Through a tunnel darkly
Learners’ behaviours, attitudes and preferences should all be considered when designing a learning space – formal or informal. However, why not engage learners at the very beginning of the design process to reveal what young people consider are the absolutely essential ingredients in the design and features of a contemporary, informal learning space?
This article by Megan Perry, Manager of Learning at the State Library of NSW, reveals the story of powerful conversations, inclusive workshops and the process that informed the design, building and opening of the John B Fairfax Learning Centre in the historic Mitchell Library building at the State Library of NSW.
Thoughtfully designed learning spaces
Research tells us that institutions which have learning at the heart of their organisational mission and have prominent, well designed, inclusive learning spaces that cater for learners with additional needs have positioned themselves well within their communities and are aiming for the highest order of engagement and enjoyment. Thoughtfully designed learning spaces, separate from galleries, reading rooms or other defined spaces, are essential for the promotion of meaningful learning and allow for a greater range of learning design, engagement and experience, with the potential to connect with the widest possible audience (The Clore Duffield Foundation, 2015, p. 2).
The atmosphere and the environment in which we construct new knowledge also has an impact on what, when and how we learn.
In 2003, Susan Groundwater-Smith and Lynda Kelly, advocates of student voice, conducted a research project at the Australian Museum where they asked school students what helped and what hindered their learning. Four categories were identified:
- ‘Cognitive: when they know how things work, have opportunities to ask questions, seek information from varied sources, and are stimulated through various senses
- Physical: when safe and comfortable, able to move easily, space is well lit, and the scale is appropriate
- Social; when learning with friends, a satisfying social occasion
- Emotional: when connected to their interests but not when emotionally confronted’
(Groundwater-Smith and Kelly, 2003, p. 4).
Understanding the skills required for the contemporary learner in a constantly changing world, and the powerful messages of children, the Learning Services team at the State Library of NSW had been engaging in student voice research since 2011. Young people had also been involved in exhibition design, program development and program evaluation. As Marcus and Trustram (2009, p. 4) highlight:
Consultation with children and young people has a moral and pragmatic basis. Their entitlement to be heard is a basic human right. But in principle consultation results in activities and services that better suit their needs and wishes, while helping them develop as responsible citizens and contribute to society.
In mid-2016, the State Library of NSW received a generous philanthropic donation from Mr John B Fairfax for the building of a new learning centre and family room that would sit within the fabric of the historic Mitchell Library building. The new area would be adjacent to the world-famous Mitchell Reading Room. It would be built at the same time as the major gallery expansion that was being planned, although would remain a separate project with its own architect.
Seeing an opportunity to further embed student voice and engage audience research, the Learning Services team quickly developed a framework to involve the people who would primarily be using the space – school students and teachers – in its design.
A consultation workshop was planned for September 2016 and six schools from a range of socio economic areas were invited to participate. Additionally, university lecturers, teachers, teacher librarians, school ICT staff, and staff from the five branches of the State Library were invited to a half day consultation facilitated by the Manager of Learning Services and the Senior Education Officer.
After an icebreaker activity and an introduction to the project, participants visited the site of the new learning space. In the mid 1970s, a mezzanine floor had been installed to house collections and this floor transected the space, cutting in half the beautiful arched windows and making it quite difficult for participants to imagine what the removal of the floor would reveal.
Workshop participants were then introduced to the Library’s learning audience through personas. The audience profiles included David the artist, a Year 2 excursion group, an Elder from Walgett, third year students from the University of Western Sydney, a Year 9 history excursion group, a group of pre-service teachers, a group of teacher librarians, a retired nurse with an interest in family history, the Cheng family, Josh the gamer, a resident from an aged care facility and, finally, Sam a 4 year old preschooler.
Personas were distributed to each mixed group, and brainstorming focused on what each persona might like in a learning space and what they would absolutely require. An educator from the Learning Services team facilitated each group. Participants investigated questions such as:
- what could happen in this space?
- what would you need in the space in terms of physical or virtual materials to allow it to happen?
- what equipment and physicals aids would assist?
- what should the mood or atmosphere be in the space?
Common themes were grouped together. After much discussion and moving of Post-it notes, participants were asked to include something spectacular, unusual or inspiring that could be included.
A lively discussion about what constituted the perfect learning environment ensued. A blank plan was issued to each group and participants collaborated on a design. Participant feedback was shared and ideas circulated. The final word of the day came from the students who responded to the question: ‘what is important for a knowledge institution like the State Library of NSW to remember during this design process?’
Informed by the first consultation and a schedule of visits to other libraries, cultural centres and schools in Australia, England and New Zealand, an extensive brief was developed, as was a vision statement and some grand objectives:
The learning centre will be a light, bright, flexible, exciting, engaging, digitally rich, hands on learning environment for children and families, school students and young people. Its primary clients will be children and young people catered for by a range of onsite programs for schools and less formal programs for holidays and weekends. The centre will also include an unstaffed drop in family space.
'The Learning Centre will:
- position the State Library of NSW as an excellent learning destination
- highlight our world-renowned collection through innovative learning programs
- place the Library as a leading, innovative cultural institution pushing boundaries in the delivery of outstanding learning programs and events
- attract national and international recognition.'
In March 2017, after architects were appointed and several design meetings held, a second consultation workshop was held with the same schools that had participated previously. By this time, a physical mock-up of the space had been constructed by the architects. This was used to inspire further conversations about what could happen in the space and what was needed to create a rich learning environment that was fun and engaging for a wide range of learners.
