Philadelphia Public Library Workshop

Introduction :
I was brought on as part of a ten person team to help design and facilitate a workshop with the Philadelphia Free Library, this past winter break, to help them understand how to develop and design their new space, the Common. The thought was that it should be a modern space with no books, something completely different from what a normal library is thought to be. They recognized the need for progress but did not know how to move ahead, and so we were invited to assist.

Since the library’s clients are the community members, we needed to hear their voice. This new space would ultimately be for the community to use so it was important to find out what the community actually wanted it to afford them. To do this we proposed a workshop, bringing these community members together to co-create multiple scenarios for how they would like to see this new space used.

Development :
Through working with the client on the development of this workshop we felt it was most important to highlight three key aspects of the space, the services it might offer, the layout and use of the space, and finally the experiences that would happen within it. With these three key aspects we developed a broad agenda to provide the overall structure for the event. It began with explaining to our participants why they had been invited to attend, and what would be expected of them. We would then break them into three small groups, each addressing one key aspect. Once the small group sessions were complete we would then reconvene and have a round of presentations to share each group’s work with everyone. This way everyone would be on the same page; allowing potentially interesting discussions to happen around the intersection of ideas between small group participants.

Overall we recognized that it can be very difficult for many people to feel creative or let their guard down and say something they think is crazy, but may actually be very insightful. To mitigate the anxiety around this, and help people stop thinking about a library as shelves of books, we decided to provide inspiration. We chose to display 50 images for each of the three key aspects that would be focused on. Some of which would have a short title to provide some context as to how the image should be considered. These images would be posted on large cardboard pillars and each participant would be provided a set of stickers that they could use to vote up and down their most and least liked. This way the small group sessions would have inspirational images that would then have extra physical layer that allows the participants to directly perceive the level of interest in the ideas that image inspired.

The small group sessions were scheduled to last an hour, each with a lead facilitator and one or two assistant facilitators who would develop a contextually relevant schedule of events for the session. I was the lead facilitator, with Georgia Guthrie and Charles Lee as the assistant facilitators, for the small group session focused on the experiences aspects of the space. Georgia, Charles and I developed a plan for our session where the participants would use the silent generation practice to brainstorm answers to three questions, using the inspirational images as the canvas for their post-its. The questions were:

  • How do you want to feel lin the space? – We hoped this might help uncover how the space or activities might affect the experiences
  • What happens in the space that doesn’t happen at other libraries? – We hoped this would help the participants consider activities that may not be “normal” for a library.
  • Why would you go there? – We hoped this question would provide some overt motivations that the space could accomodate.

Their ideas would then be clustered into similar themes, which could then be prioritized. Using these prioritized clusters, the group would then co-create a collage or mood-board, visually describing the experiences that they would like to see in the space.

Implementation :
The event went quite well. We had a great turnout and great outcomes and it was all documented by the local public access media group PhillyCAM. During the initial image tagging portion people were very personable, interested and engaged. Once the small group sessions began though, the intensity increased. There were about 11 participants in my small group and we hit the ground running. Each question produced a multitude of responses, so after responding to all three we had a wealth of ideas to consider.

Using large paper on tables we explained and guided the participants in the clustering activity. We explained that nothing is sacred and that they should feel free to move ideas and break clusters. However we stressed the importance of honest and open conversations as well. This was important because each person may interpret an idea a bit differently and see the clusterings a bit differently, however the goal for this step is to reach a shared vision so communicating is a must.

Once the clusters were formed, they were labeled and prioritized. Prioritization happened by deep discussion. It is important to prioritize, because it helps makes clarify the ideas in development and make them more actionable. This part was very challenging for the participants, because required a lot of considerations. For us, the facilitators, it was challenging because often times the basic assumptions group, or procrastinators, were very sly about sidetracking the conversation. We created a “parking lot” poster to acknowledge and record all the important, but off topic ideas that arose. Unfortunately due to timing and the challenge of this exercise a resolution was not fully developed.

Evaluation and Follow-up :
It is important to learn from your experiences, and so looking back a few things I would have done differently include:

  • Developing a smaller exercise that recognize the limited time frame
  • Make introductions a priority at the start. We arranged them just before the clustering when discussions would happen, but it seemed like earlier introductions would help smooth out the whole process.
  • Provide a visual outline of the agenda to allow the participants to understand the process they are about to engage in.

After the workshop, we had a lot of rough ideas and it was important that we refine them for our client. Back at the studio, the facilitators worked in their small groups to formalize the information they were presented and collected in the workshop. Once complete, each group, again, presented to each other. We then began to recognize patterns across the three groups, experience, spatial and services.

These patterns were focused into four themes:

  • Collaborate/Work/Build
  • Personal Activities
  • Share/Learn
  • Special Events

These were well received when presented to our clients with content from the workshop presented as evidence of these themes. As experience/service/systems designers we develop concepts for how people engage and interact with a space, but not the technical drawings for its production. We recognized though, the need for these concepts to be properly translated to the architect in charge of this and since we weren’t able to do so, we offered our client a set of options for how they felt they would most easily done.

Deliverable
A book was chosen as the final form to provide guiding inspiration for what the community wants the space to afford them. We elevated the meta-theme of Flexibility, from our four themes and reframed the information in light of this new theme. These included the programming that would be appreciated, as well as the infrastructure and spatial aspects that would be necessary to support such events. These new categories became the chapters for the book. Large, full-bleed, inspirational images were then presented on the pages following each chapter page, to show examples of what could be done in the new space. For context not only was a small description provided for each respective chapter, but a small explanation of the event that produced this information was included at the start of the book to help frame the content.

Client Response :
Our client was very pleased with the work and the deliverable. They said it really helped them reconsider what they had initially thought the space should be for and our deliverable will help them articulate the new considerations of the community the space will service. We were invited to design two more events regarding children and new parents, respectively.