Tag Archives: collaboration

The immediacy of context, initial reflections on UXLibs


I flew home from Manchester over the weekend, and this is not the first blogpost on UXLibs II to be written (and surely not the last). Before I get down my keynote in blog form I wanted to work through some thoughts that of course were inspired by the awful vote results on Friday June 24th.

When I helped open UXLibs II on July 23rd the energy in the room was high, and when I talked about larger contexts, I really had in mind (for the purposes of the room) the larger context of Higher Education, in my usual push to get people who work in libraries to stop thinking of themselves (and their Libraries) in isolation, but to see themselves as connected to broader networks of institutions and people (in similar ways to how users perceive and experience them).

I managed to forget for the moment that other argument that I and others have made about how academia exists in the larger context of society, and the world.  We are not living in a bubble, the world we live in is shot through our more local educational contexts.  In our very international room at UXLibs, on Friday morning, we were all reminded forcefully of the presence of the world and all of its troubles.

Brexit, should it come to pass, will be a tragedy.  The vote that has already happened has hurt and frightened and angered so many people, including people I love.  The vote has apparently encouraged racists to take license and assault their fellow citizens, and the vote has also apparently caught even those who campaigned for the Leave result off guard, so that there are no plans for execution, and leadership on all sides have gone home in shock and confusion.

If xenophobia + outward-facing = colonialism, then I think xenophobia + inward-facing = isolationism.

I had no standing on Friday to speak to what I wished to happen around the Referendum vote, it’s not my country as fond as I am of many of its inhabitants.  I can offer hugs and sympathy and hopes that should our vote in the US in November go similarly wrong, I might call on my friends for the same.   I have never had a chance to be a European, I am locked into my US passport and cannot offer my children alternative citizenships.  It has seemed to me a marvelous thing, this European experiment, that connected people across borders even as it was messy and imperfect.   I hope, I hope, it is not over.

I was reminded, on Friday, not just of the ever-present world in our conversations about libraries and academia, but also in the fundamental lack of importance of me as an individual.  UXLibs as a phenomenon has always, to my mind, been about the importance of the community, of collective action.  No one speaker, no one presentation, no one individual is important. But together, we all are.  As collectives of individuals, we matter in positive and negative ways.  Collective and connected action can be the antidote to isolationism, which does not serve people, libraries, or countries very well at all.

I will fight the impulse (in my country as well as elsewhere) for isolationism, because that is not what keeps us safe, that is not an interesting or constructive way to move through the world.

I want to live in hope, so I will choose to do so.


#OA at #AAA2014: What do we talk about when we talk about Open Access?



(Note:  this is one of two posts I wrote this week about Open Access publishing.  You can read the other one here at the EPIC people blog).

I spent nearly all of my time at #AAA2014 this year talking and thinking about libraries, publishing, open access (OA), and anthropology.  The crowd with which I was talking included anthropologists, of course, but also librarians, publishers, and hybrid people who were a little bit of all three categories.    Informal conversations in the book room (the lovely oasis in the middle of the conference-hotel-chaos) were a prelude to my attendance at the Friday morning session on open access publishing in anthropology (one of the SCA-sponsored events listed here).   The panelists presented a variety of perspectives on open access, some nuts-and-bolts type “you need to be able to deal with funding/curation/discovery” discussions, and some much more theoretical “what does publishing mean” and “what would an open-practice (not just an open-access) anthropology look like?”

You can see from my tweets that I fairly quickly disagreed with the framing of part of the problem of OA–da Col is problematizing an approach to OA publishing that frames it within a gift economy, but in my experience the process of publishing scholarly communications is firmly perceived within the market–by publishers, and by scholars.  Scholars are in the market of exchanging their publications for academic success.  Publishers are in the business of selling scholarship back to the very scholars who produce the content.  I wonder if there is some conflation between the prevalent “The Internet is Free” narrative that libraries often have to encounter in justifying their existence within higher ed, with the “Content should be accessible” narrative that is more vividly shot through discourses around OA publishing.  I was especially frustrated at this approach from da Col, whose experiences with HAU as an OA publication seem to be an excellent model for some.  I would have liked to have heard more about the actual transformations of scholarly practice possible within the existing innovations at HAU.


