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Research Project Report

Research Project Report

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.
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Dark Horse: Apex Networking Space

Dark Horse: Apex Networking Space

photo_1Dark 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.

Digital Materials in Physical Spaces

Digital Materials in Physical Spaces

2013-11-26 14.19.13

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.

2014-01-17 15.43.06This 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.2014-01-04 14.55.45

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.

2013-12-04 13.52.24This 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.


The Spaces People Choose

The Spaces People Choose

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 Espresso CafeTinderbox 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.

2013-11-19 15.27.27These 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.

2013-11-19 15.59.08The 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.

2013-11-19 15.59.49The 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:

2013-11-19 16.00.28I 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.

2013-11-19 16.00.38And 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.

HUB-IslingtonI 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.

The Hub IslingtonAs you can see, you sort of clamber into it, with your feet dangling. Or you can cozy up alongside the table, feet out, with cushions against the wall, and get some work done on a laptop.

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:

french-course-london-hub-islingtonIt’s a dining room metaphor. This is a space you use when you’re deliberately in meeting mode. This space has a door on it that can be closed, unlike any other part of the space.

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.

Interactive Computing

Interactive Computing

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.

2013-10-24 11.12.34A 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.

2013-11-08 13.21.13Here’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.

2013-11-05 13.58.52Everybody 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.

2013-10-24 11.29.07And 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.

2013-11-13 15.16.26This 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.

2013-11-05 14.01.44Here 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.

2013-11-08 13.43.01This 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:

2013-11-15 14.26.15I 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:

2013-11-13 11.31.44-1As we know, the TARDIS can be operated by a single person. It’s a Gallifreyan workstation, as it were. But we know it works better with a crowd.

Tiny Stations and Communal Tables: Individual Space in Public

Tiny Stations and Communal Tables: Individual Space in Public


We are creatures who like privacy and autonomy. We like to have bounded space when we sit down to do individual work, demonstrating the clear line between what’s mine to use and what’s yours to use. We appreciate not having to fight someone’s elbows or stage our things elaborately to maintain a respectful distance. Successful space planning accounts for this, and carves out spaces that are at least hinting that, while seated at them, you can pretend that you’re alone and not sharing space.

Do we hate sharing space?

Maybe it’s just that the rules are clearer with spaces like the one pictured above. It’s small, yes, and it’s not the most comfortable, but it has everything you need: a place to put your backside down, a flat surface to rest your elbows, computer, or book, power, and, nicely, a view. It’s facing away from other people, from the traffic directly behind you. Once seated, you assume the don’t bother me stance.

This space is in the Library Store Whitechapel (which is, let me underscore once again, amazing). It’s one of many like it, and this was the only one I could find that wasn’t occupied. The rules of this seat are fairly obvious: it’s empty, take it. You don’t need to answer to anyone. Do as you will. I must say, coming from Canada, I was really surprised to see such a tiny space. It really goes to show how lucky we are when it comes to space; the US study space standard seems much bigger to me, but this is what patrons in London are happy to find.

While it seems obvious to anyone that human beings tend to prefer individual spaces to shared ones, I think the story is quite a bit more complicated than that; as a culture, I think we actually love shared space, as long as it’s well-designed and accounts for our needs. How else to explain why some spaces (like libraries) are often packed, but computer labs nearby are empty? If no one’s in them already, no one wants to be in them. at the UTM library, we have students sitting on the floor in the library, together, while computer labs in the building next door sit open and entirely empty. People tend to like to be where other people are, but like to maintain their own sense of space and autonomy while there. That’s the fine line we need to walk when considering spaces for people.

2013-10-24 13.39.45

This is a study area in the Canada Water library. There are, I think, some fatal flaws in the design of this library, but you can see all the attempts to make it more user-centered and thoughtful. These study spaces are one of those thoughtful pieces, even though there are some critical problems with it.

The study spaces are simply a long ledge built into the wall along the very top level of the building, looking over the collection. Again, the posture you assume seated at this study area is don’t bother me. You’re facing out, not inward toward your neighbours or toward anyone coming up the stairs. You are looking outward, there is a sort of visa in front of you, and you are winged on each side by spaces doing the same thing. I really like this approach. I think it tells you that it’s a silent study area without you having to articulate it in words.

