Collaborative spaces

Author: Traci Engel Lesneski

With today’s technology we can collaborate anytime, anywhere, and with anyone around the globe. But sometimes we need to be face-to-face, and we need spaces that don’t merely allow collaboration to take place. We need spaces that encourage working collaboratively. Providing furniture that supports group work or a white board and monitor on the wall of a study room are a good start. But collaborative space demands more thought and planning to be highly effective.

A context for collaboration

Why provide collaborative spaces at all? Being well positioned for the network economy (characterized by external partnerships and continual innovation) requires the ability to efficiently collaborate, effectively communicate, work in groups, creatively solve problems, and think critically. As places of lifelong learning and growth, libraries play a unique role in communities and on campuses and can foster (or enhance fostering of) these skills. Libraries are ideal partners in innovation, education, and communication.

Libraries as partners in innovation. Libraries can be incubators for innovation by providing resources, tools, space, and programs that spark new ideas and interests and allow people to come together.

Libraries as direct and indirect partners in education. Libraries support the full range of educators, from home-schoolers to universities. As pedagogies evolve and curricula are adapted to better equip learners with network economy skills, all types of libraries (e.g., public, special, academic, school, and corporate) have become indispensable partners because of the resources, services, spaces, and experiences they provide.

Libraries as partners in developing communication skills. Writing centers, distance learning, and early literacy and interactive educational technologies are just some of the ways libraries help build communication skills. Library users rely on libraries to provide tools that they may not have access to otherwise in their daily lives.

Given the need for collaborative spaces, what then makes a space well-suited for collaboration? Considering how to create the most effective collaborative spaces, addressing five basic questions can serve as a guide:

  1. How well can the space be adapted to meet evolving and varying needs?
  2. Can the participants readily and easily share their knowledge?
  3. Are the collaborators able to do their work without disturbing others?
  4. Is there the right balance between providing tools and providing white space?
  5. Is the space in the right place to facilitate collaboration?

Focusing on each of these questions individually, I will delve into collaboration best practices.


Consider the many reasons library users may wish to collaborate with someone: for play, such as in an online game that requires teamwork (and little more than a computer and two chairs); for co-creation, such as developing a claymation skit for a school project or designing a wedding invitation; for education, such as a joint research project with partners around the world; or for work, to form a company, or use a meeting space for a planning session. Each of these tasks requires a different type of space and different technologies (or no technologies).

While library users collaborate in a variety of activities, libraries generally cannot afford the square footage that would support a customized space for each possible activity type (nor is that necessary or even wise). Flat or declining budgets mean leveraging every square foot to its fullest. Libraries also need to be all things to all users and continually evolve as those multiple definitions of library change. Because of this inevitable, ongoing evolution, designers have promoted flexibility as good library design practice.

What is often missing, however, is scalability of flexibility, from building infrastructure scale (e.g. flexible lighting or adaptable walls) to furniture scale. Adaptation of space is ideally accomplished in both large and small ways, for large and small groups, and for short and long timeframes at the user level. The more adaptable a library’s collaborative spaces, the better able it will be to gracefully and economically accommodate not only the variety of collaborations, but also changes in expectations for collaboration. Spaces designed to accommodate inevitable innovations in infrastructural and informational technologies will remain viable over time.

Level the field

To be equal and effective contributors to a discussion, individual participants must have access to the knowledge pool and the ability to share their knowledge. Effective collaboration requires that knowledge sharing occur in a transparent and accessible way for the entire group. This sharing can be accomplished through technology or something as simple as magnet or pinup boards.

As project requirements broaden, the nature of what we collaborate on continues to evolve. Where once collaboration meant talking, or perhaps working together on a file, now it can mean integration of complex tools and visual and aural work with people scattered across the globe. Projects may require a place with not only space for the participants, but also infrastructure and tools to move fluidly through various mediums in order to illustrate, share, research, and debate ideas. In order to truly be a partner in in innovation, education, and communication, libraries need to offer tools that facilitate these exchanges.

The furniture we use sends cues about collaboration. Allowing each person to be an equal at the table is another way to level the field. Keep in mind our cultural subconscious. The two ends of a rectangular table are culturally understood to be the leadership and co-leadership positions. The seats immediately adjacent to the ends are influencing positions to the person at the head of the table. People in those seats have the ear of the leader. This arrangement is a great setup for running efficient meetings, but it does not promote equal participation in a collaborative venture. Circular tables, lounge seats in a conversational layout, or table configurations without a clear head invite collaboration and a feeling of equality.

People are more empowered when technology is accessible and easy to use, and great strides have been made in the furniture industry to make ease-of-use a reality. Software is available that facilitates easy sharing and co-editing functions in real time, while in the same room or across the globe. Although tools and technologies designed for collaboration and interaction have quickly become mainstays of culture, business, and education, many people do not have access to them in their daily lives. Libraries that offer these tools give those without access the opportunity to use them, thereby leveling the field on the macro scale.


