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Education Research: How Do We Improve Libraries?

Designing college campuses that keep students happy and lead to better academic performance requires us to have a clear understanding of how students spend their time when they are on campus. It was this need that pushed Gensler to initiate a research project with the goal of mapping out the activities that constitute a typical student day. (Read/download a PDF of the final research report, "Changing Course: Connecting Campus Design to a New Kind of Student," here.) What we learned not only surprised us, but made it clear that it's time to rethink the design of college campuses and the buildings on them.

For starters, 44 percent of the students we surveyed said that they spend the majority of their learning non-classroom time on-campus studying alone. This was something of a surprise, since the common perception of today’s student is one in which collaboration reigns and group activity dominates. For this reason, campus designers have made concerted efforts over the past decade to install collaboration zones, social spaces, and entertainment options throughout academic buildings.

Now we are learning that what students really want when they're on campus is the ability to find places where they can put their heads down and hit the books. It may sound counterintuitive, but we’re finding it to be the truth. Forty-three percent of students told us that the place they prefer to study is the campus library, but only 22 percent reported that study conditions at their schools' libraries adequately supported private study.

This told us that we are faced with something of a conundrum: Students want to study at the library, but because conditions are far from ideal they are more likely to head elsewhere or simply not find the space they need.

Students' desire to study in libraries coupled with the inadequacy of current library design has led Gensler to initiate a research project just on libraries. The goal of this research is to understand the current paradigm for library design and to explore how technology and smarter design can help libraries better meet the needs of the individuals and groups they serve.

There are some interesting projects currently under way or recently completed on college campuses across the country—including the University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, and Columbia College Chicago—and each can teach us something about how technology can help solve current problems. For example, these schools have invested in an automatic book-retrieval system that stores physical copies of books in more compact spaces. In turn, this creates extra space within the library walls, giving designers the opportunity to include more dynamic learning labs, study rooms, and a variety of seating options. This is just one way library design can be improved, but further research into exactly why current libraries are not adequately serving students is needed if we are to develop a strategy for revamping the current paradigm for library design.

Gensler is currently orchestrating roundtable discussions with academic librarians in many of our offices across the globe. We believe these forums will uncover what campus leaders are observing and where they envision the library going. Among the questions we plan to address:

  • What is the role of the librarian?
  • Should libraries be information-focused or user-focused?
  • Can library spaces offer the flexibility and adaptability students require?

If you know of a librarian who would like to be invited to one of these sessions, please reach out to me; I’d be glad to put you in touch with one of our local leaders.

David Broz is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen not-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas." A common thread runs through his work and his volunteer efforts: the desire to create great spaces to live, work, and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (5)

So, I just finished reading the "Changing Course. Connecting Campus Design to a New Kind of Student." What a disappointing indictment of all of us in the higher ed and design industry. What other industry would spend billions of dollars on faciilties that don't meet our customer's needs?

On the "Students Don't Find Campus Spaces Effective" chart, do we have more information on the results? Are these complaints about existing facilities or new facilities? If it's new stuff, shame on all of us. WHY are these spaces not supportive of study and instructional needs? Are the furnishings uncomfortable? Is the lighting poor? Is the space too hot or too cold? Do the acoustics suck? Is the space configured poorly? Is the technology inadequate or non-existant? More detail would help us correct our course.

In the "Libraries Are in High Demand and Short Supply", there's a point blank problem noted: too much noise. The design profession owns this one. We keep seeing grand spaces with soaring ceilings, open structure, exposed building systems, all hard surfaces, an image only an architect would love. We continue to see design that is high on visual quality and almost contemptuous of the space's acoustic and other environmental needs. The solution lies both in proper zoning of noisy vs. quiet activities, providing adequate amounts of space for each and then the proper design of each area.

On the "Classrooms are wired but not Inspired" chart, every item (except perhaps the amount of windows) that has less than 50% satisfaction are areas that almost are entirely within the design profession's realm. What's the design's profession's response to this? What will YOU do to make this better? This is like being the chef at a restaurant and the customers telling you that the food is terrible.

The wi-fi, the other discussion about lecture halls, etc. all talk about layers of reasons why these spaces don't work for students. The big elephant in the room is that large lecture halls, unidirectional lectures, distance learning, etc. all promote the least effective ways that a person learns: pure reading and pure listening to words. The most effective way that people learn is simulating the real experience, doing the real thing, by teaching each other and learning from each other. If the student isn't learning from the way that the instruction is being presented, isn't achieving, is not getting what they need, all the rest of the environmental issues become the manifested irritants to a system that doesn't work for them.
(Let's not even start on the distance learning discussion where we know from studies that students fail the courses and withdraw from the courses at much higher rates than in traditional courses. It's almost like selling a defective product but will continue to grow because it's a terrific economic model, and yes, does offer many students a chance at education content that they would not have otherwise. Something is better than nothing there.)

It seems that we- higher education owners and architects- could do a great service to everyone by designing and providing spaces that meet student needs and support their learning in the first place. We could help significantly by going back into existing, older spaces that don't work now and renovating or correcting what is wrong before we plow ahead with new space, leaving a have and have-not set of learning environments. We need smarter owners and more responsive, responsible designers.