This came up a lot, the “self-publishing” phrase, and perhaps it’s shorthand for “not-by-publishers” publishing, but I think it’s potentially dangerous to talk about OA this way, because it communicates to scholars that they need to DIY themselves through open access.  When what they actually should be doing is collaborating with people in libraries and publishing who are already engaging in open access practices (e.g.:  Duke, University of Chicago press, HAU, etc. etc.).  Cultural Anthropology, and in particular Tim Elfenbein, have offered themselves and what they have learned from their experiences so far.  I think what frustrated me most about the tone of the SCA panel on OA was its cautious negativity.  “This is hard.”  “We didn’t think of this”   When it’s clearly do-able, even with challenges.

At the same time that everyone in the room seemed to agree that it is important to figure out how to get to OA.  

I particularly appreciated the perspective of Jessica Cattelino, outgoing SCA treasurer, who even as she detailed some of the financial nitty-gritty behind open access, opened the discussion up to a consideration of what might be possible once more of us engage in these kinds of publishing practices.



This was another theme that came up again and again–publishing is a particular kind of expertise, and scholars in anthropology (and other disciplines) don’t necessarily have it.  The solution, to me, is not to insist that anthropologists become publishers, but rather to point to opportunities to collaborate with people who have the necessary expertise (again:  librarians and publishers).


Even with the optimistic talk about what an open-practice open-access anthropology might look like, the SCA panel left me with an overwhelming sense of the anxiety that academics carry into conversations about OA publishing.  And, no wonder–academics in all fields perceive traditional publishing as what they exchange for their success in academia.  But some of the anxiety stems, surely, in part from the fact that one can publish in academia, in high impact journals, and still not have full time (let alone tenure-track) academic work.

In the Global Social Media panel, Danny Miller’s team of ethnographers presented on their (very cool) work on social media practices around the world, and made the point of saying that the outputs of their research were all going to be CC-licensed OA materials, and not just in text format.  

This is a high-viz, well-funded anthropology project, and its unconventional approach to communicating their research results (scholarly and otherwise) could serve as another model for what it looks like to be OA in our discipline.

The need to be OA resonated nicely with the theme of the Popular Anthropology “Installation” on Friday afternoon, where a panel of anthropologists discussed, among other things, the persistent need for anthropologists and anthropological thinking to reach wider audiences.  OA is going to be a crucial tool in this.  We need to have more engagement with the public, not less, and in particular need to not play status games with those in our field who are particularly good at popularizing anthropology.   And we should make it clear that anthropological voices can and should be relevant, should speak to concerns of people outside of anthropology, not limit themselves to speaking in closed disciplinary circles.  Anthropological voices, with a few exceptions, are largely missing from national conversations around education, health, politics, race, and a whole range of structural inequalities.  We cannot sit back and expect that to change just because we have something to say.  We need to take our contributions to the public, engage with them, make ourselves visible.

I was so pleased with our roundtable discussion on Saturday morning, “Anthropological Knowledge: Access, Creation, and Dissemination in the Digital Age”  My colleague Juliann Couture co-organized this panel along with Richard Freeman–both of them are librarians, and the tone of the discussion in our roundtable contrasted remarkably with that of the SCA, in part because there were so many people in our room (even though it was a smaller crowd) who actually knew how OA could be (and was being) done, not just at Cultural Anthropology, but across the discipline, and even outside of it.  

Matt Thompson blogs for Savage Minds.   The list Matt has complied of current OA journals in anthropology is a valuable tool, for those interested in current practices, and for the journals themselves, to be able to identify important holes in how they are doing OA, and where they need to improve what they are doing to maximize access and discovery.  Also in the room with us on the panel was Tim Elfenbein, who by now is one of the most experienced OA publishers in Anthropology (along with the gang at HAU).