What’s also interesting about this study space is the absolute lack of barriers between one study area and another. I’m not sure what to think of that, but I could see, walking through this area (it was very hard to find a place to get a shot of it, because it was packed) that everyone respects that tiny strip of wood that marks the line between your space and my space. Barriers would make the space uglier, and I’m not sure whether or not patrons would appreciate them or not. Those might be one of those things we feel like people want, but maybe they don’t. The patrons who use this space will use it for shorter spans of time than, say, a staff member seated at her desk day in and day out. The privacy needs here might be lessened because of that. It might be that all you need is to designate the line so that no one fights for space. As I said, this area was very popular.

It’s fatally flawed, though, because the area below, quite bizarrely, contains the children’s library. So they have children’s programs going on underneath the noses of a bunch of students doing their homework. Not ideal. But I think study areas like this overlooking collection spaces could work really, really well in areas where that collection space is not a noisy location.

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This is a really difficult library to photograph, but as you can see here, the band of wall above hides the study space that ring the whole floor, all facing outward, and there’s low collection and tables below. I suspect if it weren’t for the children’s area, this set up would work well. I love how tucked away they are. It seems like the perfect teen homework zone; it’s a cozy nook at the top of the library, it’s got a view peering down at the rest of the world going about their business, keeping it from being lonely and depressing. There’s power outlets, and at the first floor, at the centre of this library, a full cafe, the smell of which drifts up to the top floor. (That seems like a mistake and possibly a problem with the A/C, but when it’s cookies and coffee, it’s kind of an interesting design choice, really.) Teens and cats; both apparently fans of hidden, high places with a view.

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Another, less successful teen study area. I say less successful mostly because I was able to take a photo of it. (I try not to get patrons into photos as much as I can, though I am always taking these pictures with the permission and full awareness of the library staff.) This  space is in the new Idea Store Watney Market in Shadwell, which is a short walk from the Whitechapel branch. This branch is nowhere near as busy as the Whitechapel Idea Store, but there were a few teens here when I visited. But they were seated in computer area to the right of this area, which looks down into the beautiful glassed-in stairwell, using individual work spaces as communal ones. This area is lovely, with really nice chairs, but the table is too narrow, the space you can take up too undefined, and you’re face is practically pushing up against nothing but wall. You still get the sense that this is individual space rather than collaborative space, but I’d imagine this is the last space that will get claimed. It’s just too difficult to use. Small can work, but it has to be the right kind of small.

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Individual computing, Canada Water library. I’m genuinely conflicted about this. It’s a good use of space, and clearly in use. I like the barrier-free look, but is it comfortable when someone is sitting directly across from you, and you run the constant risk of staring meaningfully into a stranger’s eyes?


Individual computing, Idea Store Whitechapel. No chance of an accidental staring contest here. Sorry it’s so dark; it was a beautiful, bright day. As you can see, once again, it’s a small space you get to claim, by North American standards. There isn’t a lot of room to spread out. But, thoughtfully, these are spaces for spreading out. These are spaces for sitting in front of a computer, not for laying out an outline or working with books. I appreciate the varied approaches to respecting that difference in that activity. Not all spaces need to conform to all needs. Also, thoughtfully, this is a space that looks outward, underscoring the individual nature of the work they expect will go on here. I’d worry about glare, but to be fair, this isn’t the sunniest country in the world. I say that with affection.

What I remain deeply interested in is the other ways to create individual spaces, the more challenging ways. I genuinely don’t know if this will work, but history says it has worked in the past, and there seems to be a kind of pendulum-swing in attempts to bring it back. The communal table.


Most shared tables look like this one at the Idea Store Whitechapel. Notice there’s suddenly a lot more room per person; when you’re sitting at a table, you need to designate more room to make people feel more comfortable sitting there on their own doing their own work. This still isn’t a collaborative table; the chairs are too far apart. Notice the only patron in this area chose the narrower table that’s looking out, more easily self-defined.

We used to get a look of mileage out of reading rooms. In my own experience at UTM, reading rooms can quickly turn into cafeterias, shouting, pizzas and all. Is there still a place for these kinds of shared tables?

