational environment.

Fantastical and practical library designs

Most of us were also able to return for the final “pin-up” of their projects-in-progress, pairing off with various students again as choreographed by Prof. Beller. The most fascinating element of the final critique was to see how some students took an entirely practical approach to their designs, while others were entranced with the theoretical and fantastical potential of the future library. This was confirmed in Prof. Beller’s own reflective comments after the quarter had ended,

Some of the designs for Library 2030 were fairly radical and some were more conventional, but all of the designs went way beyond the traditional lending library, with a lending desk, books stacks and reading areas. Maker spaces and community spaces were common themes. There may be some quiet, contemplative zones, but the library of the future will definitely be a lively place with lots of community based activities that facilitate interaction and learning.

Many students I spoke with expressed bittersweet regret that the prestigious invitation to work on the Solar Decathlon meant saying goodbye, for now, to their library projects.  On a hopeful note, at least one student expressed interest in reviving her designs for her senior project someday.

Check out top student designs May 1

Meanwhile, during this whole process, our library won the 2014 Award for Excellence from the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL is a branch of the American Library Association).  As part of the celebration, a couple of the top designs will be on display at a research showcase. I’ll be there with the student designers and Prof. Beller (and wine and cheese!) Thursday May 1, 4-6pm at Julian’s Patisserie on the library’s second floor. Come check it out!