Collaborative Spaces, Part 1
In a recent webcast for Demco’s ongoing library issues webinar series, I discussed what makes collaborative spaces effective. 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:
- How well can the space be adapted to meet evolving and varying needs?
- Can the participants readily and easily share their knowledge?
- Are the collaborators able to do their work without disturbing others?
- Is there the right balance between providing tools and providing white space?
- Is the space in the right place to facilitate collaboration?
Focusing on each of these questions individually in a five-part blog series, I will delve into collaboration best practices. First up: Adaptability.
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.