What the library could learn about search

I’m not a librarian, or an expert on search. I’m a (re-)searcher who just happens to work in a library. I’ve tried to benefit from having such expert colleagues by developing my information literacy skills, but I have always had one dirty little secret: I really struggle to get sensible results out of your catalogue and discovery tools. I use the catalogue, but only to find access to a resource I’ve already found elsewhere.

I will give an example: I’m currently exploring some ideas that link pattern libraries (a design method originating in Architecture) with communicative action (an idea from philosophy and social sciences). I start my research by the search “pattern libraries” “communicative action”. When I enter this into the library catalogue, I get 0 results. Nothing in the collection, nothing in articles and databases. I then enter the exact same phrase into Google and I get 2,750 results. Sure the vast majority of links are probably rubbish, but on the first page alone there are several links to academic work that has touched on the topic. The link at the very top is a book. Google has actually scanned the book and found my search terms in the content. Neatly highlighted for me on page 29, exactly what I was looking for. I the copy the title into our library catalogue, and it turns out we even have a copy of the book, it’s in my bag right now. This is how I search (and find), and I recon I am not alone.

The reality is that there simply is no way to compete with the resources and expertise that a company like Google have. This isn’t just about dealing with student habits and preferences, it is the realisation that the sheer idea that we could make or buy any system that is going to outsearch Google is really just quite naive.

The University of Utrecht Library are one of the first libraries to take this seriously and ditch their discovery layer . Rather then try to compete with Google (or other search providers), they are enhancing it. Resources not spent on the purchase and maintenance of a discovery layer are used to ensuring that their resources are easy to find and access by working with Google on exposing their resources, and providing detailed guides for users. It’s a bold step, and I think a sensible and visionary one.

Dehumanising work

A colleague recently suggested I read the article ‘The functioning of social systems as a defence against anxiety‘ by Isabel Menzies-Lyth. It’s a fairly old article (originally form the 70′s, although republished various times since) and analyses of how nursing work, essentially a very caring profession, was transformed into a very mechanistic set of tasks by the systems it put in place to protect itself. It’s a challenge that I think applies to many similar professions including education.

The problem arises I think from our overly reductionist view of the world, inspired by the successes of reductionist analysis in the sciences. We have, implicitly perhaps, often reduced complex personal developments, whether they are about health and wellbeing, or about learning, to the successive application of standardised treatments. The idea that every person can go through the same personal development by undergoing a single and simple set of prescribed steps is of course ridiculous. We know learning doesn’t work in this way, and despite our desire to believe that health does I really don’t subscribe to that view either.

Equally important though, and this is the point the article underlines, this way of standardising and fragmenting work takes away a lot of the sense of responsibility and satisfaction from the profession. It might seem comfortable to transfer personal responsibility and accountability to checks, compliance with systems and bureaucratic oversight and management, but while this takes away some professional anxieties it also takes away most that is enjoyable and valuable about the profession, and creates a despondent professional culture that resists change and innovation.

It is an idea that aligns well with conclusions from OECD research, that effective education is served by an education profession that is given a high degree of personal responsibility and freedom in how they tailor their pedagogical interventions to the circumstances of their learners. It may be that this removes the security blanket of standardisation, and the illusion of objectivity and fairness. However I do believe that the results, though less predictable, will be measurably better.

Why Language?

I’ve written before about the value of the language that we use for learning spaces. It is an idea that has stuck with me, to the point where I am looking at making it the main focus for my PhD. So why language?

Firstly there is the ontological argument. Many professions and disciplines have a specialised vocabulary. While we often dismissively refer to these as jargon, I think these domain languages perform a very important function: They capture essential concept relations and categories in a way that facilitates efficient professional discourse. The fact that we don’t have a well developed domain language for learning spaces limits the sophistication with which we can talk about them.

Domain Language

Domain Language

Aside from the internal communication within the discipline, I also think that an effective domain language can help make connections to other domains. As illustrated in the diagram, a language for learning spaces could be the linking pin between the various disciplines and professions involved in the design and management of these spaces, such as architecture, pedagogy and AV & AT.

