On Flexibility and Casters

For some time now I’ve been pondering the need to make a distinction between a space that’s flexible and one that’s furnished with chairs and tables on casters. Those two things are very often connected in our minds. We figure, if we fill a space with movable furniture, the space is thus flexible. Job done. The ease of casters has, to some extent, replaced the process of thinking creatively about the needs of our patrons and how our spaces can fit those needs.

I think we need to reconsider what the word flexible actually means to us when it comes to library space.

This perspective is mostly rooted in my disappointment in spaces furnished with chairs and tables on casters. We spend the money on the furniture in the hopes that it means we can reconfigure the space to our shifting requirements on the fly, and thus be truly flexible, but what seems to happen nine times out of ten is that the space gets colonized by students who need a place to sit down and work (no argument there), but they do so in a way that maximizes their personal space at the cost of having fewer bums in viable seats (again, no real argument there, I don’t blame them for doing it). The question in my mind is this: is the occasional legit need to reconfigure a space for an event or activity enough of a driver to accept the poor use of resources that kind of space tends to exemplify 98% of the time?

I suppose I’m being unfair to furniture on casters and the really functional spaces that contain it. It just seems to me that, wherever I go, I see the same story. In places where a library can afford to have two students take over a room that seats 20 without depriving anyone else, then I’m sure that’s fine. It’s wonderful if you can leave that much room for your students to construct the kind of space in which they want to work. It’s just that I’ve always worked in libraries where space is at too much of a premium to allow for that level of space-claiming. We have to get a bit more creative and a lot of more thoughtful.

What does flexible really mean? A flexible space is one where a patron can perform a number of tasks without the layout getting in her way.  A flexible  space can accommodate a wide array of activities. Maybe this is where we go wrong: we try to design spaces that can literally accommodate any kind of activity, from presentations and lectures to group work to silent study. From computer lab to video editing suite to gaming room. We try to ensure that our spaces can turn into absolutely anything in the blink of an eye. But what starts to happen is that a space becomes not terribly good at any of those things.

I’ve been looking really hard at some spaces that are far less movable but, to my mind, better at a series of related tasks. Less flexible than capable of absolutely any kind of activity, perhaps, but much better at the smaller range of options. It’s a matter of specializing; create a space that does really well at the smaller range of planned activities, and create other kinds of spaces to handle the rest.

This kind of planning requires a certain level of confidence. Patrons know their own work best, but we have to be confident about delivering spaces that will satisfy them. Perhaps that’s the crux of it; our hearts are in the right place when we make spaces that our patrons can turn into whatever they need, but it’s a position that lets us stay a bit farther removed from them. It doesn’t require us to dig in deep and find out what would help the patrons most, and design for it.

To my mind, the worst, least flexible, and least movable spaces are workstations. Desk with plywood privacy walls around it, Monitor, computer, keyboard, desk chair. The activity is designed for is obvious. (It reminds me of the perennial “Send us your PowerPoint slides” email for conferences or job interviews, making it almost mandatory that you use PowerPoint.) Desks with monitors on them are difficult to modify if you aren’t sitting down to do the exact kind of work the planner expected. It means keyboards shoved up under monitors, or textbooks lying on keyboards and practically DDoSing your library’s website by accident (true story!). It means groups of students huddled inside the privacy enclosure as best they can, trying to finish a project. Immovable, inflexible: the opposite of what I’m currently being inspired by and what currently works really well. But I don’t think the answer is to do the exact opposite.

Some of the best spaces I’ve seen so far are very much fixed. Coffee shops everywhere set up shared spaces for strangers to sit down, drink their coffee, eat their scone, and tap away at their computers. Those spaces are often small, individual tables for two, but are sometimes large tables shared by many. Two or three (or more) can sit down and share that space, but so can individuals. There is a science around how big a table has to be so that one group can’t dominate the space, and that’s got to be, to my mind, the most important science in library space planning, outside of accessibility concerns. One big solid table, well-powered, with comfortable chairs, is possibly the most flexible kind of space there is. Groups, workshops, individual study; it all works. You can’t fold it away and play charades in the space instead, though. You can’t do that. But because you can’t. you can lean in on that table, you can power it (it’s hard to have a table that is both on casters and powered), you can push against it. You can sit on it. There’s something very comforting and very functional about a big, solid table.

We are quickly reaching the point where everyone has their own computer or computing device. We’ve suspected for some time now that we may be the roadblock to students bringing their own computers to school with them; we provide so many, it’s hardly required. We keep (inflexibly) building in the computing instead of building spaces that are flexibly computing-friendly. As the needs of our technologies become increasingly ambient, we’re able to go back to spaces that actually look retro; like old school libraries used to look. Tables and chairs, reading rooms. Good, strong wifi in the space means computers will connect throughout; powered tables (all of them powered, with, ideally, USB power ports as well for phones and tablets as well) means the patron feels like they just hit the jackpot. A comfortable chair. (It’s almost impossible to have a chair that isn’t movable unless you bolt them down, which no one recommends anymore.) It’s one kind of space. It’s technology-friendly space, with no built-in technology. It lets the patron decide how and when to use technology, but relies on them to bring it.

I think the challenge to building truly functional, flexible spaces is in accepting that no space can accommodate every single imaginable activity. We have to be creative, thoughtful, and aware of the needs of our patrons in order to create not just “do whatever you want” space, but “you have the freedom to do what you need to do, and the existing infrastructure will support you” space. Sometimes solidity allows for more flexibility than casters can.