SPL-as-place: "The coolest library in the world"

By Hannah Parker, MLIS day

Maybe you saw the e-mail message last fall-the one boldly stating that if you were "looking for fun and excitement," you should "join Professors Fisher, Mai, and Saxton, with Phil Edwards as they venture inside and beyond the new Seattle Public Library to understand the 'library as place.'" The message also said that "as members of an elite team" you would interview users and passers-by at the new Central Library to record their perceptions of SPL's place in their social and physical landscapes. Plus, you'd gain excellent portfolio experience and get two independent study credits. Hey, they had me at "fun and excitement," but the always-tantalizing "portfolio experience" certainly helped!

I applied and was accepted for the project, which had already completed an initial phase during the summer quarter. That team did a literature review on the subject of "library as place" and created the first drafts of the interview instruments (survey questions) we would use. The fall quarter team (Carol Landry, Chris Rieber, Sarah Merner, Grace Fitzgerald, Robyn Hagle, Anne Miller, Peter Cole, and myself) tested the instruments during an initial pilot study of 16 people and then revised them before carrying out the full study of approximately 250 people. The results will be summarized in an upcoming Library Quarterly article.

Armed with clipboards, name badges, instruments, watches, pencils, and (most importantly) Starbucks coffee cards for each interviewee, we descended on the Central Library in pairs for two- or three-hour shifts. Each of us attempted to interview six people during each of our five shifts, usually two passers-by and four patrons inside the library.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I see someone with a clipboard and a name badge, I don't exactly run in the opposite direction, but I come close to it. Therefore, asking library patrons and passers-by to give me their time for the survey was the most difficult thing I've had to do since I entered grad school. I am not joking. Before each shift, I had to psych myself up and remind myself that most of the people I approached were more than happy to participate in the project. More than once, I flashed on the scene from the movie American Beauty when Annette Benning's character has to psych herself up before hosting a real-estate open house ("I WILL sell this house today!"). My routine was to dress professionally, put a big smile on my face, and remind myself not to take it personally if people declined to participate.

The two instruments were similar, but the passers-by survey included fewer questions. We asked all participants to tell us how well they thought the new building fit in with downtown Seattle, what they liked and disliked about it, and what the library meant to them. In addition, we had a "free-association" section that involved reading a list of library-related words and asking the participants to say the first thoughts that entered their minds for each word. Each participant was also asked some general demographic questions. When we interviewed patrons inside the library, we asked additional questions about how they find items in the library, how they felt about the book spiral, whether they had ever attended a presentation at the library, etc.

I think we each had to figure out a comfortable way to approach people who were busy in the library. Chris and I both spent a lot of time analyzing the patrons before approaching them, trying to be respectful of people who were deep in thought or obviously in a hurry or with other people. When I worked with Grace one day and found out that she had completed all six of her interviews in the time that it had taken me to complete three, she told me, "I'm all about getting it done!" I realized that her way of dealing with the awkwardness of approaching people-asking just about everybody she saw and, thus, getting more people to participate more quickly-was probably smarter than my cautious, time-consuming method.

Once someone agreed to participate, it was usually a relaxed and fun experience. During the free-association section of the interviews, I felt buoyed by the common response of "helpful" when I said the word "librarian." The first person I interviewed responded with "indispensable!" Another said, "They know everything! If I say, 'I read this book once, and it had this girl in it,' they're like, 'I know that book, it's right over here.'" (My husband had responded to the same prompt with "glasses" when I tested the instrument on him!)

I have fond memories of many of the people I interviewed. Most had thought about the library, and its significance as a piece of architecture, prior to my contact with them. I was impressed by their thoughtfulness and intelligence. For example, a Chinese filmmaker in his 30's, commented, "The problem is we have a great building, but not the tax structure to support it. It brings up the role of the library in the current world. It's a glorious building, but do libraries matter now?"

My most memorable interview was with a thrilled 19-year-old man who had flown to Seattle from California for the day, just to visit the library. His knowledge of the building was impressive and his excitement was truly contagious. When I asked him what he thought of the new building, he enthusiastically replied, "It's amazing - great! I didn't realize the girders were blue after looking at photos online. I'd love to know who the supplier was. Koolhaas is a god!"

My other favorite interview was with a local barista. She was also greatly enthusiastic about the new library. When I asked her what she liked best about the building, she said, "The big red womb floor. It's like you're inside a work of art." When I asked her what she thought of the new building, she gave a wonderfully spontaneous and heart-felt answer: "I love it! It's fabulous! It's the coolest library in the world!"


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Page last updated: March 14, 2004