Posted by: Maria | May 6, 2008

Social space or communal space?

Emily’s recent post about students moving in during the 24/7 library period reminded me of an article I read recently in The Journal of Academic Librarianship. In “Academic Libraries: ‘Social’ or ‘Communal?’ The Nature and Future of Academic Libraries,” Jeffrey Gayton argues that as the need for physical space decreases due to increases in electronic collections, academic libraries are having to rethink how they use their physical space. Many libraries are moving in the direction of creating information commons, which merges the library with computing and information technology, or creating social spaces (e.g. coffee shops) within the library. (Or, as I like to refer to it, it is the Barnes-and-Noblization of the library.)

Gayton contends that creating social spaces in the library is the wrong response to this problem. He argues that it is a mistake for libraries to conflate library space with social space, because that is not the original design and intent behind the academic library. He says that students value the library not as a social space, but as a communal space. A communal space, as described by Gayton, allows library users to engage in solitary study and to see others doing the same.

The problem is that the social model undermines something that is highly valued in academic libraries: the communal nature of quiet, serious study. Communal activity in academic libraries is a solitary activity: it is studious, contemplative, and quiet. Social activity is a group activity: it is sometimes studious, not always contemplative, and certainly not quiet.

I had not really given much thought to the distinction between communal and social space before, so Gayton’s take on this topic was very thought-provoking. I vacillate between valuing social spaces in the library, because they help create a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere, and being critical of social spaces, because I think they can enable unrealistic expectations of what passes as acceptable behavior. (Students want to eat in the library and balk at being asked to take their cell phone calls elsewhere. They are permitted to do these sorts of things in just about any other social space, so why not the library?) I want to preserve and encourage the welcoming, safe atmosphere of the academic library, but not at the expense of discouraging studiousness.

However, I found myself questioning his privileging of solitary study space over group study space or social spaces. Certainly there is a need for quiet space where students can work alone in peace, but I don’t think that this need is more important than space were students can work together and, yes, socialize while they are at it. There is value in collaborative study. Group study rooms in our library are very popular, especially during the last few weeks of the semester, and these spaces allow students to talk openly and work together while still faciliating studious activity. Gayton cites a study that examines academic library construction and renovation, and according to this study:

The only kind of study space singled out [for study] is group study space, and it was found “that there was no demonstrable relationship between the number of group study rooms and facility use.” This suggests that even with the rise of social models of knowledge and learning, and greater reliance on group projects in higher education, students do not greatly value collaborative spaces.

My response to that was: Really? Seriously? I would like to invite these researchers to the Indiana University Southeast library, especially near the end of the semester. There were times this past semester when every single group study room was reserved simultaneously. I would argue that the use of, and the demand for, group study rooms in our library contradicts these research findings.

Ultimately, while I concur with Gayton about the importance of solitary study space, I do not think that this kind of space is more important than other kinds. I think if we provide equal amounts of both communal and social study place, we are doing our best to provide students with as many options as possible. The academic library is the intellectual center of the campus community, and given that our campus community is composed of a diverse group of people with equally diverse needs and desires, we should try to offer something that will appeal to as many library users as possible. So please: come to our library and enjoy some coffee and our cozy, soft furnishings. Please enjoy our quiet zone on the lower level of the library, or reserve a group study room if that’s your thing. Whatever it is you need, please just come, and we hope that you feel both welcome and supported while you are here.



  1. That’s so interesting! Especially interesting to me is the stuff about group study rooms. At a student life meeting last week, a student came to ask permission to use one of the group study rooms to exhibit an end-of-term piece she did for a course in ‘public art.’ The outcry from other students was pretty intense, and fairly conflicted–some were very upset by the idea that a single student would commandeer the study room like that. Another set were concerned that the library would value writing over art–why wouldn’t student art have equal claim on the space that students still see as the heart of the scholarly community? These questions about space are highly contested, no?

  2. The student comments about valuing writing over art interest me very much. In our library, we have gallery space for the explicit purpose of displaying art, including student art. In fact, the library sponsors an student art competition every year. But of course, the art display is not at the expense of study space. Actually, the art space compliments the study space, I think. It is on the lower level of the library, where the quiet zone is, and there is an arrangement of cozy seating in the art gallery area. Students can study and experience art simultaneously. How great is that?

    I concur, though, that questions about space are indeed highly contested, and there are no easy answers to these questions. It is interesting to think about, though.

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