Most of my thoughts and observations about what learned during my six month research leave (October-March) is contained here already, but below is the report I submitted, which is a general summary with links to various blog posts for more details, and minus all the pictures and hopefully minus at least most of the typos.
Dark Horse Espresso Bar on Spadina, in the heart of Toronto’s high tech hub, is, for me, the ultimate example of space as a networking tool. Sit here here for any amount of time, and you will hear conversations that sound like they’re probably interviews, descriptions of apps in progress, friends of friends recognizing each other across the table and showing off portfolios, and all kinds of casual discussions about trends, sales strategies, developments, and news. The person next to me is on skype. I’m sitting here as I write this, in fact, and I almost feel like I’ve dropped in on some hip new office. This is a space where work gets done. People don’t come here just to hang out; they come here to make the world a better place.
Possibly in part because the high tech sector is so flexible and full of tiny start ups that may not have offices of their own, or freelancers who want to feel part of the larger world from time to time. Or because so many businesses can benefit from connecting with each other, so a place like this acts as a living room for a busy, sprawling blended family. For all of these reasons, I think it’s an interesting space to look at with the eyes of a librarian. Because we don’t tend to build spaces like this.
Dark Horse was my first experience of a communal table. (And the first time I sat down here, I discovered myself sitting across from someone I’d spoken to on twitter but never met in real life, in keeping with the theme.)
Right up at the front of the place, up by the front doors, are two large communal tables. They are so big that you can’t take over one of them yourself. So no one does. The culture of the place doesn’t allow that. You sit down next to people you don’t know, because that’s how it works.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at communal tables and puzzling over them. I suppose that’s another post in itself, really; communal tables are very appealing, but very, very tricky. There is a direct and critical relationship between the social culture of a space and the physical dimensions of the furniture that can make a communal table succeed or fail, and the mathematics of predicting that are well beyond me. Where a culture allows a thinner table to be used communally, making it okay for strangers to sit close to each other in public, then a thin table can be shared by strangers and succeed. But strangers tend to be shy to varying degrees, and if that culture of space sharing and reduced personal space isn’t already there and understood, a communal table has to be much wider. I suspect you can graph the anxiety and shyness of your target population, the degree to which they understand the social culture of the space into which they’re stepping, the amount of space around each chair, and the width of a communal table and get a formula out of this. I’m pretty sure there’s a science to this.
This communal table at Dark Horse is very wide. It’s a square, in fact. You’d think, if you’re a space planner trying to get as many bums in seats as possible, that it’s a bit of a waste of space. No one’s using the middle of this table. But that space is what enforces the social culture of Dark Horse. You can’t carry on a conversation with the people on the other side of it. It’s too wide. This is, for me, the ultimate shared table. This is furniture that doesn’t negotiate. It’s not your table. It’s where we all sit, and we all do what we need to do. Sometimes that’s a conversation with the person next to us. Sometimes it’s a group of people sitting with computers open. Sometimes someone’s going to take out a phone and start a conversation. All these things are okay around the communal table, because while the purposes for being here are all different, the people around this table are opting in to sharing space this way. And feeling connected to strangers.
If you’re interested in communal tables, Dark Horse will be my first recommendation for a visit. It’s not the only one, but it’s the most relentlessly sharable one.
The image in my head of Dark Horse is so dominated by these communal tables that I actually failed to notice in my first two visits here that there is more space than this. A few steps up on the other side of the espresso bar, there’s an area for different kinds of interaction. Some small tables that can seat two, but are currently taken over but individuals within open laptops, a space for four or five, and a few spaces for groups of three, with lower tables. These are spaces that insist that you not sit there with a laptop. These are conversational areas. And they are in use as conversation areas: I think I walked through a business meeting when I went in to snap these pics. Sorry about the quality. I’m trying not to interrupt anyone.
I’m always interested in spaces that are not quiet but get used as space for individual work. You could work at home. you could hole up in a library (that’s certainly cheaper). People are going to chat and laugh around you. On the way here today there were only three people on my car on the train, and one of them was on his phone making business calls for the entire trip. It drove me (trying to write over here) and the car’s only other passenger (trying to read my novel, thanks) absolutely nuts. But when you step into a place like this, you don’t expect silence. So it doesn’t bother you. Isn’t that strange? It’s less about sensitivity to noise and more about expectation. There’s something that appeals to people about working in a noisy, active, busy place like this. You’re in the heart of a hip neighbourhood, someone you want to connect with might drop in at any time, you’re around a lot of creative and passionate people. You make a statement when you work in an place like this. It’s a statement about availability, about what you think is important, and about who you think you are. Those conversations going on around you might change your life.
I’ve started to understand that most things we do are about self-identity, and the spaces we chose to frequent are very much a part of that process. Libraries are part of that equation as well, though we rarely frame them that way. It would be interesting to look at library spaces with an eye to what we’re helping patrons say about themselves to themselves and others. I think, in the end, it’s thinking that way that makes a space a social force.
Very often, when we consider where in our libraries patrons will need to use digital materials, we add a station like this one. This is a terminal at the University of London Senate House Library. It’s placed helpfully in the stacks, near study areas. Like most such terminals, the point is probably to give students access to the catalogue while they’re browsing for physical materials and not very much more. It’s not a spot where you can sit down and spread out. There were other, better places to work on a paper or study. It’s exactly the kind of set up you see in most libraries of any description.
I understand why we do this. We’re coming from a good place. We want our patrons to feel comfortable. We want them to never be limited by the lack of a keyboard. Even if the catalogue can be browsed quite easily on a touch screen, what if you need to do something that requires sustained typing? I understand the impulse to account for every possible need within a rational budget. It’s logical, and thoughtful, and it’s technically open to changing needs and contexts. You can see how we think digital material is going to be used: alone. Not with a group of students, not with help from a librarian or a TA. Interacting with digital media, in this context, is very much an independent exercise.