It is frustrating for me to witness anthropologists, who complain mightily when people outside of our discipline assume that our methods and theoretical approaches are intuitive, easy, and unproblematically acquired, do the same thing about other professions.  There are entire professions out there (I repeat myself for a reason:  LIBRARIANS AND PUBLISHERS) who can be partners with us in OA.  We need to reach out to and collaborate with them.  SCA already is with Duke Libraries  HAU already is with the University of Chicago. We have OA policies and journals at UNC Charlotte.   These and others can be models for the smaller society sections worried about how to do this and what would it look like, and will they lose their identity?  I think an argument can and should be made to the smaller society sections that the content of their journals, once they are converted to OA, can be more visible than now, to the greater good of their community of scholars and to the people who now have access to it.

Because it’s not just about being “accessible,” as anyone who works in libraries and publishing can tell you, it’s about being “discoverable,” and that’s a whole ‘nother thing.  

Other fields can help.  There are models out there.


Because when we talk about OA publishing, we are not just talking about OA publishing.



Our panel abstract here, for those who can’t get into the (#ironyclaxon) AAA proceedings:

As information technologies have lowered barriers to content generation and user participation, anthropologists using digital means of transmission and communication have encountered a slate of challenges and opportunities. Traditional practices for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge are in a state of flux, transforming and shifting how anthropology research is produced, measured, and accessed. Rapid growth of Open Access (OA) journals, institutional and federal mandates, and sites for sharing academic work are coupled with confusion surrounding ownership and author’s rights. Researchers must navigate the new landscape to facilitate the communication of new knowledge, satisfy funding mandates, and leverage new venues to share research data with collaborators and communities. This roundtable will bring together scholars and practitioners to discuss these issues of access, ownership, copyright, production, and dissemination and what this means for the future of anthropological research. A variety of OA projects will be explored to expand the conversation beyond the author-pays model. OA publication and the social life of documents on the web raise practical and technical issues as readily as they reveal digital divides of unequal participation and representation. Negotiating of the agreement between author and publisher can increase access to anthropology research published in toll-access journals through the use of disciplinary and institutional repositories. We will discuss common publishing agreements and steps authors can take to negotiate their right to deposit in a repository and their right to make their work more widely available especially as publishers such as Elsevier have become more aggressive in policing how published work is shared. New modes of disseminating anthropology research allow one’s research to be widely available, beyond sharing drafts of papers or completed articles. It is a new way to share fieldnotes, data, videos, images, and audio recordings. This data sharing can expand collaboration opportunities with other anthropologists and students while creating digital collections and opportunities to communicate in formats beyond the traditional journal article or book format. As our methods of publishing and disseminating anthropological research shift, so do the ways in which we measure the impact of that research. Options beyond the traditional journal impact factor and citation counts will be explored including article level metrics, altmetrics, and how these new venues affect one’s publication record.

This session would be of particular interest to:
Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students, Those involved in mentoring activities

Organizers:  Juliann Couture (University of Colorado Boulder) and Richard B Freeman (University of Florida)
Chairs:  Donna Lanclos (J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte)
Roundtable Presenters:  Richard B Freeman (University of Florida), Matthew D Thompson (Old Dominion Univeristy), Timothy W Elfenbein (Society for Cultural Anthropology) and Juliann Couture (University of Colorado Boulder)

Into the Field

So I have been noisy on Twitter lately, but relatively quiet on this blog, and that is in part because I have been gently (and not so gently) freaking out and getting prepared for going to do six weeks of fieldwork starting at the end of February.

The project will allow me to collaborate with the estimable Lesley Gourlay at the IOE, and Lesley Pitman at UCL, and extend and expand a project that I piloted in 2011 with the help of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.  There’s a .pdf of the report here.

