Libraries have grown to become the intellectual and social hubs of campus, where, prior to March 2020, students, researchers, and faculty gathered to collaborate and connect. Now, almost two years later, campus communities are still seeking a home away from home in their library, be it in-person or virtually. How does the library transform to continue inspiring engagement and university culture in a hybrid era?
When campuses shut down in the spring of 2020, libraries had to shift to virtual research and reference support. In the information age where technology is a driver, many libraries were already set up to provide these resources online. Messenger applications, chatbots, and video consultations allowed support services to continue uninterrupted. Learning opportunities in research methodology and specific subject areas transitioned to webinars or blog posts to support remote learners, while centering the library as the remote intellectual hub in a low-cost, high-impact way. Libraries across the country continued to make the campus library a social hub through remote engagement in lieu of in-person events and workshops.
At the time, the pivot to fully remote was relatively easy because resources were already in place that supported a more virtual world. Today, libraries face a new challenge of accommodating hybrid models. Although students and faculty are back on campus, the virtual format is still active with online courses. In efforts to balance both environments, students are seeking a place to focus, away from their residence halls and apartments, where their roommates are also participating in online courses. With social and emotional pressures on the rise, students and faculty are eager to find places where they can escape from disruptions as well as spaces where they can connect and collaborate with others.
As architects, it’s our responsibility to work with these institutions and design spaces that support their needs. Creating a variety of study spaces is one way to allow students to be present on campus and still provide them with a distraction-free silo setting. Individual study pods within the library provide a private space for students to be in class virtually, while remaining connected to campus. Zones can transform from individual study to small group collaboration, enhancing social interaction for students.
Staff and faculty members are also seeking innovative ways to connect with all students as some participate remotely, and others are in person. A sense of culture is essential for student engagement especially when some may have never previously visited the campus in person due to the pandemic. Given that new range of student experiences, we need to consider how we design spaces that can be easy to navigate both physically and virtually, so students have an equitable experience.
Furthermore, we need to evaluate the various hybrid working models for staff and faculty and determine how we design spaces to best support their day-to-day. For example, what do staff spaces look like in a hybrid era? Can faculty and staff transition solely to remote? How many days of the week do individuals need to be in person? To accommodate obstacles and identify solutions, we’re testing new forms of technology that can improve how patrons work, teach, and learn in unique situations. As we continue to learn from this experience and rethink our design strategy, one thing is for certain: flexibility is essential to accommodate a variety of tasks and preferences.
Despite the challenges, libraries remain a place for community. With their multifunctional design, they are uniquely positioned to provide access to resources that address learning, as well as opportunities for emotional support. Counseling pop-ups, meditation rooms, craft time, yoga in the library, and other workshops are all ways that libraries continue to be supportive of their community in response to current needs. From in-person events in the library, including a virtual engagement lecture on Special Collections, live chat or video feed, to digital research and reference services to complement on-site support, libraries must continue their evolution and customize services and programs to serve digitally and physically.