I’ve been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. In one chapter, he describes the campus layout of Pixar Animation Studios up north of Oakland. At the center of the facility is a vast, open space that Lehrer calls “the atrium.” It’s a place where employees come together on their way to coffee/lunch/bar/bathroom. Having the atrium (and all the connecting facilities) centrally located within the Pixar campus, employees encounter each other unexpectedly and often. As a result, these serendipitous encounters more often than not lead to creative thought and  innovative conversations (in other words, solutions).

The concept behind the atrium is related to the idea of “third space”: that place which is neither work nor home, but fluid, interactive, and energized (also, usually fueled by caffeine and alcohol; cf. the coffeehouses of France and the pubs of England in the eighteenth century). Lehrer cites the research of Tom Allen, professor of organization studies at MIT, who discovered that the highest-performing employees in an organization (i.e. “those with the most useful new ideas”) where those that had the most interactions with colleagues. Lehrer concludes:

This suggests that the most important place in every office is not the boardroom, or the lab, or the library. It’s the coffee machine.

As librarians, we know this. We’ve been talking for years about the importance of creating “third spaces,” especially in the form of Information Commons that inspire collaboration and help our users to seamlessly interact with information, technology, and each other.

But what about the librarians? Where are our third spaces?

I work for university library system that includes 14 distinct library buildings. Like many multi-branch university libraries, the division of our collections mirrors the academic structure of the university (e.g. the science library, the music library) and the needs of the collection (e.g. rare books, low-use materials, high-use materials). Accordingly, our staffing structure is predominantly based on these divisions, with some overlap for services like library IT and instruction.

Our collections (and the buildings that house them) are not going anywhere anytime soon. So where is our atrium? Where can we have the type of serendipitous run-ins that Pixar Studios has managed to facilitate? It takes me 15 minutes to walk to the closest branch from my library. I don’t exactly have the time to constantly be traveling across campus.

Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. I’ve been wondering how it might be possible in a multi-branch system to get librarians to bump into each other on a daily basis with the intent that conversations will happen, ideas will get out into the open, and the organization can begin to transform itself into a more nimble, vibrant entity.

Here are a few suggestions:


1) Create a Virtual Water Cooler

Librarians spend much of their time in front of a computer. But despite how easy it is to have conversations online, most employees only communicate via email. Why not create an always-open virtual space for library employees similar to IRC chat, the online classroom, or a Facebook group? Furthermore, encourage employees to stay logged in as long as their “on the clock.” All conversation would be public and open to anyone who wanted to join in. Librarians could use the virtual space to ask for help, share news, invite colleagues to events, throw out ideas, or just shoot the breeze.

2) Schedule Weekly Mobile Coffee-Breaks

Every week, one library branch sponsors a coffee break and invites all librarians to attend. The cost of coffee is minimal and if there is a concern about desk coverage, well, then have the coffee set up at the reference desk. Who knows: you may even have some students join the conversation.

3) Start a Lunch-n-Learn Series

One a month, sponsor a 1-hour bring-your-own lunch event that allows librarians to share their experiences and ideas with their colleagues. This could be set up as a formal lecture or a round-table discussion. We recently started this at MPOW and it has been a huge success.

4) Break Down Those Cubicle/Office Walls

While I recognize the need for private meetings spaces, the structure of many offices makes it too easy for librarians to huddle in their offices/cubicles. Let’s take a cue from other creative industries (this and this and this and this) and open up our work spaces to light and conversation.


What you can do as individual librarians:


1) Take it outside

As a rule, I never eat lunch at my desk. If I have to work while I eat, I either take my laptop with me or print out what I need. Nine times out of ten, I’ll run into someone I work with and start having a conversation. This usually turns out to be more beneficial than working through my lunch. 😉

2) Make house calls

Once a week, visit a different colleague. Maybe there is someone you haven’t seen in a few days (weeks?). Maybe you heard that a colleague won an award or published a paper. Stop by just to say congrats. At worst, you’ll just be “that really nice guy who always stops by.”

3) Attend university events

Go listen to a lecture. Watch the marching band perform. Check out the unveiling of the new statue on campus. You never know who you might run into!


I could go on, but I want to hear from you, dear reader…

What do you do as a librarian to create spaces for conversation within your institutions? What barriers have you encountered?

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