This is the interactive mall directory at Square One, Mississauga. (And that handsome devil is my nephew, Max.) No keyboards, no mouse. Just a clearly designated directory. You can’t plonk down here and check your email, it’s true. You can’t write an essay on it. But you can work out where you’re going, and find out what this particular mall has in store for you. You can also walk up to it with your friend (or, as Max did, with your crazy aunt who takes photos and videos of odd things).
This is Max doing some fake navigation for me so I could film it. The downside of these things is that, at this point, you need to pay someone to create the digital materials for you to display like this. After years of static, keyboard-and-mouse based input, the easiest systems don’t respond as well to touch-based devices and interfaces. But that’s changing, and will continue to change with the rise of tablets and other larger-format touch-based interfaces. There is increasingly few technical reasons why libraries can’t provide catalogue and information access points that look less like the workstation above and more like what Square One is doing.
Here’s some interactive screens at the Disney Store in the Eaton’s Centre, Toronto. The focus is primarily on the projected film on the wall, but there’s associated information showing on the two screens that flank it. Since this area is for children, the screens are smaller, slower, and primarily graphics-based. I think this is really interesting, mostly because Disney surely knows that the children in this store are bound to be incredibly distracted. There’s input coming at them everywhere. The store is full of toys. There’s a cartoon playing on the wall. But they integrated screens at the right level for their audience, and integrated it so that it’s not distracting from the purpose of being there, but adding to it. These children don’t need to turn away from what they’re doing to see the digital material. It’s part of the experience. And it’s a part of the experience that doesn’t dictate how many people can gather around it at once.
This is a screen that controls the printers at Staples just off Dundas Square in Toronto. Again, no keyboard, no mouse. Like some of the stellar digital terminals at M&S in London, this machine takes a card for payment. It’s low profile, small footprint screen that doesn’t require a desk at all. This Staples doesn’t really have room for a desk. Sometimes necessity breeds some good ideas. I mean, it’s not pretty, but it’s computing in a tight space, without setting up a whole independent workstation. It’s set up for people who are there to do a single thing and want to get it done quickly; that’s a goal a lot of library patrons can identify with.
This is a terminal at the Google co-working space in London. Because it’s a fairly noisy spot, there are a variety of noise-cancelling and relaxation-type areas. This pod digitally delivers information while the user is in this audio-limited environment. Digital material, as you can see, is the least complicated part of it.
Looking around and seeing the variety of ways that digital material can delivered at point of need that doesn’t involve a chair, a keyboard, a mouse and a monitor is an important reminder to me. We shouldn’t assume that digital material can only be consumed in one physical way.
Bear with me for a moment here. This is mostly a thought experiment.
As I travel around looking at different kinds of spaces, I’ve started to question our relentless quest for total silence in libraries. Libraries have come to mean silence in our culture; why is that? Because silence is associated with reading? (Of course, only with modern reading: we know that medieval European readers considered reading a verbal activity, always done aloud, and if you’ve ever found yourself mouthing the words you’re reading on a page, you know we’re fighting our bodies to make reading silent. No need to be elitist about it: text is only a series of symbols representing speech. There’s no shame in it triggering our verbal centres. That’s perfectly natural.) When libraries are closed-stack, and the spaces inside it exist only as a reading room for material you can’t copy and can’t take out with you, I can understand the focus on silence. To a degree, anyway. Silence is meant to go along with concentration. And libraries are meant to be places where you go to concentrate, right?
Everywhere I go, I find students and the self-employed deliberately seeking out spaces that are not silent. Some of them are downright raucous. A lot of them have jazz playing in the background, coffee grinders, conversations, laughter. Some of them are quieter than others, but none of them are silent. I’ve seen several co-working spaces, and a few high-tech businesses here and there. No private offices, only shared tables, conference rooms, kitchens and “libraries”. Nooks for groups, couches, lots of earphones in the ears of those trying to buckle down and work alone. No spaces with a fixation on providing absolute silence, though.
I’ve been considering whether my comparisons with cafés and co-working spaces are entirely fair. I realize I’m looking at a particular sample of the population, the people who want to work this way. These are people who have a quiet space at home and find it difficult to work like that. These are people who want to be tangentially connected to other people while doing independent work, even if they’re strangers. I think there’s probably even a little bit of self-motivation going on; when I finish this paper, I can go home and relax. Being somewhere other than at home helps you stick to a deadline and helps manage your time. That’s really healthy, I think. Co-workers in particular often need that separation between home and work to help give the work day a sense of closure, something students and academics both frequently fail to do well. The people I see working this way have quiet space elsewhere if they really need it.
But then I thought: don’t our student populations have this as well? Not all of them, maybe. But what percentage of the student populations don’t have a room of their own with a door that closes? I imagine it’s pretty small. So far my experience of residences on campus always includes some form of study room (and often study groups, as well.) For campuses where students can easily go back and forth from home where they can have silence and solitude, it seems to me that there’s more in common between libraries and other public and commercial spaces like cafés than we may have thought.
My own campus has it’s own rhythms and issues. Students can’t easily come and go from home, and many of them commute in quite a distance. They are effectively stuck on campus, and they may need that silence because they legitimately can’t get it anywhere else between the hours of 8am and 9pm. Again, I’m not entirely sure why the library is the place required to provide perfect silence, but I suppose that’s the tradition as we have it. We’re kind of stuck with it.