In the second consultation, students gave the architects and the Library excellent feedback on what not to forget when they were designing the space. Keywords that echoed from the first consultation included flexible, fun, inviting, surprising, relaxing, engaging, inspiring, challenging, accessible and thought provoking. These themes were consequently picked up by the architects as they proceeded to the design phase.
Key space requirements
A consequence of the workshops and consultation were clear messages around the absolutes which the Learning Services staff could reinforce in design meetings.
The space must include:
- a large open area that can accommodate students and teachers engaged in learning programs
- children’s holiday programs, such as art and craft making, Minecraft, photography workshops
- performances to massed audiences, such as music and theatre performances
- a small high-end IT lab for young people to collaborate around data and visualisation, 3D and 4D replicators
- display space for large and small replica item collection and learning participants’ works – written, art, craft, digital
- flexible space for artist/writer in residence or other creative to work
- space for school groups to eat
- space for bag storage facilities
- a bathroom with single accessible toilet.
The family space – adjacent to but not accessible from the main learning space – must offer an unstaffed drop-in space for families to engage in activities such as reading, craft and art making.
The space will feature:
- a high impact, visually stimulating environment (as per the current Glasshouse) which elicits a ‘WOW’ response from participants – and bears no resemblance to a school classroom
- dramatic use of high ceiling space and large feature windows which should provide as much light as possible. The design should be considerate of heritage features and not fight against it.
- a connection to the rest of the newly renovated Library spaces
- flexible, visible artefact displays
- extensive use of large LCDs, and other digital display.
The final design
The results are amazing. Entry to the space is through a door hidden behind a 98 inch colour portrait digital screen on the wall. The hidden door currently shows a beautiful rendition of the Major Taylor Panorama (Panoramic views of Port Jackson, ca. 1821 / drawn by Major James Taylor, engraved by R. Havell and sons) from the Library’s exquisite collections. This screen can be personalised to welcome school groups into the Library’s learning space. The screen may feature a beautiful artefact or manuscript from the Library’s collection, an event poster or a directional sign or message, whilst giving children and young people a magical entry to a fascinating space designed for and by them.
Visitors enter via a door hidden behind a 98 inch colour portrait digital screen
Entering through the door, learners head down a four metre long tunnel with circular cut-outs on each side wall which reveal artefacts that can be touched and manipulated. Artefacts such as a rare Mercedes typewriter, a vellum skin on a wood stretcher, a marquette of Trim, Matthew Flinders’ cat, and many other enticing objects line the walkway.
The entry tunnel features circular cut-outs containing artefacts that can be touched and manipulated
At the end of the tunnel, the enormous curved windows facing the Domain and the Botanic Gardens illuminate the open space with light streaming across a natural cork floor. Four central columns have been activated with iPads, pull-down paper rolls, mirrors, and whiteboard surfaces. Writeable wall surfaces, acoustic panelling and ply feature in the modern and appealing space, with informal break-out areas and comfortable soft furnishings. An accessible toilet provides for the comfort and inclusion of people with additional needs.
Grand windows flood the space with natural light
Two large screens display collections or stream experiments from the Library’s DX Lab, or can be used in teaching and learning. A green screen, data projector, activated floor projection device, and large presentation screen and camera (capable of video conferencing teacher events, presentations, performances and the like) are all available in the space. A fully functioning kitchen with dishwasher, washing machine and dryer, convection microwave, art sinks at different heights, refrigerator and, importantly, a coffee maker feature in a sleek, fold-away design.
A small lab called the DEN (Digital Engagement Nest) houses high end Mac and highly specked PC computers, a 3D printer, display screen and a view over the Domain.
Perhaps one of the nicest additions for the Library is a dedicated space for families as they pause between exhibitions, or just relax in a quiet child-friendly space as they gather their thoughts before engaging in a learning activity. The family space is located next to the Learning Centre. Young children can see through the wall into the entry tunnel, relax in a circular wall seat, read from an array of books or explore the various toys and hidden drawers.
The family space offers a circular wall seat, hidden drawers, and a view into the entry tunnel
The State Library of NSW has rethought how it engages with children, families, young people, teachers and students. It has actively engaged with the audience of the present and the future and worked to ensure that the voice of young people is not only heard but actively listened to. Rather than relying solely on input from Library staff and architects, consultation with the main users of the new space – children and young people – has ensured that the John B Fairfax Learning Centre is a far more effective and exciting learning space.
References and further reading
The Clore Duffield Foundation. (2015). Space for Learning.
Groundwater-Smith, S. & Kelly, L. (2003, September). As we see it: Improving learning in the museum. Paper presented at the British Research Association Annual Conference, Edinburgh, UK.
Lundgaard, I. B. & Jensen J. T. for Styrelsen, Danish Agency for Culture. (2013). Museums; Social learning spaces and knowledge producing processes.
Marcus, R. & Trustram, M. for Museums, Archives and Libraries Council. (2009). Creative spaces: Children as co-researchers in the design of museum and gallery learning.
Sitzia, E. (2017). The ignorant art museum: beyond meaning making. International Journal of Lifelong Learning Education, 37(1), 73-87.
How to cite this article – Perry, M. (2018). Through a tunnel darkly. Scan 37(8).