While offering collaborative spaces in a library is a necessity, these spaces are just one of many types in a library. Many library users still come to the library for quiet, contemplative space. Libraries often provide variety and choice in experience in one wide, open space. Attention to acoustics is vital. Acoustic conflicts can be avoided by strategically locating the library’s collaborative areas. Zone your library interior to separate active, noisy functions from quiet functions. Consider human nature when planning the locations of collaborative spaces. For example, many people talk louder than usual when on a conference call. Maker spaces often generate excitement and therefore boisterous sharing of experiences and ideas.

Sometimes adding walls is not an option or hinders a library’s ability to maintain flexibility. Instead, offer visual cues so people know where to be quiet, or where it’s okay to collaborate. Consider the two images that follow. The image on the left has a lower ceiling and softer lighting. It has a more intimate scale than its immediate surroundings. The materials complement the whole, but have more depth and texture. All of these visual cues signal a different use from the other areas of the library and therefore a cue to behavior—quiet behavior in this instance.

Now consider the image on the right—same library, different area. With brighter lighting and more open layout, this area says active. The light, translucent materials suggest mobility and activity. They invite you to collaborate here.

When space is tight, consider using furnishings that can do double duty. A booth can provide a place to meet or act as a study carrel for somebody who needs to concentrate. Especially if upholstered, the high sides can create acoustical separation.

The furnishings layout can also serve as a cue to behavior. Lounge seats arranged for conversation signal that collaboration is welcome. Seats facing a view, screened from the rest of the library, or arranged as individual seats signal solitude.

Given all the ways that people use libraries today (collaboration being a major one), zoning has become key to a library’s functional success.

White space

Our brains are wired to look for patterns as a survival tactic. We have an innate ability (and instinctive need) to make order of our surroundings through that pattern seeking. Otherwise all the individual visual inputs that confront us daily would exhaust and overwhelm us (and we might not see that human-eating animal through the trees).

This factor is useful to remember when designing any learning space, including those for collaboration. Many available tools facilitate collaboration, but all of them don’t need to be visible or present at all times. Clutter can confuse our minds and distract us, whereas clarity and focus can result from mentally and physically clearing the decks—from creating white space.

Libraries can provide a gadget-free experience as an option. Sometimes collaboration only requires a room to allow focus. White space can be achieved by closing off a room that otherwise would be open to daylight through the use of sliding panels. Take a cue from loft living where many varied activities are efficiently packed into a very small area. As with a murphy bed, use layering to conceal tools when white space is needed, and to reveal them when the tools are desired. Allow furnishings to be reconfigured or stored for large-scale collaborations and project work.

Collaborations can be intense at times. Daylight and views can help open minds to think expansively, consider new ideas, and inspire a team dynamic of good will. Fresh air can open the mind. If your building site and climate allow, consider providing collaborative options outdoors.

Sometimes white space is achieved by being able to change the lighting or views to affect the participants’ focus. Tiered lighting provides variety to suit specific needs. Simple additions such as a curtain, sliding wall for privacy, or blackout shades to control daylight and views all play a role in figuratively creating white space.


Customers coming to your library to collaborate with others often do so on a scheduled basis. That is, they have reserved a group study room or a meeting space. These meetings may be face-to-face collaborations, or increasingly may involve people around the country, or globe, virtually. Accommodating long-distance collaborations with the right tools is a critical function for today’s library. Software that offers the ability to see documents and images, as well as the people involved in the conversation, is much more effective for collaborative ventures than tools that allow disconnected voices alone. Libraries that offer opportunities to effectively collaborate locally and globally are providing a critical tool in today’s network economy.

But some of the best collaborations happen on the fly by chance. The informal office water cooler conversation that leads to major innovation is a classic example. In addition to offering spaces intentionally designed for collaboration, libraries should also invite serendipitous collaborations to occur.

In the same way many value browsing stacks for finding inspiration and uncovering unintentional but fruitful connections, creating opportunities for spontaneous collaboration can prompt connections. Seating and collaborative tools placed near well-traveled or highly sought-after spaces invite these types of encounters. Provide opportunities to pause on the path to collaborative spaces, as a type of breakout space or as a primer for the scheduled time to work together.

Collaborative ventures often suffer from being scheduled. Starting or stopping on cue, such as when the group study room is available, is a reality, but this reality can be mitigated by allowing customers the opportunity to either start or continue a conversation on the path to or from that room. Provide a niche to get off the main path or seating near interactive zones to allow natural spillover. Provide lounge chairs in your maker space or study tables near interactive fixtures.

As the great equalizer, libraries epitomize opportunity. Many of the skills needed to thrive in today’s world require spaces that libraries can and do provide. 21st-century literacy means being able to communicate ideas through multiple media, solve problems, work in groups, and effectively collaborate.




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