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Collaborative Services & Spaces: The CSSSI

More than half of the acquisitions budget of the Yale University Library System last year went to digital acquisitions – journals and books that exist only in cyberspace.  While this statistic may be shocking, especially since many people still think of libraries as repositories for dusty volumes sitting on dark shelves, it is only part of the modernization of Yale’s libraries.  In addition to expanding access to electronic resources, Yale has realized that students, staff, and faculty work differently than they did over 70 years ago, when Sterling Memorial Library was erected.  Today’s patrons are more likely to need access to advanced computational tools, help with quantitative methods and database searching, and to work in groups on presentations and joint projects.  With these new needs in mind,  Yale’s librarians worked in conjunction with the university’s IT services to conceive of a space where patrons could not only access advanced reference and technology resources, but also have a single point of service for support.  The product was the Center for Science and Social Science Information – the CSSSI.

As the CSSSI was planned, the needs of contemporary patrons were constantly in mind.  ITS and the Library had to work together to ensure that the research needs typically associated with a library could be balanced with the information processing capabilities found in facilities like Yale’s Statistical Laboratory (StatLab).  In order to reach this goal, the committee working on the CSSSI not only evaluated the present services offered at Yale by both ITS and the  Library, but also traveled to other institutions to observe how they were approaching the issue and to evaluate services not yet offered here in New Haven.  From this research, several key points emerged.  Among them, it became clear that students and faculty were in need of a facility that provided interdisciplinary information, collaborative space and services, and help with different resources from a single point of service. Thus, the foremost goal of the CSSSI would be to serve as an intellectual and social hub for both students and faculty.  The challenge then became to develop a space and collection that could fill this need.

Designing the Space

While library interiors are usually structured for quiet individual study, and librarians discourage writing on walls and surfaces, the CSSSI was designed to not only support but also encourage collaborative learning.  To this end, rather than using carrels and shelves to isolate study areas, the CSSSI has an open design and seating areas that encourage people to face each other and work together.  Many articles of furniture are also movable – allowing patrons to adapt spaces to their needs. In other areas, writable walls (both glass and painted), white boards, and projectors allow ideas to literally expand across the entire room – accelerating the flow of ideas between participants.  Since following an idea to its conclusion can often extend past library hours, there is a 24 hour flexible study area at the entrance to the CSSSI, allowing a productive session to continue uninterrupted into the night.  In the 24 hour area there is also a media wall – an expanse of monitors that displays useful library and campus information until a student plugs in his or her laptop and takes control of the entire unit.

The group-friendly atmosphere continues into the main room of the CSSSI, where all workstations have dual monitors and desks with two chairs, allowing students to easily work on assignments in pairs.  If students are developing a presentation they can easily step into one of the library’s presentation spaces.  These rooms are designed with not only projectors and presentation equipment, but also with cameras and videoconferencing equipment.  Some students will use this space to practice and review presentations or interviews, while others will use the videoconferencing hardware to meet with distant peers, on West Campus, for example.  Other group study rooms are equipped with mediascape screen sharing systems.  These systems allow up to eight students to share their displays using plug and play connectors.

One of the most important parts of the old Social Science Library was the associated StatLab.  Themba pointed out that in the old space there was a physical separation between the library and the lab that led some patrons to see the two facilities as separate entities.  This artificial division has been eliminated in the CSSSI, and the StatLab now occupies part of the main floor of the library.  Like other collaborative spaces, the StatLab has an abundance of writable surfaces, areas to continue conversations that started in the classroom, and hardware that allows screen sharing.  Along with group study rooms, collaborative workstations, and presentation spaces, the StatLab is part of a facility that has been built to understand and support today’s students and researchers.

Although collaborative spaces and technology dominate the library’s main space, books have not been eliminated.  On the lower level of the library students will find traditional quiet study carrels and the book stacks that house the library’s 180,000 volumes.  Current periodicals and certain reference texts are also still available in print form on the upper level of the CSSSI.

Enabling Technology

In the planning of the CSSSI it became clear that students not only needed spaces where they could work together, but also needed access to technology that enables research and makes collaboration more efficient.  With this in mind, the library installed a wide variety hardware devices equipped with software designed to take learning efficiency to new levels.

In the main space of the CSSSI, all workstations have been equipped with as much productivity software as possible.  This includes advanced statistical software, creative design packages, and document creation suites.  Since some students are more comfortable working on their personal computers, but still need access to the wired network to transfer massive amounts of data, there are workstations that include ethernet cables that students can plug directly into their own computers.

Creative design needs not met by the standard workspace image can be met by the row of Macs that line the library’s west wall.  These computers have been equipped to work with digital media, and have the software and computing horsepower to handle new media projects.  For students and researchers converting items in print media to digital form, there are scanning stations that include a book scanner, designed to quickly send PDFs of pages to an email account or flash drive, as well as a high resolution flatbed scanner connected to a workstation with a Wacom Cintiq writable display for fast image editing.

Machines with software that has not been licensed campus-wide, including a Bloomberg Terminal for access to real-time financial market information, are available at the desks closest to the courtyard.  The software on these computers, along with the regular workstation image, allows users to open and work with as many different types of data as possible.  In fact, the CSSSI makes every effort to support old formats of digital information.  Themba points out that if a user comes in with a floppy disk containing a presentation in the Harvard Graphics format from 1992, there will be hardware and support staff to open and convert that data into a useful format.

Support Staff

In order to offer support for the spaces and resources of the CSSSI, the Center’s staff is trained differently from librarians and research assistants in other libraries.  The information desk at the CSSSI exemplifies this transformation in library services.  Rather than being trained in only one aspect of the library, all staff members can provide basic help with both the hardware and software products offered at the CSSSI.  Desk workers are also trained to be able to help with research tasks in both the social sciences and the physical sciences, essentially establishing a single point of service that can assist with the most common patron requests and problems.  Staff expertise is kept up to date with a technology training curriculum.

When students need help with either technology or research that exceeds the scope of service provided at the information desk, they can meet with either a StatLab consultant for statistical software issues, or a specialty librarian for research questions.  These staff members reside in a set of offices known as “librarian row,” with glass walls designed to promote openness and communication.  In the pool of available experts at the CSSSI, there will be staff present to help design, research, and analyze results from a project.

The highly trained staff of the CSSSI help the library function as a technologically rich collaborative work and research space, while also allowing for new patron services including article scan-on-demand, delivery of print materials to offices, as well as enhanced research services.  Although the library’s location under the Kline Biology Tower targets science and social science majors, the unique blend of technological, collaborative, and research services at the CSSSI is sure to draw students and faculty from all disciplines to the new space.

Photos of CSSSI by Michael Marsland and Amanda Patrick via Yale News.

For full coverage of this session, please click the video below
(note a slight delay upon initial playback):

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