We had a final session of our Bibliotheca class today at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which I am co-teaching with Jeffrey Schnapp. We used the time to explore the final projects of each of the students, some alone and some in groups. As a group, they are terrific, ranging from proposals to redesign and reuse particular library spaces (the Ashland (MA) Public Library, to expose more knowledge about the Nyanza Superfund site in the town, as well as familiar Harvard spaces, including the Loeb Library and the Lamont Library) to proposals for how RFIDs and wayfinding on mobile devices can improve the learning experience in and around libraries.
Two take-aways from today:
1) Process/Pedagogy: I’ve loved the porousness of this class. One of the expert reviewers today of the student projects was Kelly Miller, director of teaching and learning services for the 26,000-student-serving libraries at UCLA and recent CLIR fellow. Kelly read an earlier blog post I wrote about the class, said she’s be willing to visit, and flew across the country to participate in class. Others came from various corners of the Harvard Library staff, including my own home (the Harvard Law School Library — especially Jeff Goldenson, who jumped into the class with both feet, including co-producing a final presentation with a student in the class). The conversation has been richer for the diverse participation and willingness of the students to engage with an expansive group of experts who have come in and out of the classroom space and time. Ann Whiteside and her team at the Loeb Library have been very generous with their space and their insights, as well; it’s been fun to be teaching in an embedded way in the physical space of a forward-looking library.
2) Substance: The projects have mostly touched on the connection between the physical and virtual, one way or another. (To be clear: some wonderful and promising projects, including proposals for new types of carrels and text-based explication of the meaning of libraries from hundreds of years ago in Europe, didn’t take up the virtual much at all.) One of the things the students helped me to see, in new and dynamic ways, is the connectivity, not the separateness, of the two. It’s crucial, I believe, to see the virtual and the physical as deeply and meaningfully connected. Several projects considered how the physical might be integrated into the virtual; others went the other way around, and looked at how the virtual experience might connect into the physical in libraries. We’ve come a long way, I think, in libraries in a short time in this way. There’s no good case being made for seeing digital libraries as separate from the physical. Our users do not distinguish much between these environments, and we as those who work in, and design, libraries, shouldn’t either. Strength and insight comes from deep integration between the two.
I was equally struck by what a nice job the students did in doing homework about the background of the communities involved. One project considers the public library concept in particular developing countries contexts in Africa; others considered towns and cities in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The ideas by these design and architecture (and other graduate) students were well-grounded in not just the philosophy and history behind libraries, but also the important community contexts for which they’ve been designing. It’s very heartening, and speaks well of the GSD’s training program.