A new study by researchers in Queensland, Australia, examines the role of libraries as hotbeds for collaboration, and why people engage — and don’t engage — in the commingling of ideas and experiences these environments are designed to foster.
The paper, titled "Library as Co-Working Spaces: Understanding User Motivations and Perceived Barriers to Social Learning," appears in the latest issue of the journal Library Hi Tech.
Marcus Foth and Mark Bilandzic spent five months conducting field research at The Edge, a "‘bookless’ library space" in Brisbane. A project of the State Library of Queensland, The Edge is, the authors write, "explicitly dedicated to co-working, social learning, peer collaboration, and creativity around digital culture and technology."
Foth, director of the Urban Informatics Research Lab at Queensland University of Technology, and Bilandzic, a researcher at the school, compiled an ethnographic take on how people actually use the space, day in and day out.
Credit: Foth and Mark Bilandzic
It’s a timely topic. Libraries across the world are rethinking how they serve the public, both in an attempt to justify the support they receive and to meet the citizenry’s changing needs. Often that involves establishing a co-working space. Libraries, the authors write, have a lot going for them on that front. More so than traditional offices, libraries encourage stumbling upon all sorts of ever-changing information flows, from books to magazines to community fliers to people.
But that possibility smacks up against established patterns of library behavior, where users tend to stick to an "individual bubble" and even, Foth and Bilandzic write, mark our territory "with coats, bags, notebooks, and other possessions." Deeming a space designed for collaboration, they find, doesn’t always make it so.
The Edge’s Macs and PCs can be booked, for free, in four-hour slots. Credit: Michael Coghlan
As for the space itself, The Edge is mostly one big open environment, though semi-transparent curtains are available to separate individual window bays. Those bays can be booked in four-hour chunks, as can Mac computers and PCs. Three hands-on lab spaces — one for "screen and sound," one for "mobile and physical" and one for "record and mix" — are set off by glass. Signs encourage people to use the environment "in ways that are constructive towards the development of creative projects, digital education and peer collaboration."
As a result of their research, Foth and Bilandzic came up with five personas that sum up current users of the space, and why it isn’t completely working for them:
"What-can-I-do-here Sophia" stops by the space, is curious, but doesn’t see much to catch her eye. For one thing, there are no book shelves to browse. So she looks around for a bit and then leaves. One visitor service operator (VSO) interviewed for the study said that staffers found it difficult to stop such attrition: "It’s kinda hard to explain in one sentence really what we do here."
"Learning-freak Fred" loves the very idea of collaboration, and loves the idea of finding potential collaborators in The Edge. But with little transparency about what other people in the space are working on, Fred can get discouraged. A VSO quoted in the study recalled when The Edge first opened. "This guy came in… he is like… oh I am here for the networking. And we were all like… ahh okay yeeah."
"I wanna-share-it Garrett" knows a ton about his own particular interests and areas of study. Garrett is what some would call a geek: "He likes to ‘infect’ other people with his knowledge, ideas, and enthusiasm." Garrett is motivated toward sharing, but tends to only show up for scheduled programming where the topic has been decided in advance, whether that’s "Making Things Sense with Arduino" or "Robowars."
Co-working Chris thinks of The Edge as that "third place," away from both home and work. He focuses on tackling his tasks, and likes the energy of The Edge, but for him it isn’t a perfect fit. It doesn’t open early enough. The bandwidth isn’t great. Background noise makes it difficult to do client calls.
Doesn’t-care Claire isn’t much interested in collaboration. She mostly cares that the resources, from Internet access to hardware to software, don’t cost anything. The researchers found that scores of Edge visitors fit into this category, and included students, unemployed people, "pensioners," backpackers and the homeless. One man in this late 70s announced that he was annoyed that some fellow users could be too loud as they went about, well, collaborating. "To him," they write, "The Edge is a library, and in his view of a library everyone is supposed to be quiet."
There’s also a subset of "Claire"-types that similarly misapplies preconceptions to The Edge, not getting that The Edge is a public library, at least of sorts. The Edge features a small refreshment kiosk in its foyer, and the researchers found that some visitors would sit outside, on the facility’s steps, ‘freeloading’ off its wireless connection — thinking that if they went inside they would be "expected to buy a coffee or snack in compensation for using their space and Internet access."
The view from The Edge. Credit: Talisen
Foth and Bilandzic’s work is more descriptive than prescriptive, but they do point to a few techniques that The Edge and similar spaces might pursue in their bids to become truly collaborative, sustainable public environments.
Studies on mobile-based social networking, they write, have found that "displaying background information about other co-present people can facilitate face-to-face connections." That approach, they suggest, might be helpful for Freds and Garretts in their eagerness to connect with other users. Libraries might mine Meetup, they write, both to find out what the community is interested in and to find opportunities to serve as a host space. Another option: Visitors to The Edge are asked what they’re working on, and that information is featured on ambient displays around the space — which might help a Chris figure out just what’s going before she gets frustrated and leaves.
And that last idea points to the intriguing possibility that the real fundamental mindshift required is not on the part of patrons, but on that of the designers of libraries themselves. "Digital libraries and e-catalogues mostly provide access to books, collections, archives, and other resources," they write. "However, they provide little information about other library users and their skills, interests, projects, and areas of expertise." There’s too little research thus far, they write, on and understanding of "the library user as an asset and resource for other library users."
But even beginning to entertain that idea raises the possibility that, in the future, library design will be based on the expectation that people aren’t coming just to check out a book, but to check out what their fellow humans are up to.
Foth and Bilandzic’s full paper is available here. (If you’re particularly interested in this topic, the authors repeatedly cite as a foundation Svanhild Aabo and Ragnar Audunson’s 2012 paper, "Use of Library Space and the Library as a Place," in the journal Library & Information Science Research. It’s only available for purchase, but perhaps you’ll find a free copy in your local library.)
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.