From Public to Personalized: Alterspace Turns Libraries Into Rooms of Requirement

AlterspacePhoto by Sasha Pedro.

Want to relax? Try blue and purple lighting, and maybe some nature sounds.

More in the mood to get creative? Opt for red tones.

Or just want to “be weird”? The rainbow’s at your fingertips.

People come to libraries for all kinds of reasons, and libraries have adapted to offering technology, classes, and a variety of programming in addition to books. But there’s still more to be done to make these third spaces into Harry Potter-esque Rooms of Requirement, Clare Stanton argues.

“The one thing that’s really standardized and not malleable in a library is its physical environment,” says Stanton, who does outreach and communications for Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab. “When you go into the reading room, there’s fluorescent lights, the tables are set up the way they’re set up, you kind of need to contain your noise to yourself and it needs to be pretty regulated.” 

Alterspace changes all that. The pop-up, customizable library environment lets people adjust the room’s lights and sounds to match whatever they need the library to be. 

Walk into the latest Alterspace location—inside the public part of Harvard’s Langdell Hall—and you’ll find a tablet that asks what you’d like to do today. There are six options: focus, meditate, read, relax, create, W3!Rd. Each preset adjusts the lighting and sounds, but you can personalize it from there. Tweak the programmable LEDs’ intensity, change the color, or overlay additional sounds. 

Alterspace
Clare Stanton. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

Alterspace is a project from the Library Innovation Lab and the metaLAB at Harvard. Stanton describes their common ground as where “libraries, technology, and space” overlap.

“What we do a lot of the time is think about what kinds of areas of exploration in libraries we can poke at with technology, with installations, with research and ideas,” she says of the Library Innovation Lab.

Some of the Library Innovation Lab’s other projects include Perma.cc, which creates archives of websites used in scholarly research, and the Caselaw Access Project, which has digitized over 6.7 million cases.

Alterspace’s code is open source, so the project is intended to be replicable by libraries across the country and tailorable to their individual needs. That means Alterspace’s personalization could go beyond light and sound if a library wants to develop its own code to advance the project.

Libraries can find the code at alterspace.github.io.

“The end goal of this is that, like patrons needing autonomy in their space and the ability to have levers to change things, we know libraries are like that as well,” Stanton says. “One library’s needs are not the same as another’s.”

The Alterspace team worked with a sound artist to develop the audio options and a Harvard undergraduate who has a background in color theory to tailor the lighting options.

They’ve learned from each of their pop-ups as well. One comment that stuck with them was that adults appreciate light-hearted, fun programs like Alterspace from their libraries in addition to the skill development and research tools that libraries typically offer, according to Stanton.

Stanton can envision two additional ways Alterspace could be applied. The first is for children’s storytime, where librarians could create settings to shift the space’s mood.

“There could be a preset for the storytime that you could change each week to reflect what book you’re reading—like if it’s kind of creepy, you can make the thunderstorm sounds and darker lights,” she explains.

Another route could be improving libraries’ accessibility, particularly for people who are sensitive to certain lights or sounds.

“That has become part of the larger library conversation,” Stanton says. “We have been really inspired by the idea that this could be a room for both people who do have a diagnosed issue and the rest of us. That’s been really inspirational, to try to push the boundaries of what kinds of lights and interventions we can put into this space.”

The Langdell Hall location, which will run through the end of the summer, is the third iteration following stints at the Cambridge Public Library and the Somerville Public Library this spring. This will be the last pop-up, according to Stanton—afterward, the hope will be that individual libraries take up the torch.

“At the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple intervention, but we’ve discovered that there definitely is something powerful about just having a little bit of control over your space,” Stanton says.

You can find Alterspace at Harvard’s Langdell Hall through the end of the summer. Langdell Hall is located at 1545 Massachusetts Ave.

This story originally appeared in the Technology & Transportation Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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