Physical Space as Public Service (on a budget)

by Beau Steenken

For a day every August, the law librarians at the University of Kentucky (UK) retreat to tinker with the law library’s strategic plan. We have the plan divided into five broad goals focusing on areas such as collection development, reference, and instruction. Goal #5 is to “Foster a Physical Environment that is Conducive to Scholarship & Legal Education.”

While we think of the primary services of the library to be providing information through processes such as reference, instruction, and circulation, we recognize that potential patrons are much more likely to make use of our services if our environment is both welcoming and aesthetically pleasing. Providing such an environment is difficult, as we are located in an old building and have limited funds at our disposal. To make matters worse, our vision sometimes clashes with the standards to which UK’s central administration adheres.

For instance, the University puts everyone on a 10-year paint cycle, and the powers that be prefer colors that wear well over time. (The administrators call the color of choice “ice cream.” We refer to it as “putty.”) Last paint cycle, we managed to talk the painters into providing an inoffensive blue accent color (“Walden Pond”) on some of our surfaces. It did wonders, and our patrons remarked on how much they enjoyed the change. It has chipped over time, and we recently tried to buy some paint of the same color to touch it up. Unfortunately, I used a library procurement card for the $10 can of paint, and it triggered an audit. We have been told in no uncertain terms that the building belongs to the university and that we are not allowed to paint the walls ourselves. I understand the point (that the administration trusts professional painters for painting and would prefer that professional librarians stick to reference), but it does not jive well with the D.I.Y. ethos present in most libraries.

Of course, we might not be as into D.I.Y. if we were adequately funded, and the sad truth is that we won’t be able to afford to have the university painters touch up our walls. Fortunately, we have found many creative ways to decorate on a budget with our D.I.Y. and scrounging skills, and our students and public patrons alike find working in the library to be reasonably pleasant. For instance, one of my colleagues “liberated” some art work from a relative’s basement. I recruited my mother, an amateur photographer, to take pictures of horse farms around Lexington that we were able to print and frame at a reasonable cost for a permanent display. However, I would like to highlight two of my colleagues’ actions which I find particularly clever.

Patty Alvayay, who handles our Government Documents, noticed that our Gov Docs collection contained a series of posters made out of World War Two maps issued by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. There were enough posters to hang one in every study cubicle on our top floor, so we purchased affordable poster frames and hung them one per cubicle.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Gov Docs – In the catalog; on the walls.

Meanwhile, Ryan Valentin, Head of Public Services, found an ingenious use for old, duplicate reporter volumes. Using a secret technique that involves a printer by-pass intake, binding glue, and just a bit of magic, he converted the unused volumes into one-of-a-kind Reference and Circulation signs.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Hand-crafted reference sign beneath soothing “Walden Pond” accent wall.

While we are limited financially, we do what we can to achieve Strategic Goal #5 and make our patrons feel comfortable. An awareness of the impact that physical space has on public service is a good first step. After that, where there’s a will, there’s a way (unless central administration stops you).

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