A lot of the students on my campus commute from their parents’ homes, so they share space with other family members. This is generally presented as a reason why no work can get done at home, but I’m not entirely convinced that that’s entirely true. Most homes with adult children in them are pretty quiet. Parents are usually supportive of students working hard on their school work. (Not always, I know. There are always stories and circumstances.) I would suspect that, most of the time, residence is far louder than anyone’s household, and even residences have silent spaces in them.
Why are we promising to provide absolute silence, something so difficult to maintain it is practically impossible, if the vast majority of our patrons already have access to it when they need it?
Too harsh? Bear with me a moment longer.
Here’s a statistic I don’t know: what percentage of our student populations would sit in a comfy chair in a Starbucks and write an essay if they knew no one was going to harass them to buy anything or glare at them to give up their table. As far as I can see, we expect that about 70-80% of our students want to work in complete silence. If that’s true, 70-80% of students should abhor working in a public place like a Starbucks. I find that exceedingly unlikely, but I don’t know what those stats actually look like.
Maybe the music is too loud: okay. how about a little indie café in the distillery district, or buried in the annex behind a bookstore? Somewhere with ambient music, soft conversations, coffee. Not too busy, not too quiet. Alive. I don’t know the statistic; I don’t know how many students would be happy to work there. Walking around London, seeing the 3/4ths empty and quiet Senate House library, and the jammed and happily buzzing public libraries, the full cafés of Islington, Hampstead and Shoreditch, the students lining the tables at the Barbican and Southbank Centre, I struggle to imagine that it’s a small percentage. But I don’t know. This is critical information to me at this point. I’m going to have to find a way to get it.
I haven’t said it yet, but I’m sure you can feel it coming. What if most students don’t actually require absolute silence to do really good work?
I can already hear the objections. I’ve seen them; students in my library complain about the noise all the time. I can’t keep saying “bear with me” whenever I say something outrageous, can I? But what if this is in part based on expectations that we’ve set, both through our policies, our space design, and through our powerful public image? What if they demand silence between they just imagine they can expect it, and should expect it, because we’ve promised it, not because they actually require it? We are allowing students to have unrealistic expectations of our entire buildings, top to bottom. Libraries are meant to be silent, so every sound they hear is annoying.
What if we designed spaces based on the presumption that most students don’t need absolute silence, but want a comfortable level of ambient sound that isn’t too annoying, much like a half-empty café? What if we designed lots of different kinds of spaces, the kinds of spaces cafés and other public spaces increasingly have, with coffee/tea available, but no pressure to get out of your seat and give your table to someone else? What if we created that for 70-80% of our spaces?
There’s still the question of silence.
I seem anti-silence at the moment, but I’m not, really. I’m only asking questions. I’m only suggesting that the desire for absolute silence might not be felt by the majority, as long as if there is other, really functional, comfortable, not overwhelmingly-noisy spaces on offer that clearly doesn’t promise something it can’t deliver. There will certainly be people who want absolute silence.
What if silence becomes a specialized service? Perhaps the way to break the association of a library with perfect silence in all places is to create a space that is specifically designed and pitched as entirely silent? Enclosed, with a clear demarcation between the normal zone and the dead quiet zone. If you’re in here, you’re here to be totally, completely, utterly quiet. No phones. Maybe no wifi. Maybe no 3G at all (if that’s even legal.) No ipods, no music, because sometimes you can hear them and that’s annoying. Nothing: just silence. Quiet keyboards only? How extreme can you reasonably get?
I don’t know the statistics, so I don’t know for a fact what size a space like that would need to be to accommodate the people who would want it, but from what I see so far, I imagine it probably doesn’t need to be monstrous. Maybe it’s nestled in among the stacks, using the books to muffle even the sounds of keyboards and pencils scratching. But it’s strict, exclusive, and maybe you even need to apply to be allowed in. It would have a zero tolerance policy. It would, I imagine, build it’s own culture and empower students to tell each other to shut up should they need to. The eye conversations would be epic.
We are currently encumbered by the idea that the silence rule currently applies to anything called a library. Most libraries tell you to shhh with their staff and their signage. We tell you what your behaviour has to be from one area to the next. But what if, instead of telling people how to behave, we offer the spaces where the behaviour restrictions are a service?
In some ways it’s just a matter of rebranding, isn’t it. but I know for a fact that just rebranding the quiet areas in my library as a service rather than a set of rules wouldn’t create this kind of atmosphere. There’s a bit more to it, I think. Some of it is building in the right context, making the space look markedly different, having students pass over a threshold between one commitment and another. They need to actively choose to be there. You can’t stumble in accidentally. You go there with a purpose, armed with the knowledge of what it’s going to be like. You go in there to get work done, and then you get out.
Meanwhile, you give students other really good options for non-silence. We already know there are a lot of students who cannot work in complete silence and are pretty forthright about that. They want music playing. They want to be around people. Surely this is why we remain as busy as we are, even as the use of the collection and reference services declines. On my campus, the computer labs are empty but the library is packed. Most people, it seems, want to be around other people, even if they’re doing their own work. If we build great spaces for working near others, different levels of noise, different kinds of seating, all that other good stuff, and then have the vault for the times when you want absolute silence, offered as a service from us to them…
I think that might be interesting. I think it might work.
Just a thought experiment.
This is the staffed help point in the bra-fitting department of Bravissimo, Covent Garden. No keyboard, just a floating ipad fixed to the wall with an arm. They didn’t add it to replace a full computer terminal, though: it’s there to replace pen and paper. It’s interesting to see the digital world sliding into what have been purely analogue spaces. Without having to commit space to a keyboard and monitor, and not being required to install an ethernet port into the wall, businesses with an internet need but limited space can now add terminals like this one to help staff provide support to their patrons.
