Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Creating an "anti-library" to suit students' study habits at SAIS Bologna

There's been a lot of pounding and the odd dust particle in SAIS Bologna's building this summer. Below, Bart Drakulich, director of Finance & Administration, outlines a major restructuring that responds to changes in technology and accommodates students' evolving study habits. 

When the SAIS campus in Bologna underwent its renovation and expansion in 2006 and 2007, one of the more beautiful new areas of the building was the mezzanine, located directly above the café and adjacent to the upper floor of the Evans Library.

During the planning stages, we thought long and hard about what to do with this space. Ultimately we decided to dedicate it to technology (ouch)! Half of it became the new language lab, the other half became a (at the time) state of the art PC farm. We installed 16 thin client terminals for students to check their email, work on Microsoft Office apps, conduct research, etc.

The Blueprint 
It seems as though about five minutes after we installed and configured the equipment, the mobile/smart computing revolution began, shortly followed by the social networking explosion. Soon students were complaining that YouTube was not streaming quickly enough (the client/server configuration was designed to provide a robust, virus-free data environment, but not to stream video). And how could you possibly update your Facebook page or IM without a cappuccino at hand (no food or drinks allowed in the computer lab)?

Bart Drakulich keeping an eye on the work
The “digitally distracted” reacted by abandoning the computer lab for Giulio’s café downstairs. They huddled with their Ipads and Macbooks in groups of four or six around the bar tables, working on group projects while refueling with one espresso after another. Not enough outlets in the bar was an issue, but the biggest was when Giulio began to kick people out of the café so that he could seat the lunch crowd. “We have no place to study!” they protested.

A student survey respondent even went so far as to complain “there are too many Italians in the bar” (imagine that). Our beautiful and spacious library was out of the question. As one student put it, “We just want to study alone together without the deafening silence of the library.”

Clearly a solution was needed, and with input and advice from the students, and assistance from JHU’s architect in Baltimore, we began to envision a new kind of space. We would punch a hole in the ceiling of the existing (small and underutilized) student lounge located behind the café. We would build a stairwell from the café up to the mezzanine floor, and create Mezzanine 2.0.

In fact, this new space has evaded definition, with several working titles used, and then discarded: The VIP lounge; The Starbucks area; The group study and social space (ugh); the multipurpose area (double ugh). The very fact that we've been unable to name it illustrates the notion that this space is “open for interpretation” by the students.

The original computer lab, just a few years ago
A few things we are fairly certain about. It has outlets everywhere. You can bring your coffee (and perhaps even your lunch?) from the café’ downstairs. Access will be restricted to SAIS students (no competing for tables with the pesky University of Bologna lunch crowd. You know, the Italians). There will be a few high-speed PCs available (yes, they stream video), but the bulk of the space will be dedicated to tables and chairs which can be combined and separated to cluster however students prefer, at any given moment. And did I mention there will be lots of outlets?

Will it become a messy and smelly student lounge with a refrigerator and microwave? Will it be primarily an area to caffeinate and socialize? Will it truly evolve in to a group study area, a sort of “anti-library” where lively discussion and collective research is engaged in?

Ultimately the Class of 2014 will determine how this space evolves, but we hope that we will have provided a comfortable and configurable space that is “future-proof”.

At least for the next two years.

Bart Drakulich

To see more photographs of the renovation, click here.

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