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The case for creativity and creative spaces in libraries

By Katy Kavanagh Webb, J.Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University | Apr 09, 2018

A faculty member turns to you in a committee meeting and asks about locating grants and technology help for her digital humanities project. A student patron at the reference desk asks how to use a 3D printer. Your afternoon research consultation is about creating an infographic summarizing the findings of a graduate student’s thesis.


Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?  


In the not-so-distant past, libraries were seen simply as repositories for information, the place to go to access facts, figures, and research. At academic libraries in particular, students would have expected they could write a paper with the information they gleaned there, or faculty may have authored a scholarly article in the course in their research. As technologies have advanced in the 21st century, the types of literacy and the variety of technology-supported research have expanded. Librarians are likely familiar with the concept of “creative activity” when it comes to defining research done at their institutions. Even in fields that are not often thought of as based in the arts or humanities, engaging in the production of scholarship is a largely creative endeavor, from conception of the idea to the production of the output.




The role of libraries in creative work


The library is seen as what sociology researcher Ray Oldenburg (1999) calls a “third place,” with the first and second places being a person’s home and office. A third place is a community anchor, a location that fosters interactions with others. As the purveyors of multiple modes of literacy on campus and the place where many already feel comfortable asking for help, the library is often a third place where students and faculty will come for research assistance. This kind of research may include the creation of video and audio, data scraping, 3D printing, the creation of media-rich websites, and more. Responding to this change, many libraries are dedicating spaces that go beyond the written word to provide services or teach skills to assist faculty and students in their creative endeavors. Librarians, once seen only as information locators, are being pressed into service as technology experts or research partners in this process of knowledge 


Library creative spaces


The term “library creative space” was coined by Eric Johnson of Virginia Commonwealth University in his 2017 chapter in the book The Future of Library Space.  These spaces are areas set aside in libraries to foster creative work and focus on non-textual content creation. Johnson writes that “such spaces typically will offer: (1) dedicated space; (2) tools, materials, and equipment for use by patrons; and (3) some level of support, whether in the form of staff expertise and facilitation, classes and instruction, online resources, or some combination of those.” Library creative spaces take many forms, including digital media labs, digital humanities labs, “makerspaces,” data visualization labs, and knowledge markets.


This short article is the first in a series of Library Connect articles that will delve into emerging models for library creative spaces.  Others in the series will define the different types of creative spaces and explore their formats, audiences, technologies, and services, with the goal of helping you to make a case for these spaces in your library. If you would like to learn more about library creative spaces or read case studies of innovative libraries that include a technology-rich space, consider picking up my new book Development of Creative Spaces in Academic Libraries: A Decision Maker’s Guide (2018) from the Chandos Information Professional Series.





Johnson, E. D. M. (2017). The right place at the right time: Creative spaces in libraries. In Hines, S. S. and Crowe, K. M. (Eds.), The future of library space (pp. 1-36). Advances in library administration and organization series (36), Bingley, U.K.: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.



Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: Cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe.



Webb, K.R. (2018). Development of creative spaces in academic libraries: A decision maker’s guide. London, U.K.: Chandos Information Professional Series.