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This is an advertised Communal Table in a bakery/café in Hampstead, just down the road from my flat. It’s never for one party, it’s always for individuals or pairs who end up sharing a table like a family. The staff facilitate this by seating you there, which takes away some of the awkwardness. It’s not designed for small groups, though; it’s designed to get strangers to interact with each other, if they’re willing to. Or not; sit and have your coffee, read a book. But you’re part of a greater whole when you sit here with others. You’re part of a community.

Because of the wide variety of activities that take place in a library, libraries need to contain a wide variety of kinds of space. Individual work space that shows in its design that it’s for individuals studying is critical; but keeping it somehow connected with the life of the space going on around it seems key. Large shared space seems to be coming back, perhaps in part because it’s more flexible. These shared tables can work for individual study, or for collaborative groups of all kinds, depending on need. I’m looking forward to seeing more spaces that fit into this spectrum.

Online Interaction In Situ

Online Interaction In Situ

I’d heard that Marks and Spencer had some interesting computing set ups in some stores, so I was keeping my eyes open for them I finally stumbled across one yesterday.

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It’s quite something. It’s three stations; one, a proper workstation, very slightly reconstructed to function as a pubic terminal (in the middle, with the attached keyboard), and two computers set up to look like giant iphones. Giant iphones on which you can a) scan through everything you can buy from M&S, which is a lot, b) scan the barcode of a product you have in hand at the store, and b) order products and pay for them on the device using your credit card.

What M&S is doing here is pretty analogous to what we do with computing in libraries; there is a collection all around you, but you can access it digitally as well. And, with the barcode reader, the two can interact.These are custom computing devices to help branch the physical and the digital world, and nicely-thought out ones at that. When I first saw it, I wondered if they were trying to highlight the fact that you don’t actually need to come into the store, you can order everything you want online and have it delivered, but I think it’s more than that. It’s offering a new dimension of service to people who are physically in the building.

I haven’t yet seen libraries branch into shifting the metaphor from sitting down at a workstation to an app-like experience like you see here. It might be too early for the general population, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t try, and why it wouldn’t work. Look at the difference between the set ups; the keyboard and mouse seem so clunky next to the slick faux-iphone. I flipped through the options a bit on the touch screen while I was there, and it was very much like scanning through a paper catalogue. It’s a jump ahead in that it’s bringing the digital version of the shop into the physical shop, but it’s also a return to the paper catalogue, just in digital form, with the ability to order without looking away from it. That seems really accessible to me.

I’m always interested in how well-considered technology like this works on the ground, and unfortunately I didn’t manage to witness anyone trying to use these. (I might have to go back and watch.) What’s really nice about them is how really approachable they are; it would certainly be easier to use the touch device with a friend or a staff member than the keyboard and mouse set up. It’s lower, it’s pointing up at you, it’s got smooth, broad edges so that people can gather around it. The screen is bigger. The software is clear, simple, and beautiful. It’s not the same thing as a regular computer. It barely feels like a computer at all, in the same way that a phone is a phone in our minds, not a computer. Would something like this have a place in a library?

We’d have to consider what it’s for. Because it’s not a generic computer that a patron could use for whatever they like, the purpose and use has to be crystal clear. Is it for browsing the collection? Is that a short-term activity, or a longer-term one? These computers are set up primarily for people who know what they’re looking for and want to find/order it. They even appear to be for people who have an item in hand and want to order a variation of it. It’s a very specific need that’s filled here. (You could browse the whole collection here as well, conceivably, but isn’t that better done at home sitting on the couch?) Libraries definitely have their specific-need patrons as well; reserve materials, textbooks, looking for a specific book or article. Is something like this helpful? We certainly have a lot of computers in libraries. The way these ones are set up, they don’t let people convert them into email-checking machines. They’re single-purpose; browsing and ordering from the collection. That’s all.

Though, when you think about it: it would be interesting if a device in a library could be a springboard off of I want something like this. Scan a LC call number or a barcode and see everything in that narrow band for browsing. That might be a way to help incorporate our digital materials into a physical space.  Physical books would then act as placeholders, the beginning of a journey into the physical and the digital at once. A reference collection could even double as the show collection, really (since it’s a miniature version). Patrons could bring their own books in, too. Or you could type in a title, I suppose, as you can do at these M&S terminals. It’s like a variation on a search term, like searching via photograph. Search via book metadata, without ever really knowing what that metadata is. I want more like this. That’s sort of interesting.

