The Art and Science of Space

The Art and Science of Space

Monday, February 15, 2016

By Michael Ricciardelli

Over the last few years, Seton Hall’s Walsh Library has undergone a number of subtle but comprehensive changes.

Utilizing the latest in design, psychology and cognitive science, the library, which first opened its doors in 1994, has been revitalized and reconfigured to keep pace with 21st century learning and to provide space that better facilitates study, writing, research, collaboration— and even conversation.

As a result, library usage is up considerably and the space teems with students, faculty and guests on any given afternoon.

The library’s transformation has been spearheaded by the Dean of Libraries, John Buschman, who came to Seton Hall from Georgetown University in 2012, where he served as Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources and Services. Dean Buschman has been praised in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science for having “examined and analyzed the role of libraries and educational institutions vis-à-vis democracy in a series of complex, insightful books and essays over the last decade.” His most recent book was likewise acclaimed as “essential reading to understand the status of library services in the 21st century.”

“With well over 600,000 visits per year, the library is a hub in the academic life of the University, a partner in the educational process and an indispensable part of Seton Hall’s social fabric. And we have worked hard to make it so,” said Dean Buschman. “In addition to numerous technology updates and the dramatic expansion of our resources, we’re doing all we can to make our library more accessible, more accommodating, ergonomic and all-around ‘user-friendly.’”

Dean Buschman’s assistant, Jody Drafta, has helped to implement his vision and is, herself, co-author of a chapter entitled “Principles of Good Design” in the book Creating the High-Functioning Library Space: Expert Advice from Librarians, Architects, and Designers. Forthcoming in 2016, Seton Hall professor, librarian and Fulbright Specialist Marta M. Deyrup is the book’s editor.

In it, Drafta writes,

Good library design results in spaces that are both functional and feed the human spirit, often without their inhabitants fully understanding what draws them in to these spaces and causes them to linger. Important components of good design include the scale of the space and the furniture that supports it, the curated use of color and texture, spatial and visual variety, and the qualities of natural and electric light. Carefully choreographing these aspects results in inviting spaces that resonate with people and support their well-being.

Putting Theory into Practice
In addition to major plant maintenance that included a new roof, new cooling tower and a power wash of the library’s iconic façade, interior renovations have focused on color, furnishings, technology and the use of signage and embedded visual cues to render the space more inviting and intuitively navigable.

And as any student of interior design will tell you, good design starts with the entrance, or what many cognitive scientists and marketing professionals involved in the configuration of public and retail spaces refer to as “the decompression zone,” the space where one first enters a building and the mind transitions to its new surroundings and receives its first impressions, setting the tone.

Offering a warm and spirited introduction, in Walsh Library that space is signaled by a harvest gold backdrop and a block lettered sign above the reception desk that reads “WELCOME TO SHU LIBRARIES.”

The Libraries’ “Welcome Message” was hand painted by Jon Bocksel, who learned the lost art of sign painting as an apprentice to experts in hand-lettering— a largely forgotten craft that hearkens back to the era before digitally-produced signs. Before painting the Seton Hall signage Bocksel spent a morning on campus with the University Archivist going through yearbooks, publications, Seton Hall insignia as well as sports uniforms which, Bocksel notes, are often rich carriers of institutional self-expression in the form of typeface choices. Drawing from this graphic heritage, he returned to his studio and then, after further study, painted the “Walsh Welcome” in a font and style that reflected anew Seton Hall’s traditions.

A great deal of study and scholarly writing has been devoted to the psychological and physiological impact of color, especially as it concerns concentration and memory. In Walsh Library, to reframe and enliven the space as well as form a cognitive aid, the entire building interior was painted a lighter color, with bolder colors (blue and yellow) keyed to the front of the building on each floor to help both zone the space, and assist in cognitive mapping and way-finding. Adding to these efforts, colored tracking was added into the carpet to function as lines of demarcation and as a visual pointer, delineating the stacks within the space.

Furniture & Technology
In her essay on library design, Drafta notes that in addition to supporting comfortable and focused study, furniture can play a key role in configuring space:

Furniture layout signals the intent of a space. As with zoning, furniture plays a role in cueing behavior by either encouraging or dissuading various activities within a given space. For example, areas designated for quiet, individual work should not include conversational layouts of lounge furniture, but rather individual seats that are not easy to move into collaborative layouts. Conversely, an area meant for creative collaboration should be furnished in such a way that prompts and supports this behavior, with flexible furniture and brainstorming accessories.

One can readily see the theory at work in Walsh Library. The Information Commons on the second floor bustles with its sectional seating groups, where newly purchased Herman Miller soft seating allows for both solo and collaborative work. Amidst traditional tables and chairs, the Izzy café tables and stools (also new) provide a change in the topography of the room and allow for more relaxed conversation space. New computer chairs accompany 15 new iMacs and 55 refreshed and reconfigured PCs, affording students the best of contemporary computing technology and ready access to the vastly expanded data and scholarship resources.

New chairs and group work tables with whiteboard scalloped tops have been added in the Curriculum Resource Center (which doubles as the newly created graduate student lounge). The award winning tables (which look a little like pieces of Swiss cheese with a series of half-moons cut out of them) are designed to facilitate collaboration by bringing students significantly closer together than they would be at a traditional conference table.

The Seton Hall Chair
Juxtaposed against and atop this lively interplay of resource and collaboration, on the upper floors one finds the muted cherry elegance of the study carrels and their famed three position rocker, “The Seton Hall Chair.” Newly reupholstered after 20 plus years of use, the chairs were designed by renowned master craftsman Thos. Moser with the help of Monsignor Dennis Mahon and then President and Chancellor Rev. Thomas R. Peterson. The Seton Hall Chair was constructed to offer ergonomic support to students when they lean forward to type, back when they read, or even in between. In his book, Artistry in Wood, Moser, who went on to design and build chairs for both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis as well as a number of other academic institutions, described building “The Seton Hall Chair” as having been “hired to create the ultimate ergonomic library chair.”

Additional Work and Future Renovations
Additional work includes the Library’s silent study rooms, which have all been renovated with new and reupholstered furnishings as well as updated technology; the addition of Herman Miller FloArms at the reference desk, which are adjustable, flexible computer monitor arms that let the student and reference librarian look at the same information on separate, individual screens during consultations; the installation of height-adjustable tables for disabled students; and a Graduate Student Lounge, a newly created communal work space for graduate students— which runs 4:30-7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday during Fall and Spring semesters.

Future renovations will continue to focus on “spatial lucidity” and ergonomics to facilitate study and collaboration as well as technological advances and catalogue expansion to further enable research and scholarship.

In addition, the reorganization and integration of the Seton Hall University Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (SHUMAA) into the Seton Hall Libraries will give students and scholars ready access to the collection, which includes more than 26,000 pieces of Native American, Asian and African art and artifacts — as well as some Greek, Roman and Byzantine pieces.

This new resource, combined with the Libraries’ Walsh Gallery, which hosts five art exhibitions annually as well as scholarly events such as the renowned Poetry-in-the-Round series— featuring readings by award winning authors— symposia, film screenings, artist talks and meeting space for events, will further cement the University Libraries’ status as a cultural and academic hub at Seton Hall.

Dean Buschman concluded, “The Libraries are at the heart of Seton Hall’s intellectual ambitions. They are the first source for scholarship, a place where students’ needs are the top priority and where faculty draw on essential resources for their teaching and research. The libraries foster intellectual integrity through user-focused services and collections, and consequently, students graduate with the realization that the library is indispensable.”