March is going to involve me collecting cognitive maps as well as conducting interviews among students and faculty at the Institute of Archaeology, the Bartlett school of Architecture, and the SSEES.  I will also be spending time doing immersive observation in each of the 3 libraries, using the SUMA tool to facilitate head-counts and also an accounting of activities within each space.  Lesley Gourlay will be doing the same among IOE students and faculty, and at the IOE library.

I have collected cognitive maps from undergraduate and graduate students at UNC Charlotte already, and my graduate assistant will be conducting interviews and observations in Atkins Library while I am in London.

By the end of March, we will have a lovely comparative collection of qualitative data to play with.  Even a project as small as this will generate hours of interview data, and a rich body of field notes to mine for insights that such a comparative exploration of academic libraries can yield.  I am so, so excited to get to do this.

And part of my excitement comes from my strong investment in “going into the field.”   The anthropologists out there know how deeply felt that trope is in our field–yes, my work at Atkins library is my primary research location, but I have been “brought up” to think of field sites as Away (however problematic that may be).  And academic libraries in London are distinct in many interesting ways from the large, generalized, suburban one in which I work in Charlotte.  UCL/IOE libraries are specialized places, scattered across an urban landscape, and also contain materials on some of their shelves that would rightfully be in restricted-access special collections in the US.  I will acquire a new “arrival scene,” coming into the site libraries for the first time, I will have a new set of “key informants,” participants in my research, to interview, who are willing to share what they know with me so that I can learn, so that I can approach my library “back home” with fresh eyes, the familiar made exotic through the field experience.

It won’t be a completely isolated field experience, I’ve never been able to achieve that, and I think it’s probably to my benefit.  When I did my research in Belfast I was lucky to be embedded in a network of Queen’s U, Belfast graduate students, colleagues and eventually friends who helped keep me grounded when I was struggling with the usual alienating cliches of doing fieldwork.

In fact, I think that field experiences in applied anthropology in particular give the lie to the Anthropologist in Splendid Isolation cliche, not just because no anthropologist ever truly works in isolation (they are working with people!), but also because anthropology is always a team effort, even if it’s not immediately visible as such.  I am collaborating with colleagues in UCL and IOE, and this project began as an effort initiated by Dr. Bill Sillar in the Institute of Archaeology.  The work I have done and will do in London is a direct result of the work I’m doing here at UNC Charlotte, working with my colleagues in Atkins, and with my graduate assistants (the Atkins Ethnography project has benefited from the work so far of 4 different graduate assistants, and will continue to hire graduate students as a part of its research workforce), and undergraduate researchers.  My work is informed not just by what I find interesting, but what my boss needs from me, what questions my colleagues bring to me.  It’s a group effort.  There are no lone wolves.

I will also in this trip, have opportunities to talk about my work with colleagues old and new.  I’m participating in a workshop on Visitors and Residents, along with Dave White , Ben Showers, and Lawrie Phipps at the Jisc Digital Festival.  I’m speaking about my work at UNC Charlotte with Bryony Ramsden and her colleagues at Huddersfield.  There will be many chances in London to talk at length about my work, and especially to listen to people engaged with work that I need to pay attention to.

I can’t put into words just how delighted I am that I am finally getting to make my ambitions for a comparative, international ethnography of academic libraries begin to come to pass.  This phase of my research is funded by a UNC Charlotte Faculty Research Grant, and I hope to be able to take this project and springboard to a larger, more comprehensive treatment of all of the UCL site libraries, with an eye to informing with qualitative research much larger discussions of the role of academic libraries in Higher Education in the UK and the US.

But in the meantime, I get six weeks.   I’m going to make them count.

Field Trip! NC State Hunt Library and Spaces to Think With.

On Wednesday I visited not just NC State for the first time ever, but I got to have a comprehensive tour of the new James B. Hunt Library.  They had an open house yesterday, and the place was full of people who work in libraries (visitors came from all over the region, including out of state) being led around the amazing spaces.