It’s a cross-over between what can physically sit in a building and what’s available. I found this set up in M&S next to the underpants section. If you found a pair of underpants or a bra you liked but wasn’t in your size, you could order what you wanted directly from the computers here. It’s hard to say where that’s heading, really. Will people go for that? Will they eventually discover that they can do without the physical analogue as a starting point? (It seems, largely, that that’s what’s happening: online shopping statistics seem to go up and up and up every year.) What’s the future of shops like this? At the moment, this department store is still pretty crowded, and these digital ports were untouched while I was there. I’m not entirely sure it’s found it’s niche in this case. But I didn’t get to see it in use with a member of the staff. It might be that they walk customers through this when they have their heart set on something that isn’t in stock.

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These two kinds of computing stations is, it seems to me, a physical manifestation of where we are at the moment when it comes to computing; the keyboard and mouse are slowly being replaced by something slicker, but not everyone’s entirely ready for it. In fact, most people aren’t; look at the signage over the standard monitor.  It looks as if they put the fancy iphone-like devices in, but people kept drifting toward the keyboard and mouse instead. So they had to highlight that you can get the same content from the computers on either side as well! When the first laptop came out without a floppy drive, it hurt, because floppy drives were still in use. But eventually no computer had one anymore. This feels like one of those moments. The keyboard-and-mouse metaphor, which is frankly quite difficult to understand since both are proxies (press a button to create a letter that builds words, move an object to move a arrow that stands in your finger), is so comfortable and familiar to us that we often prefer it even though it’s far more primitive. But I suspect that will ease off as we fall more and more in love with our smartphones. I think dressing that touchscreen up as a smartphone was a good idea, as it helps replace that keyboard metaphor with something equally ground into our consciousness.

I think commercial experiments like this have a lot of teach us in libraries. I’m going to keep my eyes open for more of these.

Help Desks

Help Desks

I was going to call this “reference desks,” but enough of the libraries I’ve visited have disposed of the phrase, and I don’t want to re-apply it. This is a key element of any library space, in my mind, and is something widely and diversely interpreted. There is the back and forth between being big and obvious (in terms of furniture) and being as unobtrusive as possible.

photo 2Look at this one! This is a “branch” help desk on an upper floor of the five-storey Idea Store Whitechapel. It closes up when not staffed. The Idea Stores can afford to have smaller furniture for staffed points for one big reason: the staff wear a uniform. As you can see, this staff member (who was so friendly and helpful, as well as very well-informed about the history of mission of Idea Stores generally, and articulate about it, which indicates lots of good strategic communication with staff from the leadership) is wearing a branded sweatshirt and a name tag. I didn’t question whether he was an employee on sight, regardless of the temporary look of this help point.

The Idea Stores really have it in for anything that smacks of a reference desk. In the children’s library in the Whitechapel branch, which has the collection on casters, this is what staff have as computing infrastructure:


In case it’s not clear, this is a computer in a lockable closet. I’ve seen this kind of thing as the “instant office” plugged by places like Ikea for better uses of limited space, but I’ve never seen one in a library before. As it turns out, these closet staff computing stations exist on all floors of the library. I saw another, closed, up on the top floor near the cafe as well. I presume the idea is that you pull it open when the need arises, but leave it shut otherwise.

Here’s the desk in the children’s library in the Idea Store at Watney Market:

IMG_0500It’s more of a desk than they have a Whitechapel, but not by much. The staff at this branch (also extremely helpful) might have thought I was visiting specifically to check out this particular desk, had lots of feedback for me about it. It didn’t have enough storage, for one.

“Storage for what?” I asked her.

“Paper. Membership forms. Just stuff!”

All of this is very telling to me about what we think a desk like this is for. 

IMG_0491This is a recently-qualified librarian perched on the stool at her help point in the “Surfing Space” at Watney Market Idea Store. They are, as you can see, small workstations that don’t encourage the staff to sit and scroll through the internet when bored. They aren’t designed for comfort. They are, in essence, quick look-up stations, for 5-10 minutes of computing at a time, not office areas with lots of desk space to spread out. Nor are they collaborative in any way. They are tools to help staff interact with the things staff have access to, in order to help patrons. The presumption of these spaces is that the real value in the interaction is going to happen between two people, with no real support from computing.