No pun intended.
This, versus the digital presence within the stacks at Senate House Library, University of London:
Feels a little…shoehorned in, doesn’t it. It’s the same terminal in front of the service desk a few floors down. A computer’s a computer’s a computer, right?
This is a staff station at Selfridge’s. Fairly classic: I think the thin drawer under the monitor is probably a keyboard tray. I think it’s interesting when you can see management has acknowledged that staff need access to a computer, but they don’t want patrons to be confronted with the back of a monitor. This isn’t meant to be shared or used to show a patron anything; it’s a reference point for staff.
This is a customer-facing terminal at John Lewis. It’s tucked away in a spot where staff help customers with returns or special orders, and I presume it’s an attempt to highlight their online services to these people. Like a library tends to do, they put a keyboard in front of a touchscreen. Nothing particularly innovative here, unlike:
“All the stuff you need to know!” a touchscreen-only information point on Oxford Street, London. It’s designed totem-style, outdoor street furniture to provide access to a screen and to the internet for random passersby. But this is Britain, a culture that has been mobile for a very long time. Most people passing this help point have phones. Which goes some way toward explaining this:
A phone booth that doubles as a wifi hotspot on the Hampstead high street. I find this one fascinating; it’s a morphing metaphor. This is in a city that still has a popular store called Carphone Warehouse, so it’s hardly a surprise that they’re using the telephone booth metaphor for a hotspot. It’s for connecting a mobile phone, so it really is a telephone booth. It’s very similar to the other access points, except that it’s relying on the pedestrian to have a device of their own. They’re providing half the experience, not all of it. There’s a sensitivity to context in this idea that I find especially inspiring.
How best to bring digital materials into the wide-open physical world is clearly still an open question.
This is Timberyard, a very successfully-designed café that’s a big hit with students and other independent workers in Shoreditch. What strikes me about the places that have hit the right note with students is that incredibly wide variety of different kinds of seating, different kinds of spaces, and a thoughtful variety of configurations that acknowledges that not only do different people have different preferences, but one person generally has a variety of different needs from a space depending on their current task, mood, or circumstances.
The front of the house at Timberyard contains a modular shared couch, old suitcases that act as coffee tables, and plenty of outlets. Enough outlets for everyone.
A sight I’ve become accustomed to: bar seating by the window. This kind of space is almost universally understood as individual, private space within a public space. I’ve started to notice that in libraries that don’t build spaces like this, patrons will drag a chair over to a window, face it against the window, and create it. I think this kind of seating might be the most accessible and least threatening to people entering a social space like this alone. Facing outward is a kind of message that indicates that a patron is not only not looking for a conversation, but is here on their own for a reason. Again: notice the easy access to power.
A second band of bar seating, facing the wall. It’s more space that’s comfortable and available for individuals coming in alone and intimidated by the big, shared couch. But there’s another interesting thing about this bar seating:
The café provides not only wifi, but ipads for the purpose or browsing the internet while drinking your coffee or having your lunch. I’ve never seen anything like this outside of a library. When I wander through our library and see how students are using our computers, a good percentage of the time I see keyboards shoved up under the monitor and a laptop or book sitting in its place. A fixed ipad like this probably isn’t a bad replacement for a catalogue terminal, when you think of it. It makes that table far more multifunctional. It’s very generous of them to provide them, really. I found three of them around the café, admittedly none of them in use.
We’ve got individual space, very much shared, common space with the couch, and also more traditional shared space for groups: three tables for four. These are small enough that they aren’t shared by strangers; these are for people who know each other, are working together, or have decided to come here together to share the space as a group.
From above, a hint of what lies below:
Downstairs, more kinds of space, all of which seems to be designed with students in mind:
Quirky, mismatched, soft seating, in a variety of different configurations! Here they’ve got armchairs you can use as an individual, or with a group. Full-sized tables that, as you can see at the back, encourages group work. This furniture can move, but it doesn’t appear to, especially. If you don’t like one configuration, this café has many more to choose from. That’s another form of flexibility, one that doesn’t require reconfigurable tables or casters.
These group spaces, filled with the noise of people talking, also includes spaces that patrons use for individual work. As we know, there are many people who don’t like to work in complete silence or solitude. Being alone in a group is more productive for them, and you can see the evidence of that in places like this.
As in most places I’ve seen, there’s also a communal table. Interestingly, in spite of all the other available spaces at Timberyard, these folks prefer to work independently together here, with ready access to power. Communal tables are tricky, and interesting: there are signals that tell patrons they can share the table, but I don’t think they’re as simple as the size of the table or the number of chairs. That factors in, certainly, but I think the affordances of the rest of the space contributes as well. If everything else is sharable in a space, a communal table will be more shareable, even if it’s thin or smaller. I wish there were a ready and easy science to this, but I’m not sure there is. I’m really fascinated by the communal table; it’s potential is so tantalizing. For me it is the definition of flexible. It can support group work, become an instant conference room, and be a place for individual work as well, all without shifting the layout at all. It can support high tech work and digital collaboration as well as work with paper and post-it notes. It’s simple, familiar, and comforting. But I think it’s also the layout most sensitive to the context of the room and the hardest to get right. I’ve seen communal tables on my travels that I suspect don’t work that well. This isn’t one of them.
Cafés in the UK are especially interesting because they don’t have much of a culture of throwing people out if they stick around too long. In that sense, they are closer to libraries than almost anything else. We also create spaces and encourage students to stick around. Because of that, I feel like we have an incredible opportunity to create really terrific spaces without worrying about turnover. I knew I wanted to look at cafés as part of this project, but I really didn’t expect the parallels to be so strong.
