Encouraging Community in the Physical Library Environment

In my last post, I discussed creating a virtual community for online learners, but what creative things are we doing to create communities in our physical libraries ? What kinds of cultures are you trying to create in your library, and how do you go about encouraging that? At the Warren E. Burger Library of William Mitchell College of Law, we’ve experimented with several initiatives and activities over the last few years, primarily centered on crafting better communication with students and exploring creative ways to improve service. These are some of our successes, most of them small and easy to do.

Unusual circulating items
When you hear about public libraries arranging for seed-lending, providing laptop chargers at circulation perhaps doesn’t sound so revolutionary. However, students are constantly forgetting them. So we have several laptop and cell phone charges available for students to check out. Additionally, we offer headphones, laptop locks, and bookstands (which are surprisingly popular) for circulation. The circulation periods for these items are more similar to reserve items than normal books – two to four hours, rather than three weeks.

Not a day goes by when I’m sitting on the reference desk that I don’t hear a student ask for a cell phone charger. As far as I know, there have been no problems getting these items back, although I think the rate of charger breakage is higher than you might expect. However, the replacement fees are not terribly high. I’d love to hear about other unique items circulating in law libraries. We all, of course, have heard of Monty, the therapy dog who circulates at the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale, but what other kinds of unexpected things are you loaning to your patrons?

Loo Review
Shamelessly purloined from an idea Harvard Law School’s library suggested, a few years ago I started a “bathroom reader” in our library to inform students of things that we librarians thought the students really needed to know about and just weren’t getting. We call it the Loo Review (name provided by a very funny student; the tag line, provided by the same student, is “Captivating News for a Captive Audience”), and it comes out a couple of times a month. We post the “reader” in magnetic sleeves that attach to the inside of the stall doors — mildly embarrassing but it works!

The Loo Review has showcased electronic databases that students tend to neglect in favor of Wexis, changes in library hours, courses that librarians are teaching, helpful advice for finals studying, fun places to eat near campus, and much more. We know the students read it, because they come to us with comments and questions based on the things in it. It reflects a fun, looser side of law librarians, I think. You can see a recent issue here.

Open-voice area
A few years ago, our new director was interested in creating a more dynamic environment on the main floor of our library — more of what the public libraries have been doing in the past few years, emphasizing the library as gathering place, instead of stressing a silent study area. We created an “open voice” area on the main floor, replaced some furniture with some big, overstuffed comfy chairs, and loosened our eating policy (from absolutely no food or drink to covered liquids and “non-stinky, non-messy” food allowed).

Admittedly, the results of this experiment have been mixed. Not everybody is pleased with a law library that is less-than-silent in all areas, and sometimes the policies may feel arbitrary. For example, we still ask people to take their cell phone conversations outside  (however, at least during my shifts, I’ve found that most seem to understand this). I’ve definitely noticed a cultural shift in the first floor. You can hear conversations going on, and the area seems busier than before. I think students who would otherwise be studying outside the library are now doing so inside the library. As long as we continue to enforce quiet in the quiet areas of the library, I think this has been welcome shift for many students.

Reference office moves
This summer, for several reasons, the reference librarians moved their offices from the top floor of the library, far away from all the action, to the main floor of the library, near the reference desk and smack-dab in the middle of the open-voice area, where all the action happens.

Although this initiative is more elaborate than the others I mention, and it was not done with the purpose of contributing to the library culture, I believe it has done just that. The reference librarians are more visible than they were before. Students will stop by our offices with questions; before the move, they did not even know where our offices were. If the reference librarian on duty is busy with a patron, another student does not necessarily have to wait for assistance. Personally, I feel more connected to our patrons and believe I have helped more of them than I was able to before.

Coffee during finals

Finals Haiku

Coffee table set up in library conference room during finals time. Haiku and thanks provided by students.

I think our biggest gratitude-generator/attention-getter is providing coffee during finals, when we open up our conference room and turn it into a study break area. We keep it stocked with coffee, trashy pop culture magazines, puzzles, and games. This initiative has proven quite popular. I couldn’t even tell you how many pots of coffee our students go through during finals. And I think they really appreciate having a spot where they can truly take a break.

Students work on the puzzles we supply, take turns at the Scrabble game we put up, and are sincerely appreciative of our efforts. The finals coffee break room brings in students we don’t normally see, if only for them to tell us the coffee needs refilling. Then the next semester, some of them remember us and are more willing to ask for help for our more “typical” reference duties.

What kinds of fun and unusual activities are you attempting in your library? Has it changed your library’s culture?

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About jkbeitz

Academic law librarian. Amateur photographer and beaded jewelry-maker. Mom to a kiddo. Loves a good timesuck.
This entry was posted in Customer Service, Issues in Librarianship (generally), Library Displays, Inspiration and Design Ideas and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Encouraging Community in the Physical Library Environment

  1. Pingback: What’s in a name? | RIPS Law Librarian Blog

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