The Future on Pause: Reflections on the “How We’re Working at Charles” Project

Last week the Assessment Community of Practice gathered virtually to hear more about the Envisioning our Future project. The session was hosted by research team members Karen Kohn, Rebecca Lloyd, Caitlin Shanley, and myself. 

The project was conducted as part of the assessment initiative sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries to understand the impact of library spaces on innovative research, creative thinking and problem solving.  Coinciding with the opening of the Charles Library at Temple, we focused our research on how changes in library space impact the work of staff : their work as individuals, when working with colleagues, and in their work with users.  

Prior to the move we asked staff members, in one-on-one interviews, to imagine how their work would change upon moving to the new facility with spaces that support a quite different approach to service and resource delivery.   A second set of interviews was conducted in early 2020, after we’d been in the space for a semester.   Then in March 2020, the Libraries closed all its buildings. While many of our findings seem part of a now distant past, others went beyond the use of physical space and are as relevant as ever. 

The COP was an opportunity for the research team to share insights and reflections on the project.  The full report was shared with staff (see July 23 email), so the discussion focused on the approach. Those insights and reflections from the discussion are paraphrased here: 

What were some of the benefits for you in participating in this project?

It was helpful to know that our personal experiences were, in many cases, shared by our colleagues. From the control of window shades to norms for talking in shared spaces, it’s good to know that we’re not alone in our feelings of uncertainty. 

Being part of a research team provides access to a level of detail and complexity about the issues. Seeing patterns in the interviews helped us to think about solutions.

It was also nice to be part of a project that participants felt was supportive, providing an opportunity for staff to express their feelings about Charles in a safe  way. 

What were the challenges experienced by the team members? 

Qualitative research produces a rich body of text, and while we were appreciative of participants’ willingness to be candid, open and trusting of us with their thoughts – it can be challenging to distill that material without losing the richness of the sentiments that were shared. And people are human, so they’d say contradictory things, even in the course of one interview. 

We were close to the research. When interviewing our colleagues, it could be hard to keep a distance, be an observer. Oftentimes we’d empathize with what was being said, and yet we had to stay objective when listening and when presenting the material. In conducting the interviews, it was necessary to build trust in a short period of time. That’s a skill that will be helpful in other contexts.

It is also good to know that we are part of an  ARL research cohort. We’re hopeful that our work will be helpful to other libraries and will contribute to our colleagues at other institutions conducting similar projects. Libraries have a lot to learn about self-reflection, and thinking of themselves as organizations. 

Other thoughts from the Community? 

We noted that the report’s findings related to communication around change continue to resonate, as powerfully now as then. We are operating in a working environment that is volatile, requiring us to be thoughtful in how we insure direct and effective communication at all levels of the organization. Many of us are working in the Charles physical spaces, but most are not. While the physical spaces didn’t allow us to be all together, the virtual space does! This unexpected future provides for opportunities to be creative in communicating, connecting and establishing work norms together in new, and even more inclusive, ways.  

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