A few thoughts on young people’s use of library space

At the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals Wales (CILIP Cymru), which happened back in May 2016, I delivered a one hour seminar on some findings from my research on young people’s use of library architecture. In order to get a bit of discussion going (see here for the lessons I learnt on seminar organising) I posed a pair of questions and got the room to write down and discuss their thoughts.

  • What qualities of space might young people (16-25) actively seek out in a library?
  • What factors might affect their preferences?

The answers were interesting in a number of ways. There was quite a lot of variance in terms of  semantics, so some people commented on very broad level aspects such as “feeling safe” or “convenience” (in doing so raising the question of what engenders those things), while other people cited more specific needs like “plenty of power sockets” and “enough PCs”.

It’s an interesting question for me because my work lies somewhere between the very general (how you might want a user to feel) and the very specific (what objects a library ought to contain). This is the realm occupied by architecture, which is why I used the particular term “qualities of space”.

When you talk about qualities of space the answers are a little harder to pick out. And I was, let’s not forget, in a room filled mainly with librarians, meaning that although they spend their working lives in library buildings, it’s rare for them to have the opportunity to really engage with architectural possibilities because most libraries aren’t refurbished every day of the week. Librarians’ opinions could reasonably be expected to arise from their dealing with the objects within the library that they can influence (book stock, hardware, furniture etc.) and perhaps also their general sense of what an ideal library ought to be (a safe space, open, free, democratic etc.). It is therefore unsurprising that most of the answers I received were in that general vein. In fact, it was rather pleasing because it reinforced the notion that my work might hold some interest!

Anyway, I will answer the first question in the following ways, in no particular order.

  • Young people (16-25) seek a visual connection with the external or natural environment
  • They seek spaces where they can look out but not be seen by other users or staff
  • They seek spaces that are beautiful (That’s subjective, I know, but most people can tell quality space design when they see it)
  • They seek spaces that have a particular quality or level of noise (not necessarily loud or quiet, but particular nonetheless)
  • They seek proximity to their resources, whether books, PCs or something else

This is only my personal list, generated from conducting walk-along interviews with several dozen young people in three large central public libraries in the UK. Other researchers could no doubt add to or re-frame these points.

And what of the second question? What affects young people’s preferences?

I found two determinants. It is firstly important whether the young person is coming to the library to use it is a second place or a third place social environment, i.e. for work or for informal use. It is secondly important to know whether they are approaching it individually or as a group.

An individual coming to study will want one spatial quality, a group coming to study may want another. An individual intending to use the library to relax will want certain similar to those of the studying individual, but in other aspects their needs will probably differ. Similarly, a socialising group will almost always want an area with a bit of noise in the background, or else they will want total isolation from other library user. This may appear to be a contradiction, but the reason in each case is the same: so the noise of their conversation will not attract attention to them.

Hope that piques your interest, particularly if you’re working in a library, or in architecture. As I mentioned, these are a few thoughts drawn from experience rather than immutable statements of fact, so please add your thoughts.

Have you worked in a public library? How would you answer my questions?

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Moving forwards by embracing what’s uncomfortable

Earlier this year I went along to the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Wales because I’d been asked to run a one hour seminar session on my research.

How on earth, I wondered, was I meant to saunter confidently into a meeting room, hoping that twenty professionals would not only turn up to listen to what I had to say, but also do what I asked them to do?

Pondering this, both then and now, has brought me to a little 1-2-3 of success in such situations that I’m going to share. It’s nothing too earth-shattering, and indeed largely reflects things said by wise folks such as Seth Godin.

  1. Frightening situations can be a source of strength, if approached in the right way. “What doesn’t kill you…” etc. etc.
  2. It’s all about the right group of people. If you’re at a conference, you can pretty much guarantee everyone is there to engage with you. After all, they’ve chosen to interrupt their busy schedules to come along.
  3. Prepare good content. Obvious really. Once you deal with the fear of challenging situations, and once you’re reasonably sure you’ve got a receptive audience to communicate with, you’ve then got to say something worth hearing.

That last point was the worrying one. Given it was a conference, and given that I’d been invited there in the first place, I felt reasonably happy about points 1 and 2, but as for content…? I’d need a little help.

