Designing the premier group study experience on campus: The Georgia Tech Library, 2West Project

“I just hope you guys don’t screw it up.” That is what a concerned student shared with me about an ongoing renovation in my library. The construction crew is at it right now, tearing apart a very popular floor— an area that has largely been untouched for over forty years. I hope we got it right too.

I’ll be honest, our Second Floor looked horrible. The picture above doesn’t do justice to how off-putting the space truly is. The colors, the tiles, the chairs, the lighting—it’s a terrible mess…. and yet, night after night it seats hundreds of students. Night after night it is one of the most exciting places in our building. Sure our East and West Commons look more appealing and are home to hundreds of students, but there is just something intrinsic about our Second Floor that draws students together. There is something special and natural about rows and rows of open tables.

Despite everything it has working against it, the space works. That’s why I take that student’s comment so seriously. Our goal was renovate without disturbing the core ecosystem that existed.

There are a lot of great articles, books, and stories out there about designing new learning spaces. (Maybe Steven and I will do a ’10 things to read’ post next month on this theme?) At Georgia Tech we used many of the techniques that are becoming quite common:

·     Focus Groups

·     Interviews

·     Observational Studies

·     Polling

·     Surveys

·     Design Charrettes

·     Photo Diaries

·     Mind Mapping

·     Open Forums

·     Furniture Demos

But there are several things we did that are a bit unique. I’ll touch on them briefly:


·         We started with a mission statement: “let’s build the premier group experience on campus.” That was our goal. That’s what we studied. How did groups function? What did they need? Where else did they study? What all did they do to finish their assignments or tasks? Once we had a sense of these groups dynamics, then we could start talking about reshaping our space.


·         During the Spring Semester (2008) I had to evacuate my office due to a major HVAC renovation. I decided to use this time as an opportunity to immerse myself in the culture that I was studying. Arming with a laptop and my cell phone I “lived” for several hours each day in the library’s public spaces. I encountered their experience: The good and the bad. The noise. The furniture variety. The power supply issues. The printing. The supportive energy and excitement. All of it. There is a lot of discussion these days in the library profession about ethnography and observational studies, and that is good, but my takeaway was that just watching and talking to users isn’t enough. Living, working, and going native was a tremendous benefit for me—not only with this project but for a richer understanding of students and their library usage. It’s one thing for us to talk about the library, but another to actually use the spaces and services that we provide.


·         One of the most important tools we used was an online message board. As we gathered data via various methods, such as surveys or focus groups, I posted the findings for users to comment. This kept us honest. It also gave more people the opportunity to participate. This was helpful for exploring abstract concepts, such as workflow and aesthetics, as well as more concrete matters like furniture and equipment needs. It was also a good method for displaying potential floor plans and collecting feedback.

·         Storyboarding was another technique that we applied to the process. There were a number of user segments that we focused on, creating a social narrative around them and how they used the area. What was good, what was bad, and what was missing? How did students discover the space? How did regular patrons vs. occasional patrons use the space differently? What is it like at night compared to the afternoon? What is it like when it is totally full and you’re searching for a table? What about when it was completely empty? How did people meet up there? How did they feel when studying together? What was the conversational flow like? How would they react if we setup the tables and chairs differently? These might not be the typical questions asked, but for us this was very enlightening. I found that having stories, instead of just statistics, to be extremely more helpful in understanding the culture and how they interacted.

·         We also relied heavily on prototyping. We started with a blank sheet of paper and asked students for sketches helping us to imagine “the premier group study space on campus.” We also trekked outside of the building to observe other congregation spots. And we looked at examples of imaginative learning environments to help us further brainstorm. After soaking this up we produced six core concepts and tested them thoroughly with faculty, students, and library staff. This was done with individuals, small groups, as well as online commenting. Working through the feedback, we mixed and matched, turn and twisted, and finally arrived at two layouts that seemed on point. Both had their merits and flaws and the final design was a combination of the two.

This effort took us a long time, but I feel it was worth it. The student newspaper noticed our work and wrote a favorable editorial in which they stated:

“Allowing student input in the environment where they learn is an exceptional idea that will hopefully create positive results both in the design and in the study habits of students who use the space”

So did we “screw it up?” I don’t think so, but we’ll find out. The Second Floor is scheduled to reopen in late August. We’ll see how all the ideas translate into the physical space. For my part, the process was invaluable. I learned a lot about assessment, about students, about libraries, and myself. I know it sounds corny, but this project was transcendental for me. I didn’t just approach it as “I’m doing assessment so that we can renovate the library” but rather in the manner of “I’m changing the way people worked together.” I really tried to focus on redesigning the experience, instead of just redesigning the space.

More project details here.             Design Charrette Video

Design Reviewgt_feedbackgt_focus1gt_furn_demogt_mapgt_map2gt_story

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