Library seeks design team for empty space

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • January 30, 2014

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The empty space in the library will be redesigned.
The empty space in the library will be redesigned.

The large sheets of white paper pasted on the glass exterior of the recently boxed-up Will & Grace set in the Iwasaki Library entertained a wide range of requests from Emerson students on how best to use the 640 square feet. Ideas included a live bear sanctuary, a habitat for Tilda Swinton, and pages of requests for bean bag chairs and couches. 

However thoughtful and generous the feedback, said Cate Hirschbiel, the Iwasaki library coordinator for outreach and reference, the library wants to direct the conversation at a Feb. 4 event called the Library Black Box Design Workshop. It will be led by Hirschbiel and Robert Fleming, the executive director of the library.

The design workshop was the brainchild of Hirschbiel and Fleming. They are assembling a creative team made up of the faculty library committee and undergraduate and graduate students, who will be selected through referrals and online applications, according to Hirschbiel. She said the team members would ideally be diverse in majors and class years to ensure a variety of perspectives.

There are 20 student positions to fill, and a few spots have already been snagged, said Hirschbiel. The group will collaboratively determine how to revamp the space and incorporate students’ suggestions, said Fleming.

“We got a lot of creative ideas, but they were all over the place,” he said. “We need to focus the discussion.”

The Black Box got its name from the world of theater, said Fleming, who picked the label. The term is  used to describe a simple, square-shaped performance space.

“In a black box theater, it’s experimental and adaptable — a place where you can try new things,” said Fleming. “Things aren’t fixed to the stage. It’s flexible.”

The Black Box, which is equivalent in size to a three-car garage, will provide valuable square-footage that formerly didn’t service students, said Hirschbiel. She said the Will & Grace set, which will be sent to the new Los Angeles Center, is currently sitting in boxes in the library, as the West Coast campus is not yet ready to receive it.

Aaron Tetzlaff, Emerson’s architectural archivist and space planner, is participating in the Black Box Design Workshop and will identify any construction conflicts, as there are certain engineering limits to what can be changed in the Walker Building. Tetzlaff said he sees the Black Box as being able to constantly evolve to fit students’ needs.

“It’s a ground source project, from the students up,” he said. “We are looking for the missing elements in our library and trying to fix them.” 

According to Jake Bailey, who graduated from Emerson in December with a degree in marketing communication, one of those missing elements is space dedicated entirely to creativity. Bailey, who was recruited to the design project by the faculty library committee, said he envisions the Black Box as a place for collaboration and imagination. 

“Picture a study room on steroids,” he said.

Bailey said he hopes to incorporate as much technology as possible, such as IdeaPaint, coloring that essentially transforms walls into dry erase boards, or gadgets like Primesense, a 3-D sensing system allowing users to manipulate computer screens by gesturing their hands in front of a motion detectorn — similar to Tom Cruise’s computer in the 2002 film Minority Report.

Lauren Feeney, a junior journalism major, who will also participate in the workshop, said she wants the new design to be geared toward off-campus students. Feeney, who commutes to Emerson from Dorchester, said she wants lockers or a coat-check installed.

“Once I leave the house, I have everything with me,” she said. “I don’t want to have to lug it around all day.”

The project does not have a budget yet, said Hirschbiel. She said she and Fleming don’t want to place limits on their team’s brainstorming. However, the library staff is aware of the lack of study spots, said Fleming.

“I can almost guarantee you that it will be seating,” he said. “But we’re asking what kind of technology and infrastructure will fit the space.”

Kim Church, a senior writing, literature, and publishing major who works for the library, said from her observations, students need more tables where they can sit, plug in their computers, and work.

Although the majority of students are asking for additional chairs, Bailey said the Black Box should provide something new to the school.

“While adding more seating is practical, it doesn’t push innovation,” he said.

Innovation is one of President M. Lee Pelton’s five objectives in his strategic plan. Bailey said designing this area to be on the cutting-edge suits the aspirations of Emerson students, and would help fulfill Pelton’s initiative. 

“The Black Box is a great asset,” he said. “We shouldn’t take it for granted.”