Site Visit 1: UCLA Research Commons

Part of our work this fall is to learn from other people who have created spaces designed to foster or enable digital humanities work. Our first trip took us down to the bright and open Research Commons in the YRL Library at UCLA. Zoe Borovsky and Michael Samojlik – to whom we are most grateful for the time and good conversation — very graciously hosted us for a half-day visit.

YRL Commons photo courtesy of:

The Commons space was part of a major two-floor renovation at the YRL and was designed to foster collaboration and innovative pedagogy.  We spent some time talking to Susan Parker, Deputy University Librarian, about the planning process and part of what struck me was the willingness to move forward, despite not being sure how the space would be used and what kinds of needs it might address. As she put it – the University Librarian’s answer to many questions was “I don’t know.” Rather than a lack of planning or research (of which there was a lot!), I think the UL’s response correctly signaled the ways in which it is difficult to predict use for collaborative, open places. While this kind of approach enables fluid future use, that fluidity can pose challenges.

The Research Commons was initially conceived as a collaborative and pedagogical space, but usage thus far has largely been individual. With a real lack of seating on the UCLA campus for studying (approx 3% of need!), it’s easy to see why this open, inviting, and comfortable space has become an undergraduate favorite. While usage is great (no space should be empty)– the regular use of the space by individual students studying and enjoying their coffees, means that the space is not available for the seminars and research collaborations that were initially envisioned. Part of what the Research Commons needs, and is getting, is a better reservation system. The Commons is an evolving project and the staff has been attentive to actual use and imaginative in their approaches to the gaps between hopes/dreams/goals and current practice. They’ve also been honest about what does and doesn’t work – like some of that lovely furniture. Our hosts shared their hard won realization that tables that are too low are hard to work at and those sexy, highly mobile desks that make for great modular rooms aren’t so great when you need to spread out and pour over books, pages, or screens.

Part of the lesson learned here is that space management can be a full time task. The central area pictured above is just one of four areas in the commons, each of which has its own restrictions and usage needs. For example, a separate funding stream has enabled a BEAUTIFUL workstation with a rear projection screen.

Rear projection screen and workstations

Projector in the equipment room

This enables large-scale presentation of 3D mapping and data visualization, with ports in from the five work-stations in the room. This is a drool-worthy space to be sure, but it’s also technology heavy, which means it has the potential to be technician heavy. Where there are tools, there must be people who can trouble-shoot and operate. Adding to the labor concerns is the lack of clear architectural demarcation, which means that monitoring use and mediating noise expectations has been part of the new work of YRL staff. I share the surprise of YRL librarians that students are deeply wedded to the notion of a quiet library – going so far as to “shhh” staff!

Just behind this space is the Digital DH Hub and sandbox space, where Johanna Drucker and Jan Reiff have been experimenting with studio/workshop approaches to collaborative DH work and pedagogy.  With locking doors, the space enables long-term work with materials from special collections and the ability to leave behind one’s computer etc. when you run out for some fresh air and sunshine. Which, it turns out, is crucial for a happy working environment. However much we imagine the scholar laboring in the dark shelter of archive or computer lab, she needs sunshine and air. Windows, we learned, are very important.

Maybe we should all take a page from the MITH redesign and get garage doors! We’ve taken notes, an album full of pictures, and our heads are abuzz with ideas. Thanks again to the YRL and UCLA DH crew!

-Jacque with Allegra Gonzalez, who also provided photos.



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