As the Protolib project continues we are currently feeding user study space preferences into new prototype spaces that will be launched in January 2016 inside and outside of libraries. Alongside these new spaces we also hope to gather further information on use of existing study spaces in libraries (Cambridge librarians – watch out for a briefing announcement if you want to get involved). Much of the information gathered so far was derived via the Big LEGO Workshop which took place on Wednesday 2nd December and was attended by students and researchers at all levels and from many different disciplines. Kirsten Lamb, a member of the Protolib project team, was one of a number of librarian participants. Here are her thoughts and reflections on the afternoon…

Here’s a LEGO fact for you: did you know that using only six of the eight-stud LEGO bricks you can build 915,103,765 different combinations? That’s quite the variety from a humble plastic brick and after building models with students from throughout Cambridge at the Big LEGO Workshop for the Protolib project I’m inclined to think that there are a similar number of permutations in study space preferences. Not only did the workshop reveal a wide variety of study needs across the group, but individuals expressed contrary needs depending on what task they were involved in. What does this mean in terms of designing library spaces? Can we be all things to all people all the time? Should we even try? The ideas we grappled with during the workshop were much bigger than our miniature models suggested.

As Andy mentioned in his previous two posts, the research phase of the Protolib project involved the well-established LEGO Serious Play technique. It was a way of getting students excited about helping us with our research, offering a respite from end-of-term stress while gathering qualitative data. Cambridge is lucky to have a small but elite task force of LEGO Serious Play facilitators among its library staff and each of them oversaw a small group of participants drawn from Cambridge students and librarians. Each group worked at its own pace through a series of prompts, building models that addressed the prompts and then discussing what they represented. It should come as no surprise that Cambridge students are a creative, engaged bunch and gave the Protolib project a huge amount of data along with plenty to think about.

So without further ado, on to the LEGO!


What was clear to the facilitators from the start of the workshop was the immense variety in preferences for study spaces. While a few students built models representing a preference for working in cafes and pubs, another built an elaborate model of a cafe and said that she would never work in that sort of environment. Several of the students highlighted the idea of diverse zones in the same space to suit different activities. In the model below the red area symbolises quiet study, blue is relaxed and social, and green is filled with plants and nature. Connection to nature, the ability to see natural light, plants and water came up frequently as a characteristic of ideal study spaces, as did barriers between the noisier areas and those that were devoted to quiet, distraction-free study.


The concept of students working “together alone” (i.e. working in the same physical space as their friends but without working collaboratively) also arose from FutureLib’s Spacefinder research and it came up in the workshop too. Some use this arrangement as a way of having social resources at hand – someone to bounce ideas off of or ask questions – while others take advantage of peer pressure to form a kind of social media standoff; “No one wants to be the first to break down and check Facebook.” The model below shows a “together alone” study arrangement.


Some participants escaped the myriad distractions involved in student life by going to the library to get work done. Asked if the model below represented wanting to be alone while studying this participant said no, being in the library is enough to distance her from the day-to-day distractions that might otherwise derail her study. Some people find it useful to work in traditional libraries where they feel pressured to work quietly and diligently in traditional libraries and will go when they want to be sure they get a lot done, but whether that work was reading, writing or thinking varied from person to person.


Conversely, seeing other people in the library was a distraction that many sought to escape in the confines of their rooms, preferring the solitude, control and convenience of studying in private. One student expressed how overwhelming he found the potential to converse and interact while at the library through in the evocative model below, in which he portrayed too much movement around him as a heap of tyres bearing down on him. Others expressed emotionally-charged frustration at other library users making noise, phones ringing and other distractions of working in close proximity to others. Many of these participants preferred to work in their own rooms or homes where they had more control.