There are pictures of the Hunt library all over the internet–I reproduce mine here not because they are fantastic photos, but because I took pictures of things that help me think about library spaces, and about what is possible in our own spaces at Atkins (which I’ve been uncharacteristically (for my blog) chatty about  recently).  It is an objectively spectacular space, and the fact that not everyone has the resources to create such a space should not deter people from going into what NCSU has created, learning from it, and dreaming big.   I intend here (and everywhere) not just to think about spaces, but to think with spaces, not just fancy ones like there are at Hunt, but in the more mundane everyday spaces in which our students and faculty find themselves.

The small 3-D printer that NCSU students
can use for prototypes for classes, or just having fun.

I am going to blog here mostly about space, although the tech stuff possible in the Hunt library is just as cool, and just as worthy of anyone’s attention; for example, the fact that students and faculty now have 3-D printers at their disposal in the Hunt makerspaces. 

The Hunt library is, to my mind, the biggest branch library I have ever seen.  It is the library for the new Centennial Campus at State, which means its primary users are in Engineering, Textiles, and other science programs.  It is also envisioned as a “second main library” for the entire university, and I will be interested to see what other constituencies use the spaces in that building.  They are undeniably attractive.

Color has been used in simple but effective ways to mark places that students need to look for.

Yellow is for Stairs.

Blue is for Elevators.

                                                                                             Orange is for restrooms.

Red is for Asking for Help (as well as the Wolfpack).

All people going into and out of the library have to pass by the Ask Us station, which is not just an info point, but an all-services point, where students can go to for reference, technical, and circulation help.  In addition, workers can be deployed (via walkie talkie) to parts of the library where people need help (this is apparently very popular for IT type help).  Reference specialists can be called from other parts of the building if a question is particularly in-depth.  Books that are retrieved by the “Book Bot” are put in this space within five minutes of the request.

And hey, let’s talk about that Book Bot.

Entering on the 1st floor of the Hunt Library gives you a great view of the “back” of the automated vertical storage unit, which holds 1.5 million volumes.  Books, folios, microfilm, and DVDs (among other things) once requested, can be made available for patrons in 5 minutes (and retrieved from the Ask Us station), or delivered to faculty offices.  They are sorted by size, and bar-coded for identification (although they are also RFID-ing each thing that is circulated, with the hope that at least the most circulated things will be RFID-tagged eventually, if not the entire Hunt collection). 

This is the “front” of the system, showing one of the robots that retrieves the books, with one of the bins, showing how the books are sorted. 

So, yeah, the system is cool, and really makes me think about the future of stacks maintenance, but what I was struck by was what NCSU’s library IT has built to make it possible to browse closed shelving (it’s currently in Beta).

They call it Virtual Browse, and it’s a touch screen that is currently mounted on the 1st floor, before you enter the library proper, between the large windows that give you a view onto the back of the Book Bot. 

This allows for browsing the Hunt collection in a way that is simply not physically possible anymore, given that the books are all in the automated storage system, and that it was never possible to look at the physical collection and browse the electronic resources at the same time.  The Virtual Browse includes electronic resources as well as physical.  This exercise in stacks virtualization, I think, is not just useful for libraries with closed/automated/off-site collections, but for all of us.  In my experience, many of our patrons experience our stacks as “closed” even if they are technically open, because they don’t know how to navigate or read the stacks.  This tool allows them to navigate the stacks and find things even if they don’t understand the call number system, even if they aren’t exactly sure where in the building those books are.   I think I’m more excited about the virtual browser than I am about the book-finding robot.

The collaborative work spaces in open parts of the Hunt library (spread across 3 floors) are colorful and configured in a variety of ways (with very attractive and fancy furniture). 

                                                                                                                                                                         Some booths.  This one has a view beyond to the Graduate Reading Room.

Some tables with task chairs, rolling whiteboards, stools.

Some bar-type computer banks.

 (the computers were Coming Soon).

And so on.