2013-10-24 13.41.21Okay, this isn’t a great picture to illustrate my point. This is from the Canada Water library, which I will talk about in more depth later. You may not actually see their reference desk in this picture, but it’s down the first set of stairs, and on the other side of the second set. See it? Same wood as everything else. It’s a big, round, traditional reference desk. However, in a epic attempt to have your cow patty and eat it too, the policy at this library is for staff not to stand behind the desk. I understand the impulse: the furniture is there, it can be useful visually, but you don’t really want staff to stand behind it picking their noses and waiting for someone to need them. It’s a waste of resources and doesn’t look very good to the patrons. But if the staff aren’t behind it, the signal that this is the place where you can get help is kind of muted by it being unstaffed. Or staffed by someone who is hidden somewhere in the stacks or by the windows.

As a profession, we have not solved the issue of computing, help, and desks. We have lots of ideas, and we know what’s wrong, but we’re not sure yet how to fix it. We’re at this very interesting juncture between recognizing the problem and finding the best solution, so there are an unlimited number of solutions in action, for better or for worse.

All of the help points that I saw presume that technology is something the staff can use to help them answer questions, but is not critical to the enterprise. These are public libraries; that might have something to do with it (but I doubt it). There is no sense in these spaces that help involves working together with computing. The furniture doesn’t allow it.

Perhaps that’s not what they want. It’s easy for me to stand back and say, “I couldn’t do good work with this space.” Though that’s true: I would struggle to do good work in these spaces, because the kinds of questions I need to answer don’t involve a standing person coming up to me to ask a question I can answer without them sitting down with me, opening up their own computer or taking control of one of mine, and walking through a process together. We’re at odds with how to integrate computing comfortably, without alienating patrons, setting up de facto workstations where staff ignore patrons (or seem to be), or play solitaire all day. It’s a challenge, and our metaphors have largely failed us.

Home Away from Home: Idea Store Whitechapel

Home Away from Home: Idea Store Whitechapel

The first step with any kind of space, any kind of application, service, or idea, has to be its core metaphor. We often don’t consider this, but everything has a metaphor, and that metaphor is what tells the user or patrons what that space, application, or service can do for them. A good metaphor helps people see the affordances of a thing so they can use it more naturally without having to dig for an instruction manual. My classic example of a watertight metaphor is email. If we called it server messages, that wouldn’t help anyone understand what they could do with it, but once you call it email, the metaphor does a lot of the explanatory work for us. You receive it email, send it, store it, throw it away. You get packages, you unwrap them. A tight metaphor can make the difference between an idea that soars and an idea that absolutely fails to catch on.

Libraries come with their own ready-made metaphor; libraries are a metaphor. Other systems and services use the concept of a library to explain the idea that key resources are stored in a place they can access. An image library stores imagines in a browsable format, a seed library stores a wide variety of seeds and makes them available, that sort of thing. That metaphor is useful in many ways, but it also limits what we can do as libraries. People come into a library with many, many preconceived notions. But if you want to reinvent yourself, you have to either stretch the existing metaphor (tricky and often limiting) or create/borrow a new one.


One of the metaphors that higher ed designers have been reaching for of late is “home.” What if the library is your home away from home? What if we designed spaces that looked more like your living room or your dining room? I’ve heard lots of arguments countering this direction, all of them perfectly fair. (Do we really want undergraduate students treating our library the way they treat their own living rooms? Probably not. Does it benefit the library to have a certain level or formality, even if it’s only a little bit of formality? Probably so.) That said, I still find this idea intriguing. My colleague Lauren Di Monte and I have discussed this many times; what if we could have a space to work in that was designed more like a home than like an office? It’s all the rage with high tech companies like Google and Airbnb. The advantages of it for us, as employees, seem obvious: a comfortable chat around a dining room table is more pleasant and relaxed than a conference room. Who doesn’t love working in a sunny kitchen? There’s no single desk in places like that, you pick up and move based on your needs. What if you hunker down and get work done in a place that looks like a living room instead of in a cubicle? Those kinds of spaces, it seems to me, lend themselves better to facilitating real collaboration. It doesn’t let you dig into your space and never come out. It forces you to tailor your location to your need.


