Tractability and the Nature of Library Space

Despite forecasts of library obsolescence in the digital age, increasingly students are gravitating to the range of study spaces and information resources and active-use services that a 21st century library can offer, albeit often within a 19th or 20th century building shell.

Two recent engagements prompt this entry. Both assignments dealt with continuing changes being made within campus libraries, one at a mid-sized state university and the second a small private university. Each situation addressed different purposes and contexts, but both lead toward tractable spatial design considerations — economic use of existing space, sustainability.

Tractability is the characteristic of being able to be changed. I am here specifically referencing the mutability of building space. A little forethought can optimize space utility and make reuse easier.

Consider first the spatial nature of library buildings. Libraries are typically configured as open plan buildings. If well designed, they are largely unencumbered by corridors and small partitioned rooms, except where program requirements dictate, e.g., staff offices, individual and group study rooms. So, as largely blank slates, libraries over recent decades have been opportune locations for internal expansion, already built space into which new programs can be started or existing programs sustained and grown. This phenomenon has advanced particularly as developments in library collections management, such as digital access and reliance on consortium borrowing, have reduced the need to store books and journals in redundancy.

One of my case studies focuses on the reuse of library space to accommodate an information technology department, tracing IT’s inception two decades ago occupying a few spaces to its recent evolution and Topsy-like expansion of more space for twice the staff. The other example involves the wholesale creation of departmental spaces – faculty offices, meeting rooms, and teaching spaces. In both instances, essentially blocks of open library space were whittled away to create a number of smaller spaces. Both cases were timely strategic measures to ensure institutional viability in the context of limited capital resources.

Current reassessments for new rounds of reuses suggest some principles for the design and layout of spaces that would minimize reinvestments.

For long-term reuse, it is crucial at the outset to develop a coherent circulation pattern to link to existing building egress routes effectively and to provide for the future creation of additional new spaces. Code challenges need to be anticipated, such as the provision of multiple egress routes and any potential for dead-end hallways where the distance from occupied spaces to exit routes may exceed code limits. A considered circulation framework will enable an area conceived initially for one function to be reconsidered as a possible venue for new occupants, often with little or no renovation. An understandable circulation framework will also enhance a person’s orientation in the building, and ultimately their safety.

Placement of equipment spaces can create barriers; locations of openings and active use spaces can reveal opportunities. In general, people-occupied spaces will be best located near building circulation and egress routes.

In the instance of the information technology suite shown in the accompanying illustrations, a decision some years ago to place the server room opposite the building stairway now presents a blind wall to everyone arriving on the floor from the connecting stairs. This visibly closed-in situation was acceptable (though not necessarily efficient) for IT operations offices and workroom that were then located behind the server space. However, since the server room will remain as the technologists relocate elsewhere, some opportunities may be curtailed. One potential reuse under consideration is a student services area, where visibility and a readily apparent location are decidedly helpful to encourage student access and benefit. Had the IT staff workspace initially been nearer the stairwell, this next conversion would be easier. Now, without some investments to reconfigure spaces, the solution to enhance the visibility of a student services area very likely will depend on clear and concise signage and possibly interior design measures to counter blank walls and highlight the location. The obviousness of visible activity would be preferable.

JKM existing

JKM preferred


Architectural conformation of space provides cues for reasoned reuse. As noted, the broad floor plates of libraries are an easy option for re-adaptations. However, some uses by their nature are simply contrary to the building form.

Specifically, the small and repetitive nature of faculty offices distributed across a large floor area usually results in many interior, windowless rooms and a maze-like circulation pattern. Where it clearly may once have been strategically advantageous to convert a floor or two of a library to departmental space, the perceptual outcome of windowless cubicles is less than felicitous and the library floor loading capacity is simply wasted.

Thus in the second case, capital planning options are being examined to create new space elsewhere on campus for the academic units and then to recoup and open up the library space for the distribution of core collections among expanded student study areas. This phased development model for departmental space has been economically successful for several of my clients over the years. However, when all is said and done, there is generally a collective sigh of relief on a campus when the library’s space is returned to research and study uses.

Ever considering,


Power to the People!

conf flat screen


You can see how some folks just have the wrong impression.

At least, that is how I respond to the ad hoc posting I found in the library group study room pictured here. If you cannot read the message in the photograph, it says:

“Please do not unplug the cords from the back of the TV. All the plugs you need are located below. Thank you.”

But obviously, all the plugs one might need were clearly not there; otherwise, why would the photocopy-graffito exist? Clearly some enterprising person found the facilities lacking and adapted, prompting the sign. Just for the record, the only accessible outlets in the pictured room were at either end of the space — and then only duplex outlets. I think that four plug-ins for the eight chairs at the table seems inadequate somehow — and the table itself was not wired.