Finding out where students like to study, and visiting those places, is really fascinating. That’s been my project for the last few days.
This is a place called Ozone Coffee Roasters. It’s a combination coffee roasting place and café. This is a view of the lower level: as you can see, it’s pretty much all communal tables. There’s the long thin one on the left, and the wider tables against the walls.
Here’s some of the window seating upstairs. As you can see, pretty much every flat surface in this place is unstructured and communal. How this space gets used depends entirely on the people who sit down at it. It might be two people sitting together, or an individual sitting down with a computer. Unlike most bar seating up against windows, this table is really wide. It’s about as wide as the communal tables downstairs. Once I took one look at this space, I could understand why it was rated so highly as a study space. Students like to be able to spread out.
The bar. As you can see, this place has a culture of sitting down and digging into work. No one’s the slightest bit bothered that they’re looking into a busy working area rather than against a window.
I have to say, this place is loud. I imagine the students who come to work here really like that, because you’d have to. It’s a very trendy kind of industrial vibe, with lots of word. Very hip, loud, busy, and designed with serious coffee drinkers in mind.
Around the corner from Ozone is Salvation Jane, which is a way quieter, more chill kind of place. Much less polished, much less deliberately hip, but still funky and cool.
Here I think I saw some actual studying in action. Tables beyond, and the communal table in the foreground (where I’m having my soup and tea). This is a very slim communal table, and based on that I’m surprised it works. But it does.
Salvation Jane has an extended outdoor area as well. It’s covered, so students could sit out there if it were warm enough, in spite of any potential rain.
What I can’t help but notice in spaces like this is the old-timey kitchen table feel they have. It’s almost ubiquitous, the big farmhouse tables and classic chairs. It’s furniture picked for vibe rather than comfort, which is interesting. (Though: to be fair, they’re not uncomfortable.)
Walking between one place an another, I spotted another, modern take on this layout:
This is sort of fast food chipotle place. Nothing fancy, but walking past, I couldn’t help but notice the same themes, just less quirky-traditional style and materials. Here, like in Ozone, is a long, thin communal table.
Bar seating by the window, as is practically standard in nearly all libraries and cafés alike. And belowo that, something interesting: it’s a curved table. I didn’t get a good shot, but you can see the woman with the dark here and the light coat, with her back to us, in both pictures. The tables has a long straight end and a curved bit that goes into the restaurant.
Another interesting play on a communal table theme.
This is a popular communal table in Penarth, Wales (just outside of Cardiff). I thought the single bench along with the more moble chairs was an interesting touch.
What’s interesting in all this is that I bet they got the communal table meme from us:
This is a shared study table in a library on display in a museum. Antique shared tables: not that much has changed, really:
This is one of many reading rooms at the Senate House library, University of London. We were on this communal table thing from the beginning, weren’t we? And check out this periodical reading room:
Is it just me, or is this room going for “high brow living room”?
I’ve got more popular study joints to check out. The trends are already poking through, though: quirky, cosy, flexible (not necessarily on casters) space, free wifi, no pressure to finish your drink and get out, and, there’s no getting around this, food. Food is the unifying theme of all the places I’ve visited that students like. Though many of them buy one coffee and sit for hours. the proximity to food, the ability to get food and coffee easily should it become required, is a key factor here. Many libraries have a very firm distinction between a café and the library proper. I’m starting to seriously question the wisdom of that. And I’m not the only one:
The café at the Canada Water library is in pride of place: right as you walk in, at the base of the stairs, in the atrium with its ceiling all the way at the very top of the building. Either because of this design, or, as the librarian at the desk told me, a problem with the ventilation system, the entire library smells like coffee and baked goods. Which may or may not be a good thing, really. But still: the café is an integral part of the library experience here.
“Eat in or take away,” inside the library. How about that?
I’ve spoken about the Whitechapel Idea Store café before, because it’s spectacular. They put it at the top of the building, alongside a news-watching area and current popular periodicals.
Food and thinking go together, which might be why cafés are such popular and comfortable places for students to dig in and study. We’re taken a lot of ideas from them, and they’ve taken a lot of ideas from us.
The spaces people have the choice to inhabit are, I’m discovering, often the most interesting when it comes to innovative design. But there’s so much to choose from! It’s relatively easy to find popular libraries and see how they’re laid out. What I’ve been investigating lately are the places where people choose to work. Fortunately, because locations are rated, tagged, and reviewed on Google Maps (via Google Plus), I’m able to see which locations are considered the best places for studying and working.
Which brought me to two places: the first is Tinderbox.
Tinderbox is a coffee shop in Angel, Islington. Based on the reviews and the photos online, I really thought this place would be bigger than it is. But I think that’s part of its charm. From this view, mostly what you see is the typical split between the common table and smaller tables for two. But there are a few more really unique and interesting spaces in this place.
These two spaces tucked away along the side of the main room are, I think, what make Tinderbox a winner with students. Below, there are three roomy booths with a very low head height. It’s a seated head height, and not much more, though no one’s hunching in there and no one seemed uncomfortable. On the contrary, all these booths are taken (I thought I could sneak into that last booth, but no, it’s taken too.)
There’s something about a cozy space. I met a student here who told me they call Tinderbox the Nook Café, because of all the interesting little spaces in it. Given that it’s a warehouse conversion, that’s quite a feat. All the nooks in it are entirely retrofitted from an open space.
