Common Ground

Meeting spaces of the minds

December 9, 2013


There are many benefits to spending one’s life on a college campus: beautiful settings, the rhythm of the academic year, and of course continually being surrounded by bright, energetic students. Each summer they come for orientation, eager, excited, and younger by the year. You too can play the “where were you the year they were born” game. 1995? Gulp.

By the time you read this, this year’s freshmen have settled into their routines, dug into classes, and in many cases engaged for the first time with an academic library. And in many of those libraries, they have found a research- or learning-commons space where they can attend tutorials, find a place to do coursework, collaborate on projects, create presentations, write, or just sit around and think or read.

These are great spaces and I’m delighted that so many academic libraries have dedicated space and resources to building and maintaining them. (Much of the following could also be said for makerspaces and the like in public libraries.) I use ours regularly—for my own work, for office hours, for class sessions to work in small groups, and for consultations with students working on research projects. My favorite part is the whiteboard-topped tables on wheels (as are most of the furnishings, for flexibility in use of space). So cool, as are the refillable markers and erasers available for checkout.

All very useful, all very busy—there’s lots of time when there’s not a seat or table to be had. Whenever I go over there, though, I have one nagging question that won’t go away: Why is this space here? Why is this in the library?

Don’t mistake me—I’m glad it is, for all the reasons I listed. There is, however, no real reason why this space belongs necessarily in a library. It could just as easily be in the student union, or a classroom building, or a residence hall, or anywhere else. By the same token, a makerspace could just as easily be in a community center. No matter how popular or useful they are, if a provost or dean or mayor asked why these spaces were in libraries, I’m not sure our answers would be all that specific, or convincing.

Which is a shame, because there are lots of possibilities. Research/consultation/reference-type services are obvious, though almost certainly they’d have to be roving or outreach-y in nature. So is support of enhanced use of collections and resources. Less obvious might be assistance in the creation and formatting of various intellectual products. Intellectual property/licensing tutorials? Advice on publishing and distribution of scholarly products and insight into the open access/open source journal/scholarly book/digital product models? Use of metadata to allow web-based products to be found? We know—and have—a lot that could be put at users’ disposal.

Imagine this: If you had 90 seconds with your chief decision-maker, the person who really holds the power (board chair, president, dean), how would you portray, in words your decision-maker would use, the practical value of this sort of space because it advances the agenda of the college or city, and not just as a space is nice, useful, helpful, or pretty? It’s harder than it sounds, this elevator-speech thingy; some time and forethought into precisely what such a space is meant to achieve can pay big dividends when the questions come.

These kinds of spaces could well become a significant component of our continuing reimagining and reinvention. Thus, once you’ve got the elevator speech ready, you need to find the elevator. Don’t simply wait for the moment to pounce; orchestrate it, and dazzle the powers that be with your logic and persuasion…. Don’t be just another story.

JOE JANES is associate professor and chair of the MLIS program at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.