White boards flank the tables where University of Minnesota researchers gather in conversation with experts from the Libraries. Several research teams are present, each group having quickly and easily assembled its own custom work space. Chairs, tables, and white boards have wheels that can be locked and unlocked, moved where they are needed.
A Research Sprints session like this one brings teams of researchers and librarians together to work intensely and collaboratively, over a period of several days, to move a project forward. The participants take notes, ask questions, and connect their laptops to larger screens in the room to share information with their group as they access a website or database. Librarians stay with an assigned group, or else move among them when their expertise is required for other projects.
The new Wilson Research Collaboration Studio, which opened its doors for the first time in July 2017, is just the right place for programs like this one to flourish.
“Every aspect of the design is meant to encourage people to talk to each other, to work together — not to be isolated individuals in a quiet space, but rather have collaborative conversations around research,” says Benjamin Wiggins, Program Director of the Digital Arts, Sciences, & Humanities (DASH) program and co-chair of the Libraries’ Research Sprints program.
Flexibility by design
Undergraduate student Anne Schwappach, enrolled at the Carlson School of Management, appreciates the room for its features, including “the whiteboards for brainstorming, the screens for sharing mockups, and the space for being able to easily communicate.”
Schwappach got the chance to experience the studio firsthand thanks to her professor Julia Van Etten, who was interested to see how the new space would work for class sessions that required extensive group work.
Van Etten’s first visit to the studio with her class featured an introduction to 15 specialized databases focused on branding, consumers, and market research.
“As they learned about the databases they worked on them here in their groups,” Van Etten says, adding that she and Business Librarian Caroline Lilyard could easily move around and answer students’ questions.
“Normally I’d say go look at the databases and bring it back to class, but it was so much more valuable to do it in real time,” Van Etten says. “A space like this breaks down barriers and you get to know your students better — being able to facilitate learning in a space like this is such a gift.”
Her students enjoyed working on their projects in the Research Collaboration Studio as much as Van Etten. “We had a project workshop day scheduled in class and I asked if they wanted to head back to the library and it was unanimous. They all did.”
A new home for Libraries programs and services
The studio functions as a home base for programs and services that support University research. Programs that operate in the studio include the Programming and Pizza series hosted by the University’s Digital Arts, Sciences, & Humanities (DASH) program. Graduate students can sign up to attend one of the monthly events in order to get hands-on help with technical projects like web design, scripting and programming, data analysis, and database development, to name a few.
The space is also being used to help University experts forge meaningful community partnerships. The Hennepin University Partnership initiative, for example, brings U of M faculty together with staff from across Hennepin County government. A recent event in the series focused on addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The group conversations and brainstorming sessions that happen in the studio can serve as preparatory work for grants to sustain the collaboration.
“Libraries are a pillar of the community, whether you’re in an academic library or public library,” says Lacie McMillan, Library Assistant for Access & Information Services who works as support staff for the Wilson Studio. “It’s important for the community to know they are welcome here.”
Reflecting that ideal of communal space, the studio is open to all on a first-come, first-served basis. Some portions of the room can be reserved in advance by University faculty, staff, and students, including tables for group projects and a team meeting room. Another team room, the Business Research & Data Lab, is available for Carlson School of Management faculty and staff.
All part of a larger plan
Since Wilson Library opened in 1968, collections have grown to overtake spaces that were originally set aside for students, faculty, and community members to do research.
“We’ve gradually lost space for user seating and we’ve had a persistent demand from students for more spaces and for different kinds of spaces, in particular group study and project team rooms,” says Claire Stewart, Associate University Librarian for Research & Learning.
User demand is an important factor, but certainly not the only consideration when it comes to making significant changes. The decision to move a collection is never something librarians take lightly. Before choosing the location of the Research Collaboration Studio, the Libraries conducted studies on collections use. Based on the data, compiled over three years, “it was pretty clear that if we were looking for somewhere to create a highly interactive collaborative space, this would be a good candidate,” says Stewart.
The Research Collaboration Studio is just the beginning, a preliminary phase in a carefully deliberated set of plans to improve user experience at Wilson Library. A longer-range plan is renovation of the building.
Although the renovation plans are not yet finalized, likely changes include expanding the SMART Learning Commons, creating havens for quiet study in addition to the louder spaces required for team collaboration, and addressing the need for technology-enriched spaces on campus.
When Stewart discusses the upcoming changes, she emphasizes the Libraries partnership with the Disability Resource Center.
“We take to heart what Scott Marshall and Donna [Johnson] who is the director say, ‘The goal should be accessibility not accommodation.’”
What that means, practically speaking, is that new spaces are being planned with access in mind and project planners are thinking through every decision from the design of doorways to the installation of lighting and the types of chairs being purchased to ensure that essential services are more accessible for the community of users who rely on Wilson Library.
“There’s a wonderful opportunity with Wilson — such a large and important space — to really do better than we have,” says Stewart. “I’m excited about that opportunity.”