I’ve seen several takes on the low-head-height approach, mostly with furniture. Psychology isn’t my area, but the idea that we tend to find smaller spaces comforting and comfortable resonates with me. A friend of mine (Lucas Barber, Project Manager at UTM Library and all-round good guy) once told me that his father, who builds houses for a living, always builds small bedrooms with attached sitting/dressing rooms rather than gigantic master suites. He says we don’t tend to sleep well in big, open rooms. That idea has always stuck with me; small, cozy rooms feel safe and comforable, even when we think bigger is better. I’ve noted this as a bit of a trend in the most popular studying spaces, too. Ensconced up in the rafters, facing outwards, looking down, with a lower head height; spaces like that seems private, safe, comfortable, and quiet. Does it help students to concentrate? To feel comfortable? At home?
The people inside these booths definitely seemed to be in rooms of their own without being entirely cut off from the larger group. Maybe that’s part of the appeal; alone in a crowd, off to one side, sheltered. Alone together.
The second (of several) interesting spaces at Tinderbox is the mezzanine level above the booths.
The low buzz of the café crowd below, a view and streetscape, low ambient lighting but good direct light on the table in front of you, power for your computer, and coffee. This space genuinely couldn’t be better designed for the student crowd. Tinderbox also has free wifi, so it doesn’t take much to see why this place is so well-loved and well lived-in.
The view from the mezzanine, and the third interesting space: a set of old, worn, ratty airplane seats. I found this area really interesting, because it breaks the rules for creating seating for two. Generally you arrange to have people face each other. But the two new mothers sitting in these seats were quite comfortably and happily having a chat the entire time I was here. For all the self-conscious “conversation areas” I’ve seen in libraries and elsewhere, this might be one of the most successful. It’s quirky, interesting, and completely conductive to long conversations, particularly placed as it is by the window. It’s interesting that they didn’t try to put seating right up against that terrific windnow, but I guess this way the whole space shares it uninterrupted.
And on the otherside of Tinderbox’s front till:
I genuinely don’t know what they thought was going to happen here, but I’m fascinated. I’m not sure why you would put a cushion down on a place where, if you tried to lean back, you’d end up with a wooden corner digging into your spine. But I like the built-in table and the sheer uniqueness of this thing. It’s the opposite of the booths; wide open and tiered, visible to everyone walking in, perched above the crowd. I’ve seen steps in use as seating areas all over the place, so I can see the appeal of adding them as deliberate seating.
And in front of the cash and the pastry case, traditional bar seating, facing a small patio area. No power that I saw, just a simple wooden ledge-table and stools. Interestingly, as with many spaces like this, patrons feel free to strike up conversations, often with one person standing and another sitting. Personally, I really like seating like this in areas where patrons frequently need help and input from staff, because of the ease with which a standing person can interact with a seated patron. It looks and feels natural.
I think, as far as cafés go, the variety of spaces contained within Tinderbox is closer to a library than any I’ve ever seen. But its touches are more homey and quirky than libraries tend to be. It’s small, cozy, warm (lots of wood filling up what is essentially an industrial space), with low ambient lighting but good task lighting. Librarians tend to design things in orderly lines, with bright spaces we can easily peer into to ensure that the right kinds of activity are going on. We design spaces that are less quirky and more efficient. I understand why students choose to work at Tinderbox; it covers all the bases. It’s homey and comfortable without being a junky living room. It’s an interesting mix of shared spaces, any of which can turn into collaborative ones.
Another place I got a look at today is a co-working space down the street from Tinderbox called The Hub Islington.
I didn’t take this picture. I was there, but I didn’t want to bother the full house working there at the time, so I’ve borrowed this one. The Hub is a co-working space on the top floor of an old warehouse in Angel. It’s designed by and for freelancers who want an office to go to rather than sitting at home all the time. They apply and pay a fee to work here. If we want to learn anything about deliberate choices of the best working spaces, co-working collectives might be the best place to turn. Not only because the people who use them tend to be innovative and design-oriented, but also because these are road-tested, and people vote not only with their feet, but with their membership fees.
The Hub Islington co-workers hotdesk. Hotdesking means that no one has a permanent desk; you choose the kind of spot you need when you need it and set up there. Therefore the Hub includes a variety of different kinds of spaces for the co-workers to shift between. The petal-like desks and chairs on casters allow each person to set up laptops as they like and need. Without monitors on the desks, they can pick how much open desk space they want at any give time. It also means they can deliberately work with someone else close by, or more independently. I like the way they have connected pieces as well as independent pieces; it makes “zones” out of thin air, and stops the place from being a hive of cubicles.
The Hub Islington includes a “library” (a nook in the left corner, by the windows, with two walls covered in books and cushioned benches. Because the library is a bit obscured, I think this space might fill the gap for those who want to work in a public place with a bit more privacy. Maybe for intensive thinking, or other kinds of private, quiet time. The Hub also includes a kitchen, and a dining booth area, presumably for having lunch as well as for impromptu brainstorming.
There’s a running thread in these chosen spaces of “home” metaphors. But it’s not like taking someone’s house and making it a public space; it’s not like an Ikea show room. It’s home with a significant professional twist. In fact, I’m starting to think that “home” isn’t the right metaphor, given how far afield these spaces get. People generally don’t have spaces like this in their home. The idea of a couch, a kitchen table, the ability to shift from one kind of space to another, that’s some of the home-ness of it. But the layout and structure itself is far from “living room” or “dining room”. The idea of “home” imparts the idea of different kinds of comfortable space, but it’s more formal than home. It’s just a more thoughtful office space, really.
Co-working spaces traditionally contain a conference room as well, like any other worksplace, as this one is no different:
These are two spaces that have been deliberately chosen by those doing individual work. The first was designed by business owners developing a commercial enterprise; the second, by co-workers themselves, originally drawn on the floorboards in chalk. Both are an interesting mix of comfort, connection to other people, ability to share with close collaborators or friends, and a strong thread of individual space.