Popular wisdom needs to be re-written for the digital age. Wifi is not enough.
So with apologies to Mrs. Simpson, I suggest something along the lines of:

You can never be too thin, or too rich, or have enough electrical outlets.

Places where people learn and study need to be fully charged; by which I mean, be chargeable places. One sees charging stations for passengers’ convenience to refresh their hand-held devices in many waiting lounges at newer airport terminals, except at O’Hare. (Take note, American Airlines, five working outlets in the K concourse, really?) It’s time for collegiate libraries and classrooms to get in step with the times and amp up.

Old-style codes dictating the sparse spacing of wall outlets now need to be exceeded, given the predominance of portable devices one now sees on campuses. One of the librarians in the facility pictured noted that students nowadays come equipped; she related observing one student at a fixed computer station working with four additional devices. There were no extra outlets to recharge them at that table either; I checked.

In extremis, man and woman tend to adapt. Witness the librarian’s solution for the pencil sharpener, pictured below, which is nestled on a shelf near the floor.


wire tangle


Not-so-parenthetically: The sharpener was plugged into the outlet behind the flat screen display hung above it (and ironically just outside the group study).

Ever musing,


Recurrency: Pride of Place

Florentina's desk 1

The response may always be one of balance.

Recent musings extend from where we left off in the prior installment. Contemplating the essence of workspaces is a recurrent theme apparently, as I recently reviewed writings from years past. Giving rise to the question: What makes an appropriate work place?

This essay is prompted by an off-hand, yet pointed, comment by an institutional operations and maintenance manager in charge of a university housekeeping staff. He expressed that while he was concerned that his people should have decent work accommodations, he stipulated that everyone working within an institution is there for only a given period of time—a universal life truth on a more cosmic level.

He explained further that in his view, as I believe I understood it, no one should really needs a personally specific workspace, but access to a workspace suitable to support one’s role, daily tasks, and self-respect. Each space needs to support the work and advance the self-respect of generations of persons who will do the selfsame or similar, evolved tasks.

In contrast, the Observer column in The Chronicle Review, 13 February 2015, takes the idea of workspace out of the space-time continuum and literally launches it into the cloud per Jeffrey R. Wilson’s exposition of how he writes on his smart phone while steering his infant son’s stroller for long walks.

Possibilities of non-spatial approaches aside, I wonder whether it is possible to consider sharing building spaces in more creative ways, at least by focal task? Previously, I noted how a dean had posited the idea of faculty sharing an office. Others elsewhere at other times have suggested the idea of hoteling stations for adjunct faculty – a basic provision of shared supporting furnishings and services to allow part-time faculty to address the needs and expectations of their students. Furniture manufacturers certainly advance this idea for commercial settings, but cannily add the proviso that a full range of space types be mad available to workers to ensure productivity – from quiet, solo spaces for intensive creative concentration to more open and populous settings for group collaborations.

The idea of spatial fungibility intrigues, but there are also impulses of seemingly fundamental human nature to reckon. Notably on the path toward self-actualization, there is a human propensity for claiming space by personalizing it and thereby identifying oneself and one’s character pridefully with work tasks and work place.

Can one really lay claim to a place by enhancing it in a personal way when one is there only briefly in turn with others?

Is there an organizational approach or design solution that will enable individual expression and co-occupancy?

Questioning and considering,


Toward clarity and engagement

Chatham University Anderson Refectory

Pardon me, but your paradigm seems to be shifting.

It is exciting to come across exceptional and intriguing ideas. I have three little pearls to share from my travels. From two campus visits last week, I came away with a pictorial gem evidencing clarity and a couple of ideas from two inspired deans advancing engagement.

First, the photo – a new entrance provides accessibility and diagrams the crucial characteristics of current-day collegiality for virtually every campus building. The materials are green and there is a bicycle rack. More importantly, there is clarity; the doors and vestibule are transparent, open, welcoming, inviting to activities within. The walkway approach is wide; you can move with the person you are talking to – without need for single filing as others pass by. The critical, hospitable note: there is a bench, a place to linger, to engage, or get a grip on your albatross (or book bag or brief case) before continuing on your trek to other places.