This communication is extremely important because it is a prerequisite for strategic organisational change. A shared language and shared understanding will allow for shared learning with all stakeholders involved, which is what I think is largely missing at the moment. My wish is that a better language will not only help us understand learning spaces better, but will also help us to keep learning more about them, and give us to tools to discuss the right priorities and direction on an institutional level based on a shared understanding, rather then a political game between professional silos.


Here we go again

After finishing my Masters degree I vowed never to take part in formal education ever again. I have always loved learning, but universities have always succeeded to beat the will to learn out of me with unrivalled efficiency. Ironically it is also part of the reason I work there: Because I feel it needs a change. And now I find myself embarking on the most daunting of qualifications: a PhD. Have I lost it? Well, probably. Then again there are some things that make me hopeful:

As a prolific learner, I’ve often felt formal education had little to teach me. I was just there for the bit of paper. It is not the best of motivations, certainly not for a long term commitment. This time however I genuinely feel I have a lot to learn, and I want to learn it!

My personal developmental pursuits aside, I am also hopeful that my research might actually make a difference. I’m not simply ticking boxes in the footsteps already placed by many before me, I am going somewhere new. And it’s somewhere I care about, because I will be trying to make a tangible improvement to how universities provide their learning spaces.

Thirdly, I will be working with some great people. People that believe in what I want to do, and believe in me doing it. I suspect I will need their support and enthusiasm when mine flutters.

Will it make a difference? Well I hope so. You should be able to tall by keeping an eye on this site as one of the things I need to start doing is writing more regularly. This is the first post of what I intend to be a very regular writing routine. Stay tuned!






A language for learning spaces

Language is important. Grammar and vocabulary are more than a means for transmitting information, they are also an attempt to model and understand the world. This is why disciplines often develop a highly specialised and precise jargon. It is not just for confusing outsiders, but instead it allows for the effective exchange of complex ideas in the current paradigm.

In learning spaces we don’t really seem to have such a language. Spaces are often referred to in a descriptive way (soft seating, silent study) which I think is indicative for our relative ignorance about how these spaces really function. I’d like to work towards a different vocabulary for learning spaces. One that allows us to say more meaningful things, and draw more meaningful conclusions. For me such a language will have to be based on the function of these spaces: learning. So what is it we do when we learn?

Learning is often associated with reflection. When we read a book, information doesn’t just add itself directly to our brain. We consider it from the perspective of our existing conceptions and modify or add to those conceptions actively through reflection. In formal education study doesn’t just involve learning through the ‘assimilation’ of knowledge, the creation or remixing of knowledge (for instance for an essay or dissertation)  is also a big part of the work undertaken by students. Traditionally much of these activities were done in isolation. However recent practice has adopted the view that learning can often be more powerful when done in a social setting: Conversation is often more powerful then reading, and working on a  project with a small group will develop you more then writing that solitary essay. You could put these different types of learning activities into a matrix.Study Space Typology

Study Space Typology

So conversation (in this model) is really just the social version of individual reflection in the same way that cooperation relates to solitary creation.

This model provides a useful view on recent changes in the library environment. People talking and collaborating in our sacred silos of silence are not just an attempt to be fashionable and popular, nor is it making the library into a social leisure space rather then one of learning. These changes reflect developments in how we think about learning as described above. Conversation and cooperation are as important (if not more so) then individual learning activities, and a modern learning environment needs to support them.

Silent study spaces actually comprise of 2 types of spaces. Spaces with a large ergonomic working surface, perhaps with a PC or space and power for a laptop, would support students creating new knowledge artefacts. Private comfortable spaces with a smaller working surface would be more suitable for contemplation (reading a book and perhaps taking a few notes). Maybe these would be ‘soft’, but that is not a requirement. Soft seating might also refer to a set of chairs around a small table set up for conversation. Soft is not a requirement, it is just an attribute that occasionally meets our requirements. And the danger is that when we consider random attributes such as soft upholstery to be a requirement, we also potentially create spaces with furniture such as large sofa’s which, while also ‘soft’ and ‘social’, do not necessarily support learning. It is a misconception born out of our lack of a precise language for learning spaces.

Putting the Learning in the Commons

Last Friday I visited the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons in Manchester. It was a visit that was well overdue, and I certainly didn’t regret making some time for it. The building is of course lovely, with generous spaces finished to a high specification. What really impressed me though had little to do with the building itself, but with what happened within it.