Various aspects of comfort were addressed fairly consistently throughout the session. Warmth, comfortable furniture, adjustable seats and desks, a sense of safety and control and space to spread out were common themes. Similarly, people did not like the feeling of transience often accompanied by working in a library and would appreciate the ability to write ideas up on whiteboards or stick them on pinboards rather than having to pack up when they leave the library. There was an underlying preference for “big spaces for big ideas”, whether that was wall space to work out problems, high ceilings or lots of desk space to spread out books and supplies. However, barriers against noise, movement and other distractions were considered important, as seen in the model below. The level of division varied from person to person as well. Some people wanted to be able to see others but not feel like they were being seen, while others preferred the feeling of total seclusion.

Libraries - like open but private spaces - dividers are very important

A final idea that emerged was that of “inspirational ambience”. Many students use the library because of the grandeur, the sense of a studious atmosphere created by the presence of other people, the presence of aesthetic views and/or the presence of books on shelves around them. Several participants admitted that even if they had no intention of using the books, they liked having books around for ambience and aesthetic reasons. Books seem to have a value apart from their contents, lending gravitas to a space. This idea was frequently coeval with a preference for comfort, with people using language like “cosy but serious” or “relaxed but serious”, indicating that a space could be studious without being austere or rigid.

Libraries - for access to all the books on my course


Assistance needs are another important facet to explore while designing study spaces. What resources do people seek out when these needs arise during study? What drives people to ask for help? Generally, the workshop participants reported that they only approached librarians for help if they needed to find books, order books or get help with printing and photocopying issues.

While trying to unpick why this might be, one participant mentioned that they did not want to ask librarians for help with their subject in case the librarian did not know the answer, while another admitted that they are simply the sort of person who would rather figure things out for themselves. If library users are unaware of the expertise their librarians have it would make sense that they do not think of approaching them. For more complicated situations some participants said they might approach their friends or course mates – people in a trusted network of resources – but library staff were not generally considered part of this network.

Assistance 2 - tea dog

The Tea Dog, shown delivering tea to a busy student in the model above, was one example of the sort of help participants wanted, i.e. assistance to make things as comfortable as possible and to reduce friction while studying. Connectivity and convenience – WiFi, easy access to resources, cycle parking, functioning printers and photocopiers and so on – were also essential. Library staff were seen as facilitators who could make access more convenient, directing people to where the books are, providing clear information online and so on. While these are indeed tasks many of us do, there was a sense of disappointment among the librarians in the groups at the obvious disconnect between our wide range of skills and the roles we seem occupy in the minds of our users.


When all of these big ideas came together, what would be the result? At the final stage of the workshop each participant was asked to build a model of the most important attribute of their ideal study space, writing that attribute on a sticky note. After sharing, each participant was asked to build their next most important attribute that had not already been built. In our group the results included (at risk of sounding like a deconstructed Wordle): Space, Light, Quiet, Convenience, Separation, Nature, Safety, Comfort and Books. The final brief was to choose eight of these attributes and combine the models into a single MEGA model representing the group’s consensus on the attributes of the ideal library space.


Although the final models at each table were closer to abstract art than blueprints for the ideal library space, they represented both the core needs of participants in study spaces and the outstanding quality of thought that the participants put in over the course of the workshop. Additionally, the quality of the conversation around the tables was open and led by the participants, who came from a range of disciplines and levels of study. The facilitators were pleasantly surprised by the conversations that sprung up between the participants despite the wide range of ages and disciplines represented. Many thanks to both the brilliant participants and the facilitators for making the workshop a fun and fascinating success!

The feedback we have received after the workshop suggests that many of our participants left with a sense of how different everyone’s needs are, while the facilitators were struck by how much common ground there was. When we study, are we united by our uniqueness? How can we make libraries that speak to the desire to customise, to claim ownership and to work in a space that reflects and inspires deep thinking?


The next stop for the Protolib team is to synthesise our combined insights from the design workshops into a plan for Lent Term. What will the prototype spaces look like? How will people use them? Will caffeine ever be convenient enough without Tea Dog? Stay tuned to find out!

Kirsten Lamb
Department of Engineering
Protolib Project Team