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Rewriting the Library

Most libraries share a few things in common. They house books for one. Patrons tend to read quietly sitting on chairs or study hunched over wooden tables. And, in many libraries, it isn’t unusual to hear the odd “shhh” launched from the lips of someone behind the circulation desk.

Perhaps that’s why it is so jarring – like finding a purple orange – to have walked into the Olin College library this past summer. There is music and the sound of hammering. A student can be seen standing on a ladder, stretching to paint the far corner of a wall bright orange. A table top is covered with drill bits, screws, and other items that wouldn’t be out of place in an average hardware store. Someone walks back and forth asking if anyone, anyone at all has seen the orbital sander that was right here a minute ago. In another corner, a student sits on a couch tweaking the electronics on a television monitor hidden in a book stack.  

All of this activity is part of the Olin Workshop on the Library (OWL) summer design build, and it is the tangible result of months of thought and planning by Library Director Jeff Goldenson, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Aaron Hoover and not a few Olin students. The plan is to realign the library’s resources with the needs and culture of the Olin community.

“We have a series of assets. We have books, we have people, but probably the most valuable thing we have in reality is space. I think we can create a culture within that space that allows more things to happen,” said Goldenson.  “Let’s take our culture and make it obvious to someone visiting campus to see much more readily what Olin is like.” That culture celebrates innovation and collaboration among other things, and Goldenson wants the library to telegraph those principles.

Hoover, who spent the better part of his summer working on OWL, added that Olin is different from other engineering schools, but up to now the library has been fairly conventional in both look and feel. "The traditional picture of the lone college student holed up in a carrel in the library reading or writing a paper is less relevant here," said Hoover. "We need to create learning spaces outside of the classroom that support collaboration, creation, and innovation if we want students to truly practice what we teach in the classroom."  

Part of practicing what Olin teaches is the idea of a "learning continuum." A significant portion of an Olin student's learning takes place outside the classroom, through passionate  pursuits, co-curriculars, and independent study, according to Hoover. "But, we don't do a great job of making that evident. The new library can provide that "third space" between their formal academic lives (in the classroom) and their personal lives (in the dorms) that facilitates their development as learners, community members, and people. 

OWL is also an effort to make the library more relevant to current students. “Their relationships to technology, their relationship to how they study, it’s different. It’s not the same as yours or mine. So a lot of this change has to emerge from the students,” said Goldenson. And it has.

Seven students and recent alumni including Logan Sweet, Scott Mackinlay, Aaron Grenier, Gaby Clarke, Nick Eyre, Alex Spies, and Charlie Mouton worked on this summer long project. The students, in pairs or individually, thought up - and created - everything from more engaging signage, to rooms redesigned for collaborative learning, to Olin visual radio.  

Alex Spies and Nick Eyre graduated in the spring but stuck around this summer to work on this project. Eyre is making the workspaces on the main floor “more conducive to getting group work done.” The rooms are narrow and oddly shaped, so he is building tables with Scott Mackinlay that will allow more people to gather comfortably in the space. The rooms are also being repainted in vibrant colors. “It’s bigger than the library, it’s about creating space on campus that better fosters the kind of education that we do here,” said Eyre.

Sophomore Logan Sweet created 12 hexagonal planters of varying dimensions to house succulents and other plants in a light-filled area dubbed the “Plant Patio” in the library. Sweet wrote a design brief and engaged in an extensive pre-planning process sketching designs. The initial prototype, made out of plywood, fit together well and Sweet and others machined and constructed the rest of the planters. “There’s an excitement in doing things that are absolutely and completely new,” said Sweet.

Junior Charlie Mouton and Nick Eyre ‘15 created visual radio, a six-channel monitor that plays muted video on an endless loop. The concept originated from the idea of “slow TV” said Mouton.  “Information is a big aspect of the library, we wanted to create something that could convey information but that people could discover among the stacks.” Slow TV is the term used for the “deliberately unhurried” broadcast of an event - a lengthy  train journey for instance, or a knitting marathon. In the library, the monitors are attached to the moveable stacks and mounted at eye level. Olin students will be encouraged to submit different types of content.

For their part, Goldenson and Hoover acted as facilitators and guides throughout the process. "My specific role was to help guide our summer students in their design process, to identify or discover community needs and then execute solutions intended to meet those needs," said Hoover. "But, that role encompassed a lot. I found myself doing everything from leading discussions on the role of libraries in society and the importance of craftsmanship to sanding pieces of furniture or lugging bundles of steel tubing across campus."

Taken individually these projects may seem minor, but collectively they are transformative.

Olin is a small campus, just five buildings and so space—especially public space—is at a premium. The library is on the ground floor of Milas Hall. It’s a central location but most students preferred to collaborate on projects in their dorm rooms or in the Academic Center, not in the library.

While this effort aims to change the space and use of the library at Olin, the team is taking pains to  document every step of the process to allow other libraries that may be engaged in similar efforts to benefit from Olin’s experience. “I’m interested in making this a lab within the library discipline, and reaching a larger community,” said Goldenson. To that end, the group is taking photos, posting videos, and writing blog posts on everything from how to create dynamic spaces, to the cost of plywood at Home Depot. The designs for each project are posted, along with prices and hours involved in construction.

Goldenson shared his top library purchases for 2015. The list includes: peel and stick whiteboard skins, black paper, and casters to allow each book shelf to move. The lowly caster – at a cost of $11.97 each – ensures that the “work spaces don’t stagnate.” Each bookshelf is now mounted on casters, which allows users to reconfigure the space as needed.

The official unveiling of the refreshed library took place on September 2.  OWL, in the form of a co-curricular, will continue throughout the year and construction on a new reading room should begin soon.