Fortunately, working at a university, I was surrounded by people who are potential fonts of knowledge on this front. I had less experience of running seminars than presentations or student tutorials, and seminars are a little different as they take longer and require some form of discussion. I found a friend and asked for his advice. In essence, the gist of what I learned, both from him and from actually doing the thing, is as follows:

  • Warm up the room. Everyone is a bit nervous to start off. In fact, it may be simplest to assume that your guests are more nervous than you are. They know that seminars are interactive, after all. You might be one of those vindictive seminar leaders who likes to put people on the spot for no good reason. Taking a moment to chat to people as they come in, and doing a short intro speech saying who you are, is a great opportunity for a rapport to be started. Everyone in the room needs to feel comfortable that you aren’t going to do anything disturbing.
  • Splitting the room into groups is a great way of managing people. It allows you to ensure everyone is getting involved, and it also provides a perfect opportunity to play groups off against each other. That’s a great way of stimulating conversations, by the way. Speaking of which…
  • Good conversation is about getting the guests to interact with each other, rather than getting a one-way dialogue going between you and an individual. Finding ways to get them arguing with each other (constructively) is key. Groups come in handy.
  • Keep to time. Start and end promptly, even if there are stragglers. This also applies to tutorials, presentations, and anything similar where you’re managing a room. If you don’t (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) you’re insulting those who have bothered to turn up on time.
  • Structure. Related to timekeeping, I discovered it’s helpful to be really clear about when the activities of the session are, what order they’re in, how long they’re going to take. Some people don’t need too much liturgy, but for most, a clear sense of where they are in the session and how the different parts of it fit together is advantageous.
  • If you’re running an activity and intend to get people to feedback their results to the rest of the room, make this clear in advance. That way you’ll minimise the awkward moment where nobody wants to do it and the glance goes around before a victim is found and coerced into “volunteering”.
  • Assume everything will take slightly longer than it looks like it should on paper.
  • Consider how people are sitting in the room, what directions they’re facing. If you’re going to start out with a presentation to cover some background and introduce an activity, will everyone be able to see easily if they’re arranged in circles around tables? Similarly, if they’re sitting lecture-style, or in a horseshoe, how are they going to put their heads together?
  • Don’t be afraid of starting out with something intellectually provocative. The idea is to stimulate discussion, and that relies on investing people in the topic and making sure it’s a topic people will have different responses to. A hook at the outset can be thought of as a stepping-off point, something familiar to the guests that will serve as a starting point of the thought process you wish to explore.

With the above points in my notebook I was able to get a structure worked out that actually went pretty well, thus fulfilling the third of the three points I outlined at the start! I was really tired beforehand, mentally exhausted, and not sure I could pull it off. The effort hurt, but I met some lovely, interesting people, got Tweeted, got complemented by the great Ian Anstice, and forced myself to organise my thoughts for the benefit of others, which is often productive in its own right.

And that’s about all for now I think! I’m not the world’s most experienced seminar-runner, so I expect quite a lot of you folks are more clued up and could add points to this, so…

Are you a 24-carat seminar-smiting pro? What are your top tips for getting the most out of a room full of people? Does advice on organising a seminar translate well to other areas of life? Comments below…

PhDs: A dissection featuring bullet points

I’ve been thinking about something that was said to me recently… “PhDs aren’t worth it.”

It would be easy to dismiss such a claim, bearing in mind the claimant was only 21 years old and hasn’t actually done a PhD, but at the same time, to pretend that any PhD student spends their whole four-plus years brimming with assurance would be a lie.

I would say I was one of the more confident people I knew of the dozen or so doing a similar thing, but that’s not just senility talking. Some people brim with confidence when they shouldn’t because their minds are incapable of grasping the enormity of their circumstances, but I’ll give myself slightly more credit than that for two reasons.

