College students learn, study and collaborate in various places, but the academic culture of the campus is housed in the library. While on-campus activity has been paused during the last few semesters, student engagement with the library has not diminished, but rather, shifted.
As campuses navigate reopening this fall, the learning environment looks different and the way the campus community engages with the library has changed. Designers will be strong partners to campus administrators during this evolution, as we’ll be challenged to rethink library planning to accommodate changes in the academic environment while preserving the richness of this institutional staple.
By prioritizing evolving student needs and honoring the complex challenges libraries are facing, we can maximize the functionality and inclusivity of the post-pandemic academic library. Following are some thoughts on how forward-looking design thinking will make the difference.
Leaning into the library as the primary academic resource center
The main library is often one of the largest buildings on campus. While the massive campus footprint is home to collections, study rooms and collaborative workspaces, many campus constituents perceive an excess of underutilized space that can be repurposed.
Facing budget constraints exacerbated by the pandemic, many administrators are evaluating the best and highest use of spaces across campus, earmarking libraries as prime real estate. It’s important to preserve library spaces for academic purposes as much as possible, but the encroachment of extraneous space use is, at times, inevitable. So how do libraries keep pace with the layers of change impacting education while advocating for their essential academic mission?
Minimizing back-of-house office space via hybrid work will be a key factor. The consolidation of student and faculty resources into the library makes good sense, but we must prioritize student-facing elements such as consultation space, technology access and meeting rooms. Leveraging clever planning, designers will help libraries ensure dedicated space for these resources while limiting the footprint of services and functions not directly aligned with the library’s mission.
Planning for uncertain seating demand
Before the pandemic, a core principle of library planning was to structure seating capacity based on a percentage of the academic community that may be seated in the library at any given time. Traditional in-person class schedules created natural turnover in library occupancy that helped make this planning method reliable. But with the increasing shift to online coursework and hybrid learning, designing to meet seat capacity may be less prescriptive. Will students sit for longer periods in the library to complete online coursework, or will they find other preferred locations for virtual learning?
Providing varied seating and study landscapes that provide students with choice will create built-in flexibility to expand and contract seating capacity as needed. For some libraries, achieving a sufficient level of seating variety will require renovation, while others may find the flexibility they need by re-furnishing and making other adjustments. Ensuring seating areas have access to natural light may seem like a baseline standard but will be ever more important in signaling natural turnover as the day progresses. Finally, the accessibility of on-site food options and space to mentally recharge will be essential components in planning the library’s diversified study landscape.
Redefining inclusive space
When the pandemic subsides, we’ll not only be on the other side of a global health crisis, we’ll also be settling into an academic environment where students expect increased representation. With the goal of serving a spectrum of student identities and learning styles on campus, the library should be a bastion of diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.
There is a great opportunity to leverage environmental branding to help the library feel like a truly inclusive space. Using images and artful typography that reflect the diversity and soul of the campus, the library’s walls, floors and other surfaces become canvases for storytelling. This cost-effective enhancement can easily be the first step in transforming any library into a space where all students feel their identities, beliefs and cultures are represented.
We’ll also rethink what it means for the library to shift from providing access to being truly accessible. In both the physical and digital realms, libraries must take new measures to provide clear signage and universal ADA accessibility. In addition, forward-looking library planning will account for new safety and surveillance protocols, an update that should be approached from a designer’s perspective. Uniting the principles of student wellness and design thinking, architects can offer a solution that balances social and emotional health with strict facility protocols.
Designing to support the changing dynamic of accessing collections
As the post-pandemic library evolves, physical spaces that currently house collections will be renovated to accommodate changing access points to these resources.
Facing an influx of digitally born scholarly material and the dire need to preserve the histories of underrepresented and at-risk populations, collections must become more accessible while remaining authentic, diverse and relevant. Tweets, web content, datasets, songs and dances are examples of digital content that will have an important place in the future of collecting.
The way this content is stored, accessed, and used for research purposes should be considered in the physical planning of library spaces. I suspect that in the near future a Special Collections Reading Room may feel a bit more like a Digital Scholarship Lab, a learning space that specializes in the creation of digital tools and supports web-based scholarly initiatives, and vice versa. While discrete entities today, these two space typologies are exceptional at bringing together physical and digital resources and may grow to be an obvious pairing in the future.
Finally, a note on culture
It is well known that the library possesses a unique power of place. The physical spaces of the library have an uncanny ability to set a tone and guide behaviors. However, academic culture and the legacy of how students engage with the library is passed on from one cohort to the next by the virtue of habit, allowing students to learn from seeing those before them and guide those who come after.
With pandemic campus closures creating a gap in this situational mentorship, the means by which habits are reintroduced may need to be fabricated or renewed. Signage, furniture staging, and the re-evaluation of stated noise levels may help, but what a better time to engage with students, inquire about their needs, and ask for their partnership in writing the next chapter of the library’s evolution post-pandemic.