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Olin Library: Library as place, as lab, as local theater

I went to see my friend Jeff Goldenson — we worked together at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab — at Olin College, where he’s director of the library. Jeff’s taken a library that was an under-utilized resource and, with full Administrative backing, turned it into a playground and a lab…by learning some lessons from community theater. Most importantly, he’s turned it into a place that the community feels it owns.

Olin’s got 350 students, all engineers, half of whom are women. It’s a school that stresses hands-on learning, which turns out to work well for Jeff’s approach. The library’s got two floors, neither of them particularly large, and 15,000 volumes. (Here’s a banana for scale: My local community library has about ten times that many. Yes, it is an affluent community. Nevertheless, please keep in mind that I’m still looking for work.)

Here’s some of what Jeff — who’s background is in architecture and design — has done:

First, he has done the expected things to make the library more inviting — a place as well as a resource, as Jeff puts it. These include a media tools library, maker spaces, coffee spots, some very cool events. (Ask Jeff about the Awkward Family Photobooth :)

Second, he has encouraged students to participate in coming up with new ideas for the library and, since it is a hands-on engineering school, building them.

Third, he has taken some fantastic steps to make the library re-configurable, well beyond the usual putting wheels on everything. For example, he is not only putting things on shelves in the stacks that you won’t find in most libraries, he’s coming up with ways of enabling shelves to be generally repurposable.

Fourth, Jeff being Jeff, everything he thinks of or builds is done in open, shareable ways. (Jeff undoubtedly doesn’t want me to be as cagey as I’m being in this post.)

Fifth, when you have a chance, ask Jeff about cardboard. And vinyl. And other materials that lets him and others alter the physicality of the library — the library as place — the way a local theater company creates sets. For example, once a week the Library turns a structure in the lobby into a coffee shop. It’s very popular, but it still looks like a library structure repurposed as a coffee shop. But with the magic of some cardboard, paint, and just a few inexpensive touches — e.g., some cheap hanging lamps — the structure and the space are transformed. It’s set design, with the library as the theater. This way of thinking lowers the cost and risk of altering the perceived meaning and feel of the place.

The result is not just a supercool library but a model for how existing libraries without lots of resources can give themselves over to their communities…and become a point of pride for them.

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