July 9, 2020

AASL Column

Listen Up: The Value of Open Communication

Lucy Campbell and Barbara Opar, Column Editors
Column by Rebecca Price, Architecture, Urban Planning & Visual Resources Librarian, University of Michigan

In keeping with our 2020 conference theme of OPEN, this essay (initially intended as a lightning round presentation) recounts a recent experience with communication among faculty, students, and the library and the lessons learned from that experience. 

Context

In 2019 the dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning convened a task force to look at library needs of students and faculty. In part, this was brought about by the removal of most of the engineering book collection to offsite storage and the resulting concern that the architecture and urban planning books would suffer a similar fate. 

Local conditions are important and the account here should be understood within the context of the local environment, which will vary from institution to institution. It should be noted that the library serving the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning is in a separate building, across the street from the college. In addition to the library, the building houses a multitude of technology labs and studios. Occupying about a third of the space of the building, the library holds an integrated collection that also serves the College of Engineering and the Stamps School of Art and Design. With nineteen disciplines, the College of Engineering accounts for about fifteen times the number of students and faculty of the School of Art & Design and the College of Architecture & Urban Planning combined. This has resulted in an inevitable tension between the groups we serve, and understandably, a perception that the library isn’t really for the arts people. 

The charge of the task force was to investigate that environment, particularly through architecture and urban planning lenses. The task force of six included two faculty each from the architecture and urban planning programs, a student representative, and me. Through interviews, focus groups, and surveys we set out to get a reading of the library collection and services and a sense of whether they met the needs of students and faculty, identifying those needs along the way. I provided data about collection use and collection development, and via surveys and focus groups, we gathered feedback from faculty and students in both programs. It is unclear, with the upheaval and disruption of the pandemic, whether our final report, completed last spring, will affect change in the library. I believe it will, but over a longer time than initially imagined. My primary takeaway was the importance of the conversation in the first place. 

Gathering Information

Aligning with the conference theme of openness, the experience of intentionally talking with the college constituents about needs and expectations was enlightening. While I have been their librarian for over twenty years and feel I have a good sense of what they do and what they need, most of my interactions with faculty and students could be described as somewhat routine. That is not to say that they are without value. I believe the day-to-day conversations about the work of the school, and one-on-one interactions finding resources and clarifying questions are extremely important. What the communication and information gathering of the task force allowed was a more all-encompassing view of the importance of the library not just as collection, but also as a service, and as a place.

As librarians, we see ourselves in supportive roles in relation to our academic communities, yet we often orbit around our constituents or at best tangentially intersect with them. Working on this task force and listening to their stories gave me a new perspective on experiences with the library. For instance, I learned about their misperceptions of cataloging rules and confusion at why “architecture” books end up in the “engineering” section.  At the same time, for them, I hope, the process pulled back the curtain and exposed some of the perceived mysteries of an impenetrable library and the systems that support it. Demystifying and making the library accessible to all, from those who have never had a real library experience to the most seasoned of researchers, is possible when we begin to listen to our communities.

What did I learn by listening?  

Importance of Collections

Some of this I knew; such as “keep the books in the library:” for browsing and serendipitous discovery, for accreditation, for supporting and improving visual literacy. While I appreciate the physical collection, it was nice to hear that faculty and students do as well. They were heartened by the data I provided showing that the architecture books were the most heavily used of the collection. Over the past thirty years, over 2,000 titles had more than 100 checkouts each and in the past year, over 25% of the collection was in circulation, which is high by academic library standards. Several survey respondents noted their preference for print materials over e-books citing the discomfort of reading online, as well as the fact that so much architectural documentation in the form of plans, sections, and elevations is only available from print sources. It was important to dispel the myth that “everything is online” and to reinforce the value and enrichment brought by experiences with physical objects. In my work with our materials collection, I have researched the importance of tactility. We learn through touch. All our senses (seeing, touching, smelling, hearing, etc.) work together to inform our experiences and enrich our learning. We cannot underestimate the value of the student flipping through several books or journals to accumulate a visual sense of an architect’s work.  

Importance of People

Happily, for me, our patrons recognized that I, as an expert and as a person, bring value to the library and can be a mediator between the researcher and the material. I should note that I work within a larger staff and their expertise and service were noted and appreciated as well. It surprised many faculty to learn that their students (especially the undergraduates) do not understand how to find a book on the shelf. One student described the library as a labyrinth, while another commented that he didn’t know how to check out a book. The Library of Congress classification system brings order to the materials we offer, yet also sets up a seemingly incomprehensible barrier to the novice searcher. While we live in a world where everyone wants to imagine that one can maneuver through it without help, the library is necessarily (on some levels) a mediated space. This is true particularly for architecture students and faculty who rely heavily on our print collections. We want to make our collections as accessible as possible, both physically and intellectually and should work toward that, yet we also need to recognize that it’s okay to have a person guiding the way. As we gradually return to our post-COVID-19 libraries, we’ll have to see how we can best provide that onsite guidance.

Importance of Place and Space

This last point is perhaps the most difficult for us to address because, as noted at the beginning, we have little control over our space. One respondent noted that it is a building in a building, but without a clear distinction, so that one doesn’t know when one is entering the library. This was echoed by another’s comment that the library needs a front door. The hybrid nature of the building, in which collaborative technologies, study spaces, and bibliographic collections abut one another is off-putting to some and compelling to others. In general, the lesson from faculty and students was the desire for a place where they could easily browse the stacks and spread out books on nearby tables, have comfortable seating and good lighting for quiet reading, and most importantly an atmosphere of calm. Students and faculty alike need an escape from the creative chaos of the studio. They complained that the building is essentially a study hall, not conducive to real reflection and creative thinking. The challenge for the library is to reinvent the existing space, adapt to changing needs, and offer welcome and usable spaces and places. I am hopeful that we can begin to address some of these matters in the coming months and years.

The most important part of this process so far has been listening and learning more about how my faculty and students feel about the library and the services and spaces that will support their research and creativity. Even if the library cannot take larger actions, I can begin to address immediate concerns and continue to listen.

Questions

Michelle Sturges
Membership Manager
202-785-2324
msturges@acsa-arch.org