Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Designing a Law Library Learning Space

Barbara Fister over at InsideHigherEd recently discussed practices for designing learning spaces in libraries. Her post was informed by a new report published by Project Information Literacy called Planning and Designing Academic Library Learning Spaces.

The report involved interviewing 49 librarians, architects, and consultants involved in 22 library construction projects that were completed between 2011 and 2016. The research probes how these three parties negotiate their values and incorporate them into designs, what kinds of learning are these new and renovated spaces meant to support, and what best practices (and worst practices) might inform libraries embarking on a renovation. 

Fister noted a surprising finding that [s]tudents weren’t part of the discussion, or at least not in any depth, in a majority of these projects. Apart from gate counts and a focus group or survey here and there, studying student needs or asking their opinion wasn’t part of the planning process (though some libraries gave students a chance to try out furniture before it was purchased). Librarians were more likely to get ideas from other librarians through touring other libraries or going to conferences than from their own user community.

Ultimately, the major recommendations from the report are as follows:
  • We must do better to study students use of space before and after renovations. 
  • Librarians must be part of campus-wide conversations long before a renovation is approved, not simply told after decisions are made. 
  • Flexible spaces should be designed with the unique needs of the local community in mind, including both students and faculty- needs of today and those we can anticipate for the next few decades.
Like many of the libraries involved in the study, it seems that most law library planning decisions are based on some qualitative data - like gate counts and check-out stats. But these decisions are also often based on library trends across the country without truly taking into account the individual needs of the local community.

For example, if you are a law library at a regional law school that prides itself on practical education and has a low publishing requirement for tenure, should you spend large sums of money on specialized monographs that few will actually use?

Of course, we all want a wonderful archive of material, but should this particular law library at this particular law school be concerned with collecting vast amounts of esoteric print content?

Or should this law library be more concerned with creating spaces that facilitate and support practical education, like clinic space, while also creating stronger institutional lending partnerships with libraries that can act as a major archive?

On the flipside, if you are a law library that can and should act as a major archive, do you have a responsibility to share your resources (think HathiTrust)?

It's difficult to fully assess these things while working with limited information. Many law libraries do not have the ability to support meaningful research that provides the information necessary to make truly informed decisions at the local level. Certainly talking with students and faculty before renovations and ensuring that librarians are involved in the planning process are important components. So is understanding your local community in the broader scheme of library trends.

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