Created on Monday, 26 November 2012 03:55 Written by Nick Stamatakis / Assistant Opinions Editor
As a way to connect two pieces of paper, there are few better tools than a stapler.
Without the aid of electronics, a piece of zinc-plated steel is punctured into two sheets of paper and then bent, combining the two into one.
This is the design function of a stapler. It performs best when used for this purpose.
For other uses of a stapler, success is not a guarantee.
If used as a hammer, for instance, a stapler will only work in limited circumstances. In the best case, an older, heavier, metal model might work to get a nail through soft wood, but even then, the hand positioning and effort required would make the task awkward.
The modern library is a stapler, and we are all using it as a hammer.
When libraries were invented thousands of years ago, they were an excellent design solution to a huge problem: a lack of accessibility to mankind’s collective knowledge. Like a stapler, they were designed to solve this problem, and have evolved with the purpose of solving this problem most efficiently.
Closed stacks only accessible to librarians gave way to open stacks anybody could investigate. Classification systems, card catalogs, interlibrary loans and, eventually, electronic databases reduced time needed to find information from days to hours.
Yet today, few use the library to find information. The average undergraduate doesn’t need to pore over volumes or periodicals. Many undergraduates find physical libraries confusing and unhelpful, ultimately preferring online resources. Researchers widely prefer electronic journals to printed ones.
The design specification of libraries has changed. There is no longer a problem of a lack of accessibility to mankind’s collective knowledge. For very few people is a library the only connection to the world around them.
Today, the physical library is used primarily for studying and understanding information. As made apparent from even casually observing the hundreds of students huddled at tables and cubicles, surrounded by stacks of books, this studying aspect is the real value-added aspect of the library today.
So when we spend hours studying in Hillman Library, a space designed primarily for the purpose of accessing information, all we are really doing is hammering our nails with staplers.
Hillman wasn’t designed to optimize private and group study. Tables are thoughtlessly scattered about the ground floor. The private desks on the third and fourth floors along the walls are not numerous enough to satisfy demand. Even the size of the tables is a bit too big to make group work really productive.
There is evidence university libraries across the country aren’t meeting student’s needs. Only 32 percent of undergraduates rated campus spaces effective for study, according to Gensler, a global architecture firm. Furthermore, Gensler finds the percentage of students who want a quiet study place exceeds the percentage of students who actually find a quiet study place, suggesting campus buildings, including libraries, are not being designed with the user requirements in mind.
Imagining the library of the future thus becomes a question of imagining how to create a space most likely to lead to studying. The first, and most radical change, concerns the presence of books.
They should be eliminated. Or sharply reduced. And in the place of drastically fewer books should be areas designed for the sole purpose of facilitating both quiet and loud studying.
Pitt has already begun this transformation, having in recent years moved about 20 percent of its library collection to its off-site facility in Point Breeze, according to the Post-Gazette. Many other schools are following a similar path.
These models don’t destroy books, or end their presence within research institutes. Instead, off-site locations, which offer denser packing, optimal climate control and often automated selection systems, can enhance the research experience, if done properly and with enough investment.
But this is beside the point. Libraries, the physical buildings, are for the vast majority not about research. So even if there is a loss of convenience from off-site books, a more optimal study environment is a good tradeoff.
In place of books could be dozens of group areas with whiteboards and furniture better suited for group work. Rows of private study areas, somehow separated enough to be void of distraction but still open enough to not feel constraining, could replace half of the fiction section. Large monitors could support students with multiple documents open, decluttering workspaces and increasing effectiveness. Instead of dry air, appropriate for keeping books in top condition, humidity within the library could increased, reducing “library” lag, or the dizziness and disorientation that can occur after hours of studying.
More whimsically perhaps, imagine sections of the library where the wireless connection disables social media websites. Or one that plays the noise of rushing water. Or a floor with skylights and a garden.
Without books, the library of the future can optimize information retention, rather than information gathering. And with books available off-site, research remains possible. But most importantly, you won’t need to use a stapler to hammer nails. You can just use a hammer.