Generous facilities in the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons

Generous facilities in the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons

As the Learning Commons does not hold any book stock, a lot of thought was put into it’s identity and added value. The result is My Learning Essentials, a skills program supporting a broad range of academic and transferable skills. Often transferable skills are just assumed to be an implicit part of the formal curriculum, with varying but generally low levels of attainment. This is usually complemented by a fragmented offering from professional departments catering to very small numbers of students.

Bringing this program together under the care of a single team and in a central location is incredibly powerful. It creates an explicit coherent offering that is visible and easily accessible to students. The Learning Commons also provides a physical location and identity to the program by means of a dedicated training room. Sessions are delivered by top University teachers and set up to offer development opportunities for all ‘levels’. It is a way to enhance and develop yourself, not a way to address a problem.

The non-remedial nature of the program also means it has to scale. A strong focus on the use of feedback and statistics ensures that the offering is driven by continuously improvement, and popular sessions are converted to online resources where possible (Many of which are also available on Jorum! ). This creates a rich virtual space that extends the program and brings it at the fingertip of thousands of students. It also frees up resource for the program to develop and try new sessions on different topics.

What use is referencing to undergraduates?



There, I’ve said it. Someone needed to.

There is a lot of value in teaching students how to research a problem, construct an argument and credit and reference their sources. It is arguably the most valuable thing we can teach them in an age where very little knowledge stays current for very long. But why do we insist to do it in a way that students will never use after they leave university, and in doing so risking they never use the underlying transferable skills either?

The undergraduate curriculum no longer prepares students for an academic career. The vast majority of university students will leave academia, and those who want to make a career as a lecturer or researcher will certainly get some postgraduate qualifications first. So why then don’t we leave the very specific practice of academic referencing and referencing software to the postgraduate studies where they are more relevant?

Because for those leaving academia after their undergraduate studies, more generic researching skills will be far more useful. Teaching people how to do Harvard referencing, and use Endnote is a bit like teaching a home cook how to use a water bath: very interesting, and of no use whatsoever when you come home and have to cook on a stove.

I’d like to see the undergraduate curriculum focus more on tools and techniques that have a wider application. Why not look at (social) bookmarking, or systems and tools for making notes and mindmaps?

I think we should.





Collaborative computing labs: everybody wins!

Geometry of a paired PC workspace

As part of some design work for some of our computing labs, I’ve been looking at some modelling of space layout and utilisation. My goal was to find some simple geometrical modules that could be used to ‘build’ a space, and understand occupancy. I started out with an individual workstation and collated dimensions and geometry of a single person workspace and built the reusable module in the diagram below. The result is an 140 x 80 [cm] module using 0.9 [m²] of space (the surface area of the ellipse).

Geometry of an individual PC workspace

Geometry of an individual PC workspace

A similar module can be made for a collaborative space. This space will only need 1 PC, but will have 2 seats that are slightly less far apart then 2 individual seats. The setup roughly results in a pentagon shaped area of 140×140 [cm] with an area of about 1.3 [m²].

Geometry of a paired PC workspace

Geometry of a paired PC workspace

Just from these individual modules it is clear that the maximum density of individual spaces (1 / 0.9 = 1.1 students per sqm) is quite a bit lower then collaborative spaces (2 / 1.3 = 1.5 students per sqm), which is of course not surprising. It becomes a bit more interesting when we try and create different constellations of workspaces with these modules.

Different furniture plans using PC workspace models

Different furniture plans using PC workspace models

We can just make some traditional benches, but we can also build collaborative tables with various numbers of students. What becomes clear then is that the width of the monitor, rather than the width of the workspace, is actually the limiting factor for individual workstations in this configuration. Tables of 6 workstations take up 3sqm per workspace as a result, and the highest efficiency of 2.6 sqm per workspace is reaches with tables fitting 11 students.

 sqm per student 1 Student per PC 2 Students per PC 3 Students per PC 4 Students per PC
Facing PCs ( 4×2 rows) 1.47 1.16 1.05
Cluster of 3 PCs 3.82 1.96 1.91 1.97
Cluster of 4 PCs 3.35 1.99 2.04 2.18
Cluster of 5 PCs 3.27 2.07 2.20 2.41
Cluster of 6 PCs 3.01 2.17
Cluster of 7 PCs 2.84 2.29
Cluster of 8 PCs 2.72 2.42
Cluster of 9 PCs 2.64
Cluster of 10 PCs 2.58
Cluster of 11 PCs 2.54
Cluster of 12 PCs 2.60

Collaborative workspaces however have a much more suitable shape. Even workspaces of 3 or 4 double spaces already make an efficient use of space, requiring less then 2 sqm per workstation. And so interestingly, the configurations that are pedagogically very beneficial, are also quite efficient in their utilisation of space.