There are also spaces that evoke the design trope of the reading room, also spread across at least 3 floors of the Hunt Library.

I especially appreciated the simple trick of integrating physical books into spaces for effect.  The silent study reading room at one end of the main floor is lined on at least two sides with book shelving.

The rain garden reading room just before that integrates some of the reference collection, faculty book collection, and new books into the furniture arrangements.


What books do here is set expectations, they read “library” to people, and they say, without any signs of any kind , volumes (ha) about where people are once they walk into those spaces.  When we start downsizing our physical collections, I think we who work in libraries would do well to think about the other properties of books– to think carefully about all the different ways that books speak to our communities, beyond the delivery of content.

And here’s the thing:  we don’t have to have all the resources in the world to engage in the kind of thinking that NCSU put into its Hunt Library spaces.  I think (to be utterly immodest) that we are trying to do that kind of thing in Atkins at UNCC, right now.  Every library should aspire to be:  clear about what is where, beautiful in its execution of design, deliberate in providing a variety of spaces, and thoughtful about how and where to deploy appropriate technology, and dedicated to the staffing levels that create seamless access to services and resources.  We need to think with the spaces we already have, pay attention to what is trying to be done in those spaces, and imagine beyond what is there now to what could be.

Guest Blog: Mitchell L. McGregor on groupwork, observing spaces, and the Prequel to our new spaces

Last time I blogged on some of the work my current architecture student, Allison Schaefer, is doing in the new ground floor spaces of Atkins Library.  This time you are going to hear from Mitch McGregor, whom I advised last year during his MA (architecture) thesis research.  Mitch did his work in our ground floor before it was reconstructed, and the work he did helped inform decisions we made about furniture and technology in our new student spaces.  All of Mitch’s work was covered by the Atkins Library Ethnography IRB Protocol.


I wanted to find a way to design a space based on research of what inhabitants really expected from the space. I chose the Atkins Library due to the amount of people that use its spaces,  and the variety of activities done there. My intent was to observe the activities that were taking place, and to try to understand why certain group spaces that had been tried in the library were not being very successful. What was causing these spaces that were equipped with new useful technology to be overlooked?
After observations and a few low technology experiments in different parts of the library, I decided to find a specific space that would be more conducive for group dynamics.  I chose the corridor on the Atkins ground floor connecting the main stair and the coffee shop as the area of study.

Part of the ground floor in Atkins Library, Spring 2012.
This space had areas that allowed both private and group work mainly due to the type of furniture and arrangement of it. I observed that people wanting to be alone would come and sit at the long tables between each “bay” with a whiteboard, couch, coffee table, and soft chairs.  This “living room” arrangement of furniture facing white boards promoted group use of the space. The space was adjacent to a busy travel corridor, and people working there seemed comfortable communicating aloud to group members. During my observations, I sketched diagrams to analyze the types of activities that were happening in this space.  Here are some examples of the cleaned-up drawings (created in Adobe Illustrator): 
The long table that tended to attract students studying alone is on the left.  The “living room” arrangement is in the center, comprised of a couch, chairs, and coffee and end-tables.  In this sketch, 2 students are working at the whiteboard, and using the coffee table to hold the laptop and textbook they are consulting for their studies.

Here one student is taking notes on the couch, referring to material on the laptop, while the other sketches out thoughts on the whiteboard.