  • For one, I love writing. It’s my “thing”, as it were, and has been for many years. In fact, now I’ve finished the PhD I’ve taken up writing full time (for a year or so), but this love isn’t shared by all. Sometimes fellow students would say things to me like “I hate writing”, and my response would be one of blunt astonishment. Well why are you doing a PhD then? You’re basically writing a book!
  • Secondly, I’m very interested in the subject area. I wrote about the architecture of large, modern central public libraries in the UK, which is a topic that fascinates on a number of levels: architectural (obviously), library science (obviously), but also engineering, psychology, sociology, philosophy (there is a Ph in PhD, after all), history, politics… etc. etc.

Having made it through and out the other side, I have some suggestions for anyone wondering whether to take a PhD, little questions you must ask yourself whether you can achieve. Bear in mind that I did a qualitative PhD, meaning the data came from discussions and conversations, rather than from numbers and statics, so the following is relevant to PhDs more commonly found in humanities and social sciences.

  • A PhD is fundamentally three things.
    • There’s the academic study, the reading and writing. You’ll have to do a lot of this.
    • There’s the research, which tends to involve a plan to get data, legwork, resistance to failure, modification of the plan, and then more legwork. It also – crucially – involved analysing the data. Analysis is a big one. Assume it will take months and hurt a lot.
    • Then there’s the construction of the thesis. This isn’t just writing and it isn’t just analysis. It’s working out exactly what to write, planning how long it will take you, hitting writing targets for month after month, and then editing, editing, editing. Then printing. Then viva preparation. Then corrections. Then resubmission. Then, and only then, graduation.

Sounds pretty tiring, huh? Here are some pointers.

  • A good relationship with your supervisor is essential. My supervisor was absolutely brilliant. She understood the subject, she really engaged with what I’d been doing every month, she read stuff promptly and gave detailed feedback. We got on, so the whole things clicked along from start to end.
  • Discover something specific to write about. It doesn’t have to be there at first. It doesn’t even have to be there halfway through. It might not (probably won’t) arrive until you’ve got the data and are halfway through analysing it. I didn’t write about libraries, I wrote about young people’s (1) experiences (2) of the architecture (3) of large (4), modern (5), central public libraries (6) in the UK (7). That’s pretty specific, but it took the data to tell me what I really had.
  • Plan the writing. Even though I like writing I needed a detailed plan of all the sections and their word counts, complete with progress bars (see below).

embedded-thesis-word-counts-1

  • This was used in the final year, when I had to actually turn everything into a thesis. I already had a load of writing, but 80,000 is heck of a lot, so I had about 50,000 to go. I knew editing would take a long time (seriously – the version I handed in was draft #7. It took me six months just to edit and another month to proofread). Working backwards from when I wanted to finish meant to knew I had eight months to write those 50,000. That’s where the following table came in:

embedded-thesis-word-counts-2

  • This does several jobs. “Date” shows the current day. Every day I had to be writing. “Word target” shows the amount of writing I’d need to have by that point in order to hit 80,000 by my self-imposed deadline. “Word count” shows what I’ve actually got. This comes from the first table. “Daily total” shows how much I’ve written on any given day. Negative figures are when I’ve cut stuff out. “Difference” shows me how ahead or behind target I am. When I’m ahead the cell goes green. If I’m behind it’s red. “10 day avg” is how much I’ve averaged over the previous ten days. The idea is to sustain high output. Again, the cell goes green if the average is higher than what I need to finish on time. “Needed to finish” shows how many words I’d have to write each day in order to finish on time. Believe it or not, this is a lifesaver. If you stop when it begins to hurt, you probably won’t be writing enough.

embedded-thesis-word-counts-3

  • Finally, we have a graph generated from the above table. I like visual things, and this graph shows me two important bits of information. I did my “writing up” from Jan to Sept 2015, shown here.
    • The blue line is what I needed to hit to reach 80,000 words at my self-imposed deadline (remember: finished is better than perfect). There’s a kink in it because on the 17th June I had my last internal review and decided to reward myself with a longer deadline. Setting impossible targets is fine if in missing them you still end up better off than you would otherwise have been.
    • The other one is not a line, it’s a scar, a wound on my soul, a slow, agonising ascent in which days of sustained effort could be wiped out in an instant by realising that something I’d written two years earlier was no longer usable and would have to be cut. As you can see though, sometimes, bits got pasted back in again too.

So, are you considering a PhD? Were you, until you read this? If so, what subject area?