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User-Focused Design on a Dime

[Today’s guest bloggers are Lyndi Fabbrini and Betsy Dadabo of Bethel University Libraries. The following is a summary of their lightning round presentation given at CLIC’s Hush the Shushing Conference last month. During the lightning round session at the Conference, each CLIC member library presented an overview of a recent project focusing on the library’s users. Bethel’s presentation addressed how Bethel Libraries have maintained user-focused spaces and kept up with technological change, without major renovations and funds.]

Our presentation focused on how the Bethel University and Seminary libraries have tried to create user-friendly spaces on a dime. Without funds for renovation or new construction, we’ve had to be creative in making our existing space the best space it can be as the academic environment around us evolves. Bethel libraries haven’t been renovated or expanded since they were built in the early 70s. We have the same layouts, the same tables and chairs, and the same stacks. Over the years, we’ve made changes to accommodate advances in technology, differences in student preferences and work styles, and trends in design.

We strive to make our libraries feel welcoming and warm, the living room of campus. In the University Library, plants cared for by staff and artwork from the Permanent Art Collection warm up our concrete walls. Leather couches provide comfortable seating. We were able to update the furniture in our Fireplace Lounge with money raised by our Friends of the Library. It also holds displays of collections that encourage life-long learning, much of which is purchased with Friends money. With some minor shifting of furniture the lounge is transformed into a presentation space complete with projector, screen and sound system. It’s used for faculty and student presentations, readings and other special events for 10-150 people. The equipment was repurposed from Classroom Support, and the space is often used as a testing area for new classroom technology. To update the lounge just outside the library entrance, we solicited a small grant from Institutional Planning. We replaced uncomfortable loveseats with smaller chairs and added lighting, creating a more attractive and flexible area that now seats twice as many people and receives much more use.

It’s a challenge to work within the constraints of the existing layout and it often feels like moving pieces of a puzzle. We work creatively to find a balance between meeting user needs and maintaining access to our collections. Weeding, shifting, and relocating collections, removing stacks, and using off-site storage are strategies that both libraries have used. At the Seminary Library these changes have also made the library more handicap-accessible. We’ve also worked hard to free up prime real estate to improve our student study spaces. Both libraries paid a small fee to consult with a professional architect who specializes in library design. Acting on her recommendations, we’ve removed stacks near windows to let in as much natural light as possible. We make changes based on observation and user feedback through surveys, suggestion boards and interviews as well as following trends and getting ideas at conferences. The University Library has a committee which meets regularly to evaluate the use of space and brainstorm changes we can make.

Through student surveys we found that group study space was lacking on the University campus so we divided what was a large study space into two smaller rooms. We’ve made use of Craigslist and other online sources to find more inexpensive ways to extend the life of failing fixtures. We’ve also often done the work ourselves. We’ve gotten lots of student feedback that they prefer working at tables with space to spread out. We created a new lounge in an area that used to house periodical back issues by retrieving tables from storage and repairing them ourselves, and relocating soft furniture from other areas. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get it right, and at the University library we moved our Curriculum collection to 3 different spots within a few years. Finally, with help from the Education Department, we were able to create a group study room which houses the Curriculum Library as well.  It’s not easy moving a collection, but it was worth listening to users and trying to get it right. Students using the University library repeatedly expressed that they really wanted more outlets. After getting an estimate for the cost of adding outlets, we used data we had collected about most used areas to prioritize new installations. We made sure to note each nearby outlet with a symbol and advertised the update on our electronic display and blog. 

In both the Seminary and University libraries we began to distribute computers throughout the library rather than having them in one lab. This made it less crowded and allowed for people who wanted the freedom to work in a quieter atmosphere to do so. The University Library Reference Collection was weeded to make room for a larger lab that could be partitioned off to use as an instructional area. We reduced the number of copiers and added scanners to the lab. Listening rooms were converted to multimedia rooms, and one is currently being converted into a small studio complete with a green screen, audio and video recording equipment. Equipment was purchased jointly with ITS and with the support of a Faculty Technology grant. ITS also helps pay for student worker support for the lab, which is now the largest on campus. All of these changes have been in partnership with the Teaching and Learning Technology group. 

Because of collection moves on the 2nd floor of the University library, we were able to relocate the DVDs to the main floor. At the request of the adult students, we changed the checkout period to 7 days. To make them more browsable, we acquired free display cases from, with in-house modifications each year for our growing collection. In an effort to combine institutional resources the University library became the hub for equipment on campus. To keep costs down, a personal contact built an equipment closet behind the circulation desk. Maintaining and updating equipment is a collaboration between ITS, Teaching and Learning Technology and the library. Equipment now accounts for 17% of what we circulate. Through a continual process of observation, listening to users, collaborating with other groups and following trends, we’ve been able to channel our creativity, thrifty resourcefulness, and inner DIY spirit to serve our users. 

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