Alterspace Transforms Libraries Into “Rooms of Requirement”

A collaboration between Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab and metaLAB gives library patrons control over light and sound in their work space.

Alterspace in Somerville Public Library meeting roomIn March, it looked like an alien ship had landed in the glass atrium of Cambridge Public Library’s (CPL) main branch in Massachusetts.

“You can’t enter the library without seeing what’s going on in there,” said Reinhard Engels, manager of innovation and technology at CPL. “In this case, it was this weird, glowing pod, which looks like something that fell out of space.”

For three days, the otherworldly white dome transported patrons into a room of their own, called Alterspace—a pop-up environment designed by Harvard University’s metaLAB and Library Innovation Lab that gives library users control over the room’s light, color, and sound with just a tap of their fingers.

Today’s libraries serve many purposes. For some patrons, they are places to borrow books or to take classes, while others use them for access to technology or to collaborate on projects. But transforming a library space to accommodate the needs of every patron can be a difficult task, explained Clare Stanton, librarian and communications and outreach coordinator at Library Innovation Lab.

“It's widely known and accepted that not everyone studies or works or concentrates well in the same environments as everyone else,” Stanton said. “We wanted to think about Alterspace as something that integrates into part of the library experience, but adds to that feeling that people can have autonomy when they go to the library, where it's kind of a safe haven.”

The transformative nature of Alterspace was inspired by magic—specifically, the magic in Harry Potter. In the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, characters use the “Room of Requirement,” a secret space described to be “always equipped for the seeker’s needs.” But wizards, muggles, and librarians alike are keen on this idea. Radio program and podcast This American Life, for example, produced an episode in December 2018 about how libraries have increasingly become specialized spaces used in different ways by everyone.

“Even though the library buildings are for everyone, there isn’t really that kind of exchange where a patron can come make the space their own,” said Anastasia Aizman, a developer at Library Innovation Lab. “We were really intrigued by what somebody would need to make a public space their own.”

In January, the Library Innovation Lab, an open source technology hub housed in Harvard’s Law School library, teamed up with metaLAB’s humanities studio think-tank to apply the concept of “Rooms of Requirement” to library spaces—replacing magic with interactive technology.

Alterspaces have popped up for limited engagements in CPL in mid-March and at Somerville Public Library (SPL) from April 17 to May 17. The first iteration of Alterspace launched at CPL’s main branch as a gleaming pod-like structure designed by artist Keith Hartwig. The pod was covered in Tyvek, a reflective material often used to wrap up houses during construction, which helped bounce light inside the space.

Four people could sit comfortably in the space at a time. The team assembled a cart with a tablet featuring the Alterspace app, headphones, and books from the library collection—photo books of birds, flowers, and nature to note the start of spring. On the app, the users were prompted with a simple question: What would you like to do today?

“We went through and created some presets for activities we thought might match the patrons at each of the different libraries,” explained Stanton.

The alterspace app on an iPadThe six different presets automatically triggered programmable LED lights and filled the headphones with a mix of ambiance sounds and music, composed by sound designer Alisa Kolot. A tap on the preset “Relax,” for instance, would soak the space in calming tones of blue, and play a soothing ten-minute track of a plinking piano, chirping birds, and rustling trees. Hitting the preset “Be W3!RD,” on the other hand, submerged users in a rainbow of color, while a slightly faster tempoed tune mixed with the sounds of coffee shop chatter hummed. If none of the presets suited the users’ preference, they could embark on their own journey with the “Customize” button.

“You can change the colors of the light bulb, you can change the brightness of the light bulb. You can turn the sounds off completely, you can make them a little bit louder. You can change them to be whatever you'd like,” Stanton said.

The developers and artists integrated slow, smooth transitions between the light and sound changes, taking into consideration sensory sensitivities. Over the course of the three-day residency in CPL, the Alterspace team made general observations of how the patrons interacted with the space. Some people tried it out for a couple of minutes, while others would sit and read books for 45 minutes, says Stanton. The team did not design for any particular type of user, but they were surprised to find how popular it was among younger patrons.

“I was there with my six-year-old son, and he loved it. He immediately just dove into this and was turning all the dials and figuring out the combination of things,” said Engels. “There's a lot of legitimate academic brain power and incredible creativity and sophistication that went into this, but it doesn't take that to appreciate it.”

The app and concept of Alterspace were designed so that it could easily be adapted to any library’s specific community and needs. The Alterspace in Somerville required a completely different setup from the CPL pod installation, taking over a reservable library study room, and modifying the concept for their existing patron base. The next scheduled Alterspace is slated for Harvard’s Langdell Hall, the Law School’s library, in early June, when it will serve students in the midst of finals.

“Our end goal is to have a code base and a kind of cookbook that is downloadable on the Internet by a librarian anywhere,” said Stanton. People are always welcome to ask for advice, she said, but Alterspace was set up to “have [libraries] be empowered to do it completely on their own, to configure it the way they’d like.”

While Alterspace was originally designed for libraries in mind, the code for the app will be open source and available for developers to build upon and integrate in any space—like high-stress courtrooms or your own study room, Stanton and Aizman suggested.

“It will always unfortunately—or fortunately—be a work in progress,” said Aizman. “If somebody wanted to build Alterspace in their own house, they’re absolutely welcome to, but they might want different things out of it. It will have to just be this project that's continually iterated on by us or by other people who want to contribute to the code.”

Alterspace might not be at the magical level of Harry Potter, said Engels, but giving patrons a sense of control in a public space provides them more ownership of their environment—bringing them a little bit closer to their own personalized “Room of Requirement.”

“You click a button, and then music and color all changes and the feeling of the room changes,” said Aizman. “It's a little bit of a powerful feeling, I'd have to say.”

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