So these are the kinds of spaces that people chose for themselves: no individual offices, and no permanent stations, no complete privacy. There’s a connection to other people there, always, even if you’re not speaking to those people, or know them at all. They aren’t silent spaces, but they’re not excessively loud, either. They both have a buzz of work going on, in and around the casual talk. They are both flexible spaces, not because the furniture necessarily shifts around a lot, but because it supports a wide range of different kinds of activities, individual and collective, and the ethos of the space embraces the idea that different moods, tasks, or projects need different kinds of configurations, different furniture, and different affordances. In both, you’re not stuck in one kind of chair looking at one kind of view for all the work you do. You get to choose.
There is a monumental shift going on in computing. It’s a technical change, a software change, and most importantly, a change in the way we think about and approach a computing device. This change has to do with what a computer is.
We’re familiar with the more radical end of this change as the smart phone revolution. It used to be we had two very distinct devices: a computer (which sat on a desk, had a screen and a keyboard, and required us to bring a chair up to it so we could rest our fingers against the keys) and a phone (which could be attached to the wall, sit on a table, or, eventually, fit into our pockets, has small keys, or, increasingly, software-only keys). The rapid merging of these two devices has left us with some very confused metaphors for computing. As librarians, we’re not entirely sure anymore how to signal to a patron that we have set aside a device for their use. We set up computing so that patrons can use them, but we struggle to break free from the workstation metaphor, even when it would behoove us to do so.
A catalogue-browsing station at the Idea Store Whitechapel. The attempt is clearly there to get rid of the workstation and move into a more flexible approach to bringing digital search and information into the physical world, but of course you still need a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor, right? (Horseless carriage, anyone?)
Not to point fingers only at the Idea Store. This is tough, a lot of people are struggling with it. This is a tough one. But this terminal is just a stand up desk, really. You can’t put your stuff down on a table, and you can get stuck in for the afternoon of checking your email and writing an essay. It’s not comfortable enough to be a workstation. It says, “You, patron, may use this computer to do simple things, like looking something up.” Patron in that case is most definitely singular.
Here’s the not-especially-innovative interactive stations outside the Barbican library. Here we haven’t even moved away from the idea that you have to sit down to interact with digital media. At least they’ve got those steampunk keyboards with the included mouse to avoid all the extra wires. Rollerball for the win!
Once again, the layout is telling us how many people should be using these stations; one person per. If you were to bring the second chair over to look at something with a friend, you’d be depriving someone else of the use of a machine. Without intending to, we shout out our belief that computers are single-person items.
Everybody really likes the idea of bringing digital information into an experience; there’s just so much of it, and there’s no way any space, library, museum, or otherwise, can have any hope at all of bringing all or even most of it to its patrons without using screens. But very often you can see innovative spaces, like the Victoria & Albert Museum here, resorting to screens and chairs, in keeping with ye olde workstation metaphor. Is this the best way to bring digital information to patrons? It’s certainly the easiest. And the simplest for the patron to understand.
And not to say that these stations aren’t interesting and thoughtful; a lot of them are. These are the Crossrail information terminals at the Idea Store Whitechapel. As profiles go, these are pretty slim. For a workstation that’s been straightened out so you can approach them while standing as use them, yeah, they’re great. But this metaphor is wearing very, very thin. One person per screen, please. We started out that way in computing, and we keep reproducing it.
This is a really nice monitor/keyboard/rollerball mouse set up at the Central Library in Cardiff. That’s my friend Imogen; she went straight for the keyboard, because it was there, so she assumed it was required to use the machine. That’s a touch screen, though, as I showed her. (I can tell it is: of course it is! It’s high tech! This is a standing totem terminal, of course it’s a touch screen!) Because the affordances of the set up return the patron back to the workstation metaphor, all the interesting affordances of the touch screen go flying out the window.
The touchscreen, which replaces the keyboard and the mouse pretty effectively, is not a new technology anymore, and a lot of libraries (and museums, and all kinds of other spaces) have them. But libraries may be the last ones holding on so strongly to the keyboard. I understand why we do it; it’s true that you have a lot more scope with a keyboard. You can short-circuit whatever the designer thought you were going to do at this terminal with a keyboard and do what you need to do. It’s flexible. It makes that terminal ready for anything, and we really like to be ready for anything. We hate restricting what a patron can do. But unfortunately that flexibility puts the device, and by extention the patron, in a very tight metaphorical box. In trying to make sure a patron can do anything they want, we often don’t use contextual and layout clues help them do the thing they’re probably there to do.
Here in the National Portrait Gallery they’ve got images, objects, and digital information all threaded together. The digital information is relevant and interactive, though interactive in a very limited way. But it’s not pulled out and stripped of its context, which is key. It’s the [read more] of the museum world, attached to the exhibit without overwhelming it. The patron has navigated to this piece of information not through clicking through a web page, but by physically moving through the building. Because of the physical location of the patron, we can make all kinds of assumptions about what information they want or need. It’s those few steps before search that they’re tying into here; anticipating information needs and incorporating them into the space itself. That device on the Henry VIII portrait isn’t as flexible as the terminals with keyboards above, which can do absolutely anything, but it’s more targeted, specific, and in that moment, useful. It’s not expecting the patron to do any work at all. There’s no keywords, because the patron has indicated the keywords by moving to this point of the museum.