The Idea Stores of Tower Hamlets, London, have taken this concept more to heart than any library I’ve ever seen. And to be clear: Idea Stores aren’t just libraries. They are libraries, they are definitely libraries, but they also offer courses and provide space for civic information needs and rentable interview rooms for local businesses, among other things. Idea Stores are what happen when you take a library, shake it out, and reconstruct it based on patron needs rather than tradition.

The metaphor you’d expect (as a North American) is retail, given the name. It’s an Idea Store, do you buy ideas there? Seems logical to my Canadian brain. But this is the UK, and they call their stores shops here. So it’s not an Idea Shop, it’s a Store of Ideas. A variation on the idea of “Library”, without all the connotations people bring to that word. Names and metaphors are cultural and specific, obviously. Idea Store Whitechapel went with a home metaphor. They want their patrons to feel at home there.

I really like this approach, for one giant reason: the longer I’ve been in librarianship, the more I’ve become aware of the fact that the #1 enemy of learning is fear. Everyone’s afraid. They’re afraid of failure, of looking stupid, their afraid of technology. This is the way we live our lives, it seems: battling fear. If you decide that your key goal in relation to your patrons is to first address fear, you can, in my experience, watch them go much further if you ignore their fear and consider them information-needy instead. Entirely different approach! I think the “home” metaphor, with all it’s dangers, is another way to address that core fear. If a place feels homey, that’s one step closer to opening patrons up to new ideas.


Idea Store Whitechapel is at once a little industrial in feel and also very approachably homey. The lighting is lower and dimmer, and the furniture is the same sort of thing you’d buy for your house. But it’s got an industrial-style flooring and exposed wooden beams. It’s not a perfect “home” replica, but the hints are there that it’s not your average library.

They stopped using library lingo. They actually stopped! They have no “Reference Desk,” but they have staffed spaces on every floor. The spaces vary, though: sometimes they look a bit like a traditional desk, but sometimes they’re just an opened out cabinet (more on that in another post). They don’t have “computer labs”, they have very well-used Surfing Spaces. (Bit dated, but I can appreciate their attempt to avoid ye olde library terminology.)  There are call numbers, but you can easily browse using the labels on the low shelves, like you would in a bookstore. I didn’t see the word “Circulation desk” anywhere. Lots of self-check machines, though. There are lots of book displays throughout the library, all based on relevant or quirky themes. (There was one of books with cult followings.) You can see and feel that this is a place designed around a patron’s experience rather than the comfort level of the staff. (Again: more on that later.)


Up on the top floor, with a really lovely view of Whitechapel and the Gherkin in the distance, they have a cafe. Not just a Starbucks like we have at home, but a actual cafe, where, until 11:30, you can get a full English Breakfast. I asked about their food policy, in case you were curious: no hot food in the rest of the library, but snacks are okay. And in the cafe, along with the cafe tables where people are eating? The most recent issues of magazines and newspapers, of course. So we have a kitchen and a dining room, and what’s next to that? A living room, with a big television. It’s got a viewing schedule as well, so you know what you’re in for when you sit down (they take requests). But it’s up on the top floor, where you need to at least acknowledge, at some point or other, that there are four floors of resources and services beneath you you might want to think about. We always put the cafe area up front, but I can see the upside of moving it to the top floor. You can’t smell the kitchen anywhere else in the library (unlike at the Canada Water library, which is a story for another post), you lure people up, just like they do in commercial settings, and you get a terrific view.


(Is there any way I can make afternoon tea, with scones, preserves, and clotted cream, happen in Toronto?)

I think the volume of traffic through the Whitechapel branch is telling of the success of its choices. I visited two more libraries today, and neither was as packed as Idea Store Whitechapel. Nor were the activities going on inside as diverse; I saw groups of men chatting at tables, groups of women chatting at tables, young adults studying, lots of women with babies. It really is their second home, and I think, in this context, that’s a good thing.

Casters, revisited

Casters, revisited

Just as I finished writing about the downsides of casters, I see an addendum about casters.

photo 2(2)

photo 1(2)

A collection on casters! This is in the children’s library in the Idea Store Whitechapel. (More on Idea Store, and the Whitechapel one in particular, shortly.) While I’m not that fond of casters generally, I have to say, this puts a new spin on the idea of mobile shelving. Mary Ann Mavrinac always said the goal of good library design is people space over collection space, and this is another example of that ethos. When people need it to, the collection slides out of the way.