Arlen Solochek
Maricopa Community College District
10.12.2012 | Unregistered CommenterArlen Solochek

I'm Maddy Burke-Vigeland, a principal and education practice leader at Gensler and one of the prime movers behind the "Changing Course" research and report. Thank you for a thoughtful post that raises a number of good questions. I’m hoping a little more background information on the survey will address them.

Facilities: In response to your comment on higher education's spending “billions of dollars on facilities that don't meet our customer's needs,” I want to clarify that our research was not a post-occupancy study of new facilities—rather, it was a general survey focused on how students are using and experiencing all campus spaces. We didn't ask the age of buildings, and the survey did not discriminate between newer and well-aged facilities. Our goal was to learn more about user/student needs, so that we can begin to rethink the how these buildings are designed and to find new ways to better shape learning environments.

Further details: Performance of study-alone spaces ranked below 50 percent for good ventilation, comfort, quiet, attractiveness, as a place providing relaxation, and as a place providing inspiration. Performance for group-study spaces ranked below 50 percent for comfort, quiet, attractiveness, as a place providing relaxation, and as a place providing inspiration. Across the board, the one thing that does seem to work is the technology.

Call to action: Our intent in publishing this data, both for ourselves and for others, is to inspire the design of spaces that can better support student learning. At Gensler, our design research guides our design practice. We see space as a component with the capability to foster new and innovative pedagogies. Through our ongoing research and continued efforts to engage with educators, administrators, and students, we seek to create high-performance design solutions. Our next step is to dig deeper into libraries.

For more information on this topic, please reference my previous blog post here: http://www.gensleron.com/cities/2012/9/27/learning-is-virtual-but-students-arent.html. And feel free to ask any follow-up questions or contact me directly at maddy_burke@gensler.com.


Maddy Burke-Vigeland, AIA
This is an interesting summary of student needs. While I think that many of the conclusions may be on-track, I believe that the sample size, particularly distributed across all the disciplines and institution types, is too small to yield reliable results. The survey included a fairly large number of graduate students and their needs are very different when compared to undergraduates.

That said, you are certainly on target with identifying the need for data-driven decision making about campus facilities and designing for the campus of the future. These are indeed changing times and those campuses that stick to the status quo may well be left in the dust.
10.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRob Rouzer
Thank you for your comments, Rob. The survey was conducted via a viral sample to identify respondents. We followed 250+ students who each responded to six surveys across the course of the fall 2011 semester, allowing us to collect longitudinal data with over 1,500 survey responses. We do believe that the results, while not from a statistically random sample, are significant and can inform further research. We did analyze for differences between graduates and undergraduates, disciplines, etc., and did not find any large variations. Our findings also align with similar research initiatives and discussions by others.

We're pleased to know that you generally agree with the findings and our call to use data to better align campuses with changing students and learning.
10.25.2012 | Registered CommenterDavid Broz
As a member of the graduating class of 2012, this article really speaks to me. Miami University is famous for its prestigious business school, the gorgeous Georgian architecture, and its academics. It is often considered a ‘public ivy league school’ alongside University of Michigan, CAL Berkeley, the College of William & Mary, and more.
I spent the majority of my academic life studying for exams, although assignments often required collaboration, where studying and meeting in groups was essential to the overall success in the class. Rarely would I walk through our beautiful library and see a group of students studying for a particular exam, rather they would be meeting for a group project or working on an assignment (that was probably due that night). The library architect and school recognized the students need for isolation when studying anywhere from 1-20 hours at a time for exams and finals. Thus, there were individual seating areas where your entire view was the desk in from of you. The panels on either side and in front of you went up high enough to the point where the outside world no longer existed. Coupled with headphones, this was the perfect study area. However, there was always a problem. During finals week, the library was absolutely packed and worse yet, it was loud. Students would line up before the library even opened like they were lining up for the midnight showing of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. The problem occurred everywhere on campus. Every single room in every building had students in it. Some took up an entire room; others would study with friends, in silence, in a classroom. During finals week, the library did not serve its purpose. It made studying nearly impossible and extremely frustrating. Students prefer to study alone because there are an endless amount of distractions that they have to deal with. Some of these include, their phone, their laptop, friends, noise, hunger, exhaustion, the list goes on. However, the two most important and influential distractions by far were noise and friends. This leads to students studying alone, either with headphones on listening to music or with ear muffs on in an attempt to drown out the background noise.

Libraries need to become more user focused. Print information (and media) is dying, and dying quickly. When was the last time you opened the dictionary or looked at a history book? I can’t even remember, and I was a student last year. All the information we will ever need is found online. Wikipedia has become a reliable, abundant, and easily obtainable source of information. And believe me when I tell you, every single student uses it for exams, projects, homework, anything and everything. Libraries need to stray away from books and start incorporating more computers and data bases such as Lexis Nexis where information is readily available (and paid for by the school). The role of the librarian needs to change to be more of an IT guide, to help find and locate general and specific bits of information. Students no longer go to a librarian asking for the directions to particular book. The majority of students come to librarians with either technology problems (school computer doesn’t work, can’t get the projector to work) or with help in locating specific bits of information online (such as a court case or a research article from the 1990’s about Walgreens and employee theft). All in all, the ideal library for me would have been hundreds of small, sound proof rooms that seat 4 people (and a few vending machines). However, as an ex-student, I can no longer speak to the needs and desires of the current generation. But I thought I’d give my opinion anyways.
Great article, thanks for sharing!
12.10.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJordan Winey

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