Second, an unusual concept for a learning environment – literally a 360° classroom, if you can imagine. I saw a space tailored to a curriculum, but not necessarily appropriate everywhere else. The space is designed to surround the instructor with 112 students, who are no more than four seats away from the central action. The intent is for the professor to engage and enliven the learning experience, not unlike a talk show emcee. A central podium or counter height table supports the presenter’s laptop and any other materials. Four large flat screens are canted from the ceiling in four directions for benefit of rows 3 and 4; four smaller flat screens back the large ones and are canted in reverse for viewers in rows 1 and 2, as essentially they sit beneath the larger screens. Swivel seats are mounted to the bench tables and swing fully so that group discussions (part of the curriculum) are enabled with those at the tables behind. It is a highly structured learning space, yet adaptable to many activities.

Third, a conception for working space – consider the faculty office as a shared collaborative space, rather than a solitary retreat. This proposal responds to the real limitations of existing space and a finite number of offices, but draws inspiration and focused motivation from what those in the design trades have long known: shared work spaces engender interaction and new ideas. Few architects, landscape architects, or industrial designers isolate themselves in a space when they are productive. In fact, design education usually begins in an open studio setting, where one has an assigned workstation, but shares a reference table, work surface, meeting place. I thought this is an interesting attitude for an evolving academic program. I shall be tracking the proposal as more traditional qualms about faculty work places are discussed; I shall report on the outcomes.

Looking toward new ideas,

Celebrating the Seasonal Campus

Longwood Gardens asters and solidago

One seeming irony of the annual cycle in higher education is that autumn and new visitors arrive on campus in the waning growing season, just when lush summer plants begin to fade. It becomes a challenge to show off a campus landscape to good effect. Yet, knowledgeable grounds men and women use seasonal blooming (and easy care) plant materials to make a lasting impression.

There are many examples in the less temperate sections of the continent where winter weather looms as the fall term advances. Here are a few notables from my memory bank.

At the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota, late-blooming hostas (e.g., Hosta, Royal Standard) are incorporated in simple foundation plantings near building entries to greet first-year and returning students. At Muskingum University in Ohio and Fairfield University in Connecticut Japanese or autumn anemones (e.g., Anemone hupehenisis, var. japonica) are massed in dappled shade to delight passers-by and lingerers. Even the bleakness of winter can be countered. Somewhat obviously dark evergreen plantings remind us of a greener springtime, but there are also brightly colored twigs of deciduous shrubs such as red or golden stick dogwoods (e.g., Cornus alba, elegantissmia and Cornus sericea, flaviranea) to provide color and contrast as the season advances through winter doldrums. One of the more spectacular winter displays that I recollect from my travels was at Smith College where a stand of winter berry (e.g., Ilex verticillata) was allowed to mature in prudently untrimmed fashion, creating an immense and eye-popping display of scarlet orbs against February snow.

My colleagues who are landscape architects have taught me that massings of bloom and color are to be favored over sparsely planted specimens for visible impact on campus. Plants left to claim their own forms and habitats often complement each other handsomely, as the accompanying photo from a late September arboretum visit suggests—a timely combination of perennial asters and goldenrod (e.g., Symphotrichum novi-belgii and Solidago rugosa). Native species tend to thrive with knowing but only periodic care. Part of sustainability it would seem is investing less in labor and more in delight.

Looking closer,

A paean to inspiring clients

Spring Hill College core campus


One of the delights of what I do as a planning consultant is that I get to go back to school every autumn. When I was a child, my parents informed me that it would not be a question of whether I went to college, but which one. Little did anyone guess at the time there would have been so many since. I find it invigorating to be in new places and to come to know and understand new people and places. I have learned volumes on many topics from inspired and inspiring clients.

It is my pleasure to work with institutional leaders committed to a cause, who see and seek things that others around them do not yet envision. It is plainly fun to engage with a group of lively minds to sort through alternative solutions to achieve a new opportunity. The illustration accompanying this missive is a singular example showing the plan for the campus core at Spring Hill College. It is a digital rendering made for publication intending to summarize the collective interactions that led to the plan. A tracing paper sketch of the same core area of the campus appears on another page of this website. The sketch was generated in the meeting where the concept that became the plan was first discussed; it has a messy and impromptu liveliness reflecting the excitement of seeing a possibility that might work. Satellite images of this campus sector as it exists today can be viewed using Google or Bing, on-line testament to my clients’ effort and dedication to convince others of the new vision we developed together.

Over time, it is active engagements and trust developed by working together that lie at the core of productive outcomes. I recall the first time a college president introduced me to someone as a friend. It was for me a moment of pause and honor to consider what that word meant and the responsibility it would entail. In reminiscence, I rather think of all such similar experiences in what might be a Quakerish sense of being a Friend — a fellow traveler on the road to [creating] a better place.

Looking forward,