The student at the long table is referring to a textbook and laptop while the other uses the whiteboard to think through the reference materials.
My goal was to understand what people were already coming to this space to do. Rather than recreate the space with a new type of activity in mind, I wanted to think about redesigning the space to enhance the current use. I observed the space for about 12 hours, and found that I groups were coming to this space for a few main reasons. One was that groups would come to the space to work on problems or brainstorm, often using the whiteboard while referring to a book or laptop.  This often became difficult because there was no place to put books or laptops that was adjacent to the white board. Other groups used the space to work on group presentations, by sitting in the couch area and working from one or multiple laptops, discussing a group project.  I then derived scenarios for additional activities that could happen in this space if certain amenities were added.  I thought the space could benefit from a large screen adjacent to the whiteboard that students could hook up their laptops to. To allow for multiple uses, I decided the screen should be able to be connected to while near the whiteboard, as well from sitting in the sitting area facing the screen. I chose this arrangement:
 In one week I spent about 56 hours observing this space, varying my time of observations from early morning to after midnight. I observed the screen station was used for every thing from a cell phone charging station , to practicing power point presentations, to solving physics equations.  The first few days proved to be difficult, because some things that I as the designer took for granted were not obvious to new users. For example, I thought it would be obvious how to plug into the screen, but ended up having to make the cords far more obvious than “sleek” designs would allow for.  
As I worked through these issues and tried to make the installation more user friendly, I also conducted several interviews. I asked users of different varieties what they liked and disliked about the space and what could be improved. Most students said they really liked how they could move things around in the space, such as the furniture or where they connected to the screen. The space met their basic needs, yet was manipulable to specific groups’ needs.  The more flexible spaces can be the more apt people are to use them. 

This process showed that with research into what a space is currently used for, and how those current uses can be enhanced proves much more efficient than just creating a space and intending for specific activities to take place there. Students wanted a semi-private space that they could adapt to various types of group work. The possibility of multiple types of media showing information at the same time, in this case, whiteboard and media screen, allows the group to function even more efficiently. Students also want this technology to be easy to use; if the technology in this space takes too much of a learning curve it is possible that students will avoid it. Overall, a research-based process allows designers and educators to greatly increase the success and efficiency of a space.
Looking at the new spaces now, a year since the original research started, it is great to see how the new spaces have implemented some of the discoveries of the research. The new spaces that have both white boards and media screens where students can connect allow for the group collaboration and efficiency.  The type of furniture and dividers being used also give the students power over the space they are working in. 
I would add to what Mitch has written here that while his research was just part of the information we compiled and responded to in thinking about and designing the new ground floor, it was a crucial part.  Because it was grounded in the actual behavior of our students, we could use this work to think through ahead of time the details that demanded our attention.


McGregor, Mitchell L.  Principles of Space and Interaction (unpublished M.A. thesis) Department of Architecture, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, NC.

New Learning Spaces and the role of Ongoing Research

This is going to be one in a series of posts, because I’ve got fun maps to share, and if I share them all at once, the post will be entirely tl;dr (if it isn’t already…)

Atkins Library recently renovated our “basement,” that is, we took space that had been inhabited by staff doing the work of the library, gutted it (having found new places for our staff to work in), and turned it into  an array of spaces in which students can do collaborative work.  Here is what it looked like before there were people in it (photos by Cheryl Lansford, Interior Designer for UNC Charlotte):


We have created configurable furniture arrangements in some areas, and more fixed arrangements in others.  This picture shows the T1 touch screen tables (which also have screens at the head of the table, so students can plug in and share from their laptops. 
This is a view into one of our new group study rooms, with tables that are wheeled as well as wheeled task chairs.  Surfaces near the digital screens allow students to share from their laptops, and there is also a dedicated computer for them to work from if they do not have their own device with them.  Whiteboards and the glass walls are meant to be written on (and are).
The space just outside of the library cafe has been set up to be more cafe-type seating, but with larger low tables, to accommodate the need to spread out with laptops, books, notebooks, and even more than one person’s “stuff” that they are working with.  There are outlets in the wood-paneled pillars, to allow for student to plug in wherever they want to work.
The most configurable part of the open space (that is, the space not contained in the study rooms), has more of the wheeled tables and task chairs, as well as some soft seating (relatively lightweight, so it can be moved around), rolling whiteboards, and movable privacy screens.  

