Beyond Whiteboards and Study Rooms: Taking Collaborative Spaces to the Next Level

Collaborative Space
Collaborative Space

Clients often ask design professionals to create spaces for collaboration. With today’s technology we can collaborate anytime, anywhere, and with anyone around the globe. But sometimes we need to be face-to-face, and we need spaces that don’t merely allow collaboration to take place. We need spaces that elevate working collaboratively. For libraries, providing furniture that supports group work or a white board and monitor on the wall of a study room are a good start. But collaborative space demands much more thought and planning to be successful.

Things to Consider

Consider the library’s role as a partner in innovation for public, non-profit and private market sectors. Libraries provide space, research assistance and resources for co-working groups, non-governmental organizations (NGO) and for profit and nonprofit startup businesses. Thriving in the current economy and being well positioned for the emerging network economy requires the ability to collaborate, communicate, work in groups, creatively solve problems, and think critically.

Consider the library’s role as both a direct and indirect partner in education. Educators
from all levels are evolving their pedagogies, updating building facilities and adapting curricula in order to respond to the need to equip our society with knowledge economy skills. All types of libraries (e.g., public, special, academic, school and corporate) have become indispensable partners due to the resources, services, spaces and experiences they provide.

Consider the many reasons library users may wish to collaborate with someone: for play, such as in an online game that requires teamwork (and little more than a computer and two chairs); for co-creation, such as developing a claymation skit for a school project or designing a wedding invitation; for education, such as a joint research project with partners around the world; or for work, to form a company, or use a meeting space for a planning session. Each of these tasks requires a different type of space and different technologies (or no technologies).

What, then, makes a space well suited for collaboration?

1. Adaptability

Libraries generally cannot afford the square footage that would support a customized space for each possible activity type (nor is that necessary or even wise). Flat or declining budgets mean leveraging every square foot to its fullest. Yet libraries must be all things to all users and continually evolve as those personal definitions of library relevance change. Because of this inevitable, ongoing evolution, designers have promoted flexibility as good library design practice. A storytime room this morning might be an interactive play area this afternoon. A static study table last year is a Wii station this year. What is often missing, however, is scalability of flexibility, from building infrastructure scale to furniture scale and everything in between. Adaptation of space is ideally accomplished in both large and small ways, for large and small groups, and for short and long timeframes. With today’s technology and product offerings, library users can make a space their own. They can change the lighting, re-configure the walls, add pinup or marker boards, switch up the furniture layout, and even change access to power or the temperature of a library space.

Providing a range of adaptability is important with collaborative spaces in particular, as the nature of collaboration itself continues to evolve and broaden its requirements over time. Library customers collaborate in a wide variety of ways now, and new tools are constantly being developed and enhanced. For example, software packages that allow seamless and intuitive collaboration and sharing of digital information from multiple inputs are prevalent now and were an expensive novelty only a few short years ago. The more adaptable a library’s collaborative spaces, the better able it will be to accommodate the changes gracefully and economically. Spaces prepared to accept inevitable innovations in technologies – infrastructural as well as informational – will ensure viability.

2. Level Field

To be equal contributors to a discussion, individual participants must have access to the knowledge pool and the ability to share their knowledge. Each person brings a unique point of view, experience and special knowledge to contribute. Effective collaboration requires that knowledge sharing occurs in a transparent and accessible way to the entire group. The nature of what we collaborate on is also evolving as project requirements are broadened. Collaboration involves all the senses now, not merely sight and sound alone. Projects may require a place with not only space for the participants, but also infrastructure and tools to move fluidly through various mediums in order to illustrate, share, research and debate ideas.

Many simple methods exist to facilitate knowledge sharing, each with its own space implications. Simply talking to one another requires a room with acoustic privacy and perhaps capacity to hold a phone conference or video conference. Pinup and marker boards (digital or physical, localized or dispersed) are another example. Software can be used that allows work sharing and co-editing functions in real time, while in the same room or scattered around the globe. These tools have become mainstays of culture, business and education. Libraries offering them will ensure that those without regular access can learn about and use them.

3. Zoning

While offering collaborative spaces is a necessity, they are just one of many types of spaces in a library. Many still come to the library for quiet. Variety and choice in experience are necessary; attention to acoustics is vital. Acoustic conflicts can be avoided by strategically locating the library’s collaborative areas. Zone your library interior to separate active, noisy functions from quiet ones. Consider human nature when planning the locations of collaborative spaces. For example, many people talk louder than usual when on a conference call; maker spaces often generate excitement and therefore boisterous sharing of experiences and ideas. Choosing finish materials for your collaborative areas that refract or absorb sound helps. Zoning the library is key.

4. White Space

Too many technologies, furniture, accessories and options can prove distracting. Our brains are wired to search for patterns to make sense of our visual worlds, and can become tired and overwhelmed when encountering too many things to process. Clutter confuses focus. Clarity of thought can result from clearing the decks. Provide both literal and figurative white space:

  • Offer a gadget-free collaborative experience.
  • Use layering to pack more in while allowing for visual quiet when required: sliding panel or Murphy-bed-like hardware to conceal or reveal technology, pinup boards and marker boards.
  • Provide closets for storage of additional furniture or accessories.
  • Design lighting to allow tiered customization to ambient, daylight and task lighting.
  • Include window shades. Views outdoors can have a calming effect, but window shades screen out the outside world when inward focus is desired.

5. Opportunity

Some of the best collaborations happen accidentally. The office water cooler conversation is an example. In addition to offering spaces intentionally designed for collaboration, allowing serendipitous collaborations to occur is desirable. Seating and tools placed in nearby niches for impromptu breakouts invites these types of encounters. Locating collaborative zones and spaces along the beaten path reminds library users of your offerings.

Library customers seek services, resources and spaces that can support them in play, creation, study, work and socializing on a continuum from solitary to highly collaborative. Designers must improve upon the one-size-fits-all approach to collaborative spaces to cement the library as a vital part of the forces driving this economy and the next.


Janet Nelson

Janet Nelson

Janet is the former Director of Library Engagement and Solutions at Demco. She managed and developed relationships with key industry leaders to understand changing library trends and services.