This is a fully interactive totem terminal at the Barbican, designed specifically to gather feedback from users. There’s no question that that screen is a touchscreen (obviously). No keyboard, you’ll notice. No mouse. (You don’t need a mouse with a touchscreen, because your finger is the cursor.) It’s not a computer you can hijack to check your email or jump into a search engine. It has one purpose, and it does that one purpose well. As computing has become cheaper and cheaper over the years, we’ve had more opportunities to include computing with limited purposes like this one. I think we often fail to notice that computing has become cheaper, and thus our relationship to it can now change. When a computer cost you five thousand dollars at minimum, it made sense that you wanted it to be as flexible as possible.
But that might not but the problem; lots of libraries have catalogue-only computers. We tend to make them stand up terminals to express this, and lock the software so that only that one activity is possible. We get the idea of the single use computer, we just haven’t made the jump to creating things like this:
I found this Jobpoint terminal at the St. Pancras Library in Islington. It’s a small library attached to a branch of the borough council, which offers a range of services to residents, from issuing parking permits to housing benefits. The jobpoint is, as the name suggests, an interface to view job postings. Public libraries are frequently the centre of support for job seekers, but I haven’t seen such a sophisticated job searching terminal before. No keyboard, no mouse, but there is a small printer.
This is a terminal that’s sensitive to its context; job seekers can print out the details they need of a job that interests them. This terminal brings the riches of one particular database to its userbase, and one which, in this case in particular, isn’t well-known for being especially computer-savvy. Now that I’ve seen this one, I’m surprised that catalogue terminals in libraries don’t look more like this. The needs are strikingly similar. Minus the workstation metaphors, you can see how much easier it would be to provide support to someone using a terminal like this. It’s design doesn’t tell you how many people can use it at once the way a keyboard and a mouse do. It doesn’t invoke a private, personal computer. Anyone walking up to it knows it’s not somewhere they can sit down and read a book, or work on their essay, or send some email. It’s computing, but it’s not a computer the same way catalogue terminals often are.
I keep looking for the holy grails of collaborative-friendly computing spaces, and they are few and far between. I know they exist, I’ve only just started my explorations, but even seeing attempts has been helpful to framing what it is we’re doing, and how we might consider creating different kinds of spaces and interfaces.
I visited another high-tech place this week, which looked like this:
This is my very favourite bit of fully collaborative digital space: it’s the interactive exhibits at the Museum of London.
Simple, eh? Not much to it, really. It’s only a white table. Just a white table, with all the digital content projected from the ceiling. It’s really fascinating to watch people interact with it. Because they don’t behave towards it they way people tend to when they’re working with a computer. Here’s a woman with her young daughter experimenting with it.
Good collaborative design just works. It doesn’t require anyone to think too hard about the fact that there are two people giving input to a computer. It’s open, inviting, and no one feels odd about someone else joining them in the experience, very much unlike a workstation situation. There’s no over-the-shoulder issues here. It’s comfortable to work with as a group.
If you listen, you’ll notice that every time the system recognizes someone’s touched the controls, it makes a sound. They all do this, very subtly, but it really gives the systems a sense that they are physical rather than only digital. They are only digital. It just doesn’t feel like it.
The Museum of London constructed their interactive exhibits very, very carefully. They are extremely thoughtful and fit fluidly into the displays.
The tables displaying materials are clearly designed to also incorporate a space for digital material to be projected from above. Interestingly, the staff are under the impression that the table is touch sensitive, but it’s actually not. (I tested it!) It’s all being controlled by the projector; it can tell where your fingers are. It’s no ipad, but it’s pretty close in terms of responsiveness.
This bit of projection is on a much smaller table, and it’s a bit of a wedge shape. The projection and the design of the content is made to fit. There are physical objects on one side, and digital material right next to it. No screen, no keyboard, just simple, digital content I can flip through without reading instructions. This is genuinely doesn’t feel like working with digital content.
I really love these. The pieces of it are really fairly simple; it’s the design of the tables, installing the projector and the computer in the ceiling, and, of course the coding of the material. I keep thinking, we have content management systems like Drupal that will let us manage website content; it’s a short step to having a content management system for spaces like this. Imagine a space like this for a reference desk, rather than another bloody workstation. You could plug in a keyboard if you really had to.
Projection isn’t the future of touch screens. LCD screens are tons better for clarify and crispness, and even for responsiveness, in the end. But projection lets you do the interesting shapes and massive sizes on the cheap.
This is a video playing on a huge patch on a table. That’s simple and cheap to do with projection. It would be crazy expensive to do with an LCD screen right now. This way, they can easily adjust the size and location of the projection within the museum for practically nothing. An LCD screen, while a better piece of technology, simply isn’t that flexible. It’s also harder on the eyes, truth be told. A projection is a fairly gentle kind of light. As long as the video doesn’t require HD or too many fine details, a basic projection will work just fine.
And an LCD screen is just not going to let you make a round interactive space. This is a simulated fountain, where, from all points of the table, you can touch the various fish to get more information. It works from every side, which means you can have multiple people interacting with it at once. And no one here considers the fact that they’re interacting with a computer. No one even looks up to see it up there.
I really love the work the Museum of London has put into these really innovative computing spaces. They’re demonstrating something really valuable and important here. If you want people to feel comfortable walking up to a display of digital information with no preconceptions about how they’re meant to use the space, you have to break the rules and create something that doesn’t look like a workstation. Workstations don’t fire the imagination, and they aren’t especially approachable. They dictate the kind of work that can be done at them.
I know it’s not comfortable to do any lengthy computing while staring down at a table. This is why I’m not convinced the tables formerly known as Surface (now called PixelSense) are as functional as they should be. But I think, if we want people to be able to, say, search through digital materials with the aid of someone else, or with a group of classmates, we need to break down some barriers to make it easier and more natural. The examples at the Museum of London are spectacular.