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MCLS Executive Director Randy Dykhuis recaps “Re-think It: Libraries for a new age”

What is the intersection of space design and organizational culture? How do you design a library that is not only functional, attractive, and architecturally interesting but also a space that invites people to enter and speaks to them once they are there? How will libraries need to adapt to meet the changing expectations of current and prospective users? Nearly 300 librarians gathered on the campus of Grand Valley State University to discuss, debate, and share thoughts about these topics and more at the “Re-Think It: Libraries for a New Age” conference on August 10–12, 2015. It was a fascinating, intense three days as attendees had their choice of breakout sessions, Birds of a Feather gatherings, and several invited panel discussions to hear from experts, network with colleagues, and ask questions.

The conference started with the keynote address by Elliot Felix, founder of brightspot strategy. Felix made the case for the importance of change and the necessity for rethinking library space, services, and organizations. His themes were to weave themselves throughout many sessions during the remainder of the conference. For many organizations, changing to become more relevant and meaningful to customers and other stakeholders requires not only adding new services or tweaking existing ones but re-framing what it is the company does. It is not enough to to redeploy staff but the environment in which the business operates must be re-thought. Felix pointed out examples from Microsoft, CVS Pharmacies, and Delta airlines. He connected the transformations in these companies to those that must happen in libraries if we are to thrive in the 21st century.

Felix’s opening keynote was followed by Lee Van Orsdel, Dean of Libraries at GVSU, and Dr. Lennie Scott Webber, founding Director of Education Environments globally for the Steelcase Education group and an environment behaviorist and interior designer. Van Orsdel described the visioning process and design work that preceded the actual construction of the new library. I have heard Van Orsdel give this talk several times before and am always reminded of the ground-breaking work she and the GVSU staff did when they were dreaming about their new building. They did not just want to build a building; they were out to reinvent library services on the GVSU campus. Usage of the new building and reaction to it by students, faculty, and library staff is testament to their success. Dr. Lennie Scott consulted throughout the project and became a trusted advisor to Van Orsdel and the staff.

These two opening sessions set the tone for the rest of the conference. It was relentlessly upbeat, with a “you can do it” attitude wrapped into almost every presentation and panel.

Other highlights included an electric presentation by Nate Hill that had the audience buzzing afterward. Hill is currently executive director of the METRO consortium in New York. Prior to his move to New York, Hill worked at the Chattanooga Public Library and led the effort to completely re-design how the 4th Floor at Chattanooga Public Library is used. When he started at the library, the 4th Floor was a warehouse for old technology and cast-off furniture. Under his guidance, it is now an experimental civic laboratory and makerspace with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts. The new 4th Floor space has transformed the way that the public library is viewed by the community.

You can tell a lot about a conference by the number of people hanging around for the final sessions. At “Re-Think It”, the Wednesday programs were packed, and the final panel had nearly a full house with attendees asking questions and volunteering success stories up to the very end.

I came away inspired by the work that has been done at GVSU. Not only do they have a building of which they can be justifiably proud but they have created a service model from which all of us can learn, whether we work in a traditional library or not, whether we have millions of dollars for a new building or a few hundred for a small project. The building was designed first and foremost for GVSU students and to give them permission to use it in the way that works best for them. There are no signs saying “Quiet space” or “Reference Desk” yet students move around the space, they immediately intuit where the quiet spaces are and where they can go to get help. But without buy-in from library staff it could have been a much different story. The library’s organizational culture had to support the space design and vice versa. The staff also needed to adopt the permissions basis that the architects and designers built into the building. With the organizational culture in-sync with the space, the building has been a rousing success and is likely to serve as model for what can be accomplished when culture and space are correctly aligned.