How can libraries support 21st century learning?

Here to help

The internet is ending information scarcity. In teaching this has accelerated the transformation of the role of the teacher from the custodian of transferable knowledge to that of a coach, a facilitator. Of course none of these models are new. Social constructivism had been around for a century, but adoption required the removal of the crutch of the monopoly on knowledge.

'Free for all' The Boston library mission, addressing information scarcity

The Boston library mission, addressing information scarcity

Libraries are in a very similar position. If knowledge isn’t scarce, then what is the value of the library? Libraries have always been defined, very literally, by their collection. But perhaps this definition mistook the means for the end. Libraries were built to support (independent) learning and study, and it just happened to be the case that for a long time that meant making scarce information available. If we look at the mission of the library as one of support of independent learning, perhaps libraries also need to change from seeing themselves as custodians of scarce knowledge, to facilitators of independent learning. So what could that mean? For me it revolves around 3 key topics:

  1. Inspiration and discovery
  2. Learning Space
  3. Learning Skills

Inspiration and serendipitous discovery have always been important implicit roles of the library. The collection itself of course is important in this respect, but with the physical component diminishing in importance we need to perhaps reconsider how not to loose serendipitous discovery as we move resources off the shelves. One of our interns is working on an interesting the creation of a collection in augmented space, on which I will elaborate in a later post when we have more data on how it is used. Other interesting options include adding a social curation layer to the collection where university members can easily review, rate and recommend resources. Exhibitions are another way in which libraries often inspire and promote discovery. Exhibitions fit the solemn and silent atmosphere of the traditional library, but now that we are moving towards a much more social and collaborative library space, perhaps we can extend the events we organise to also include symposia, fora and open lectures. Learning space is of course important. The rise of the Information Commons, or Learning Commons are examples of how many libraries are already intuitively shifting in this direction. Attention to the virtual spaces for independent learning however is often less explicit, and we often limit the use of our virtual spaces to the structured curriculum. Avans in Breda have even defined a third type of learning space on which they focus: the learner’s mental space. Libraries have long tradition of supporting students skills, in particular the development of their information literacy. Support for meta learning skills in universities is often very fragmented, and alongside the library many are also taught by a career service or within departments, while many others are only considered within a remedial context based on the mistaken assumption that the acquisition of these skills already takes place within the formal curriculum. Libraries could be well placed to at least be a channel for the coherent delivery of this support. It is interesting to see how many models and ideas exist for the changing role of libraries. This post just describes my personal and current thinking. Regardless of the exact answer we come up with, it is clear to me that even in the age of information obesity, there is still plenty of value that a library could offer.

Music, the last taboo in the library?

Free earbuds

I visited 2 fabulous libraries in Delft today, the TU library and the DOK public library. In both I noticed music playing (the selection in DOK being particularly provoking with tunes by the Prodigy and other more ‘upbeat’ music). It was strange at first, so un-library-like! But it also immediately made me feel much more welcome and relaxed.

I thought it would be much more distracting, but actually the noise of the music actually helped to make the noise of the increasingly social and collaborative spaces in the library less distracting. It made me think, why have libraries always been so obsessed with silence? Perhaps after getting rid of the ban on food and drinks, and the ban on talking, it is now the time to reconsider the value of music.

And yes, in some circumstances, or for some people, silence is desired or maybe required. However, does this need to impact every visitor in the space? Maybe not! Another interesting idea popped up on the plasma screen near the TU Delft library entrance: ‘Earplugs, get them free at the desk’. Not rocket science, I know, but I had simply never considered making silence a personal problem with a personal solution.

Free earbuds

Free earbuds

And that is not to say that the TU did not provide silent areas. But outside those areas it could afford to be very informal, social and noisy without taking away the ability of their customers to still choose silence if they wanted (or enhance the silence in the silent space).