I think it’s all pretty cool.  Our students seem pretty happy with it so far.  We had a fancy grand opening for the space, and are grateful to all of the work that went into the design and building of it.  Some of the work was done by me, and students under my supervision, in the form of studying the kinds of behaviors that go into collaborative work, and thinking experimentally about how to reveal the best configuration of space and technology to facilitate effective student learning.

In many learning space design scenarios, the opening is the ending.  Universities continue to build new spaces, open them, and then walk away without thinking about what comes next.  What did they get right about the new spaces?  What did we get wrong?  How can we improve it?  When can we make changes?

I wonder sometimes if there is a fear of looking bad, somehow, if one goes in and makes changes to brand new spaces.  As if the planning wasn’t good enough, and that’s why we need to change things so soon after the opening.  I hope that is not the case, because we are already looking at the new spaces and thinking about things we need to change, to better respond to how people are actually using the space, rather than assuming that they are using the space as we imagined they would.

Sometimes, people just do their own thing.

To that end, I am enlisting the help of my graduate assistants this semester, Allison Schaefer (an MA student in Architecture), and Carrie Vass (an MA student in Communications), to systematically observe what is going on in our new spaces, and report back.  At this early point in the semester (the spaces have only been officially open since January 23rd), we already have several days’ worth of observations, and some nice visualizations of that observation data.  We are interested not just in how people are using the spaces and the furniture

Allison created maps of our ground floor using Revit, and then added color for movement or activity using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.  She mapped the kinds of activities people were doing, and also where people walked when they moved through the space, over the course of her observations.  First up:  the activity maps.

This shows where people were eating in the course of her observations (about 8 hours altogether).  The heavily blue areas are adjacent to the library cafe.  But eating is clearly happening near the nice windows overlooking the Student Activity center (on the right, in this diagram), and in the central parts of the spaces.

This is where studying is happening in the new space.  All over.

This is where talking in happening in the space.  Also, all over.

When we overlap the maps for eating and studying, we see that they are not mutually exclusive areas.  These maps were created from afternoon observations–if they included evening hours, we know that there would be even more overlap.  Atkins library has allowed food and drink in its spaces (except in Special Collections) for several years, now, and this shows that we are right to not treat these activities (eating and studying) as mutually exclusive.

Can you study and talk at the same time?  Our students can and do.  While some areas clearly show one thing or the other happening, the overlap is significant.

Just because students have a laptop open does not mean they are studying.  Likewise, just because they don’t have a laptop, doesn’t mean they are not studying.

These maps are beautiful and informative, and of course are only part of the picture.  Next post, I will talk about the maps Allison created that show how the density of occupation varies, as well as length of stay, and the maps that show circulation patterns through the space.  I will also have pictures of what the spaces look like when they are occupied!

Optical Fabrication and Testing, Ethnography, and Poster Sessions

I presented my first ever poster at a session at the Optical Fabrication and Testing conference at the end of last month.  We were the only presentation in the entire conference that had anything to do with social science.

We were apparently the best-attended poster at the meeting, which was both surprising and gratifying.  There is a lot of interest among optical science practitioners in how to train effectively the future practitioners they need for their field to continue to thrive.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conference (not just because it was in Monterey, CA!) as an anthropological experience–it was a fascinating combination of intellectual exchange, commercial marketing, and networking.

The conference was also an opportunity to kick off the survey part of the project, where we try to gather information from a much wider audience of optical science and engineering academics and professionals.  If you know any of these people, please direct them to the survey link, I’d really appreciate it.

Click here to download a readable copy of the poster–it presents our initial impressions of the research we did in labs and classrooms at UNC Charlotte, as well as interview conducted among UNC Charlotte optical science and engineering community members (current and former).  I’d be interested in your thoughts.

D. M. Lanclos, A. M. Ferrara, M. A. Davies, C. J. Evans, and T. J. Suleski, “Collaborative work within Optical Engineering: Ethnography and curricular development,” in Applied Industrial Optics: Spectroscopy, Imaging and Metrology, OSA Technical Digest (online) (Optical Society of America, 2012), paper JTu5A.1.