Space and Place in Special Collections Instruction

By Juli McLoone

Headshot of Juli McLoone, the author.
Juli McLoone

The physical attributes of a classroom can seem invisible, merely the background against which the action takes place. However, just as the layout of a website affects its usability, so too does the arrangement of physical space affect people’s experience. Given how central materiality is to special collections, it is all the more important to reflect on how our instruction spaces can enhance our lesson plans. This post will briefly share some of the factors that went into my department’s design of a new instruction space, followed by some thoughts on table arrangements within the classroom, and a few observations on making the most of non-ideal spaces.

I. Designing an (Almost) Ideal Instruction Space

During a 2017 renovation, staff at the University of Michigan Library’s Special Collections Research Center offered extensive input into the design of our new public spaces, including a dedicated presentation space, primarily intended for instruction. On a secondary basis, it also serves as a location for department and committee meetings, candidate interviews, and other library gatherings. We focused on two elements as crucial: 1) soundproof walls, and 2) the need to accommodate larger classes. 

As anyone who has participated in a library renovation knows, obtaining approval for floor-to-ceiling walls is easier said than done, but if it can be accomplished, the lack of ambient noise makes it much easier for students to concentrate. If instruction spaces are located near reading rooms or workspaces, researchers and staff also benefit.

Even if a renovation isn’t in your immediate future, keep a running list of ideas that a larger or more flexible space would make possible.

Previously, we had to turn away classes of more than 20 students, or split them up across multiple days or into multiple mini-sessions. Our goal was to accommodate at least 30 students, the current enrollment cap for many upper-level courses. Our new instruction space is approximately 30×35 feet, with an official capacity of 70, but we find that 30 is a realistic maximum for working with materials at tables.    

Our previous space already featured rectangular tables on wheels that could be configured in various ways, and it was important to us to retain that flexibility. However, it wasn’t possible to obtain an adjustable-height table on wheels, so in the interest of accessibility, we ordered 11 tables of approximately 29×65” on wheels, and one stationary table. We ordered 30 comfortable chairs on wheels, appropriate for lengthy sitting in full-day workshops, and an additional 20 stackable chairs for lectures and other events requiring short-term seating. Any furniture not in use is simply pushed to the edges of the room. We’ve also found instruction logistics to be considerably eased by adding two coat racks along one wall, and a small table just outside the door, where students can leave drinks for retrieval after class.

Even if a renovation isn’t in your immediate future and the funds seem out of reach, consider tracking relevant comments and conversations with students and faculty, and keep a running list of ideas that a larger or more flexible space would make possible. If the opportunity for renovation or remodeling does arise, you will be ready to make your case.

II. Leveraging Flexible Room Arrangements

Regardless of the size or other characteristics of your instruction space, movable furniture can facilitate a variety of learning environments. Following are five table arrangements I’ve found useful. In some arrangements, like pods, our stationary adjustable-height table fits into the larger pattern; in others, like the seminar table, it is not typically used.


Diagram of Auditorium-style room arrangement.

Auditorium-style seating maximizes the number of people in a given room, making it possible to connect with classes that otherwise would not engage with special collections. If available, a document camera can provide large audiences with close-up views. I should note that, although it is outside the scope of this post, the selection and use of classroom technology merits extended exploration in a future post. (See also a previous post on document cameras.) I sometimes also set materials up on tables near the front of the room, and invite students to come up to look at the end of class. This approach has limitations, however, since it can result in students waiting in a long line to spend just a few minutes with the materials. 

Seminar table

Photograph of books and students at a seminar table.

Seminar Table. Photo Credit: Evyn Kropf, 2017.
Diagram of Seminar Table room arrangement.
Seminar Table

For classes of 10-15 students, I often combine 4 to 6 of the small tables into one long seminar table. This arrangement works especially well when individuals or pairs present content to each other. Because the materials are concentrated into a relatively small space, it can also be a good choice for items requiring close supervision.


Diagram of optional auditorium-style seating can be added in the open area of the U-shaped table arrangement.

There are three situations for which a U-shape configuration is especially suited: 1) Show & tell classes with 10 or fewer students, in which the students travel with the instructor from one end of the U to the other, particularly when chronological display is appropriate. 2) Classes of any size engaged in free browsing or scavenger hunts. The open space in the middle of the classroom allows for a large number of people moving in many directions without crowding or chaos. 3) Classes with an introductory lecture followed by hands-on activities. By setting up auditorium-style seating in the middle of the U, students are encouraged to give their full attention to the speaker during the lecture component, but the U-shape provides adequate table space for hands-on activities.


Photograph of empty room set up with tables in Pods formation, with materials set out on tables.
Pods. Photo Credit: Kristine Greive, 2019.
Diagram of Pods room arrangement.

Pods are my personal favorite. They accommodate far more students than a seminar table, but because students are facing each other, the layout still lends itself to group discussion. It also works well when students rotate in small groups from one table to the next to explore different topics or types of material.  

Pairs/Paired Rows

Diagram of Pairs or Paired Rows room arrangement.
Pairs or Paired Rows

For pair-based work, one can encourage collaboration while minimizing distractions from other groups by making each table a standalone pod for just two students. This arrangement is limited mainly by the number of tables available, and the need to leave sufficient space for maneuvering around them. If space is tight, try making paired rows, as shown in the diagram, with much the same effect. 

Regardless of layout, plan for accessibility. If the lesson plan involves long periods standing, be sure to provide at least a few free-floating chairs and invite students to use them as needed. Be mindful of the spacing between tables or between rows of chairs. Asking faculty ahead of time whether students require accommodations is is a good idea, but will not always elicit the necessary information. The organization Access Advocates offers a brief guide to ADA compliance for public libraries that is also relevant to special collections instruction. This guide advises that interior pathways should be at least 32 inches wide, and that there should be at least 40 inches of clear space between furniture.

Regardless of layout, plan for accessibility.

III. Teaching in Less-Than-Ideal Spaces

But what if the classroom space and furniture is not flexible? If it’s not possible to change the classroom layout to suit the activity, one must modify the activity to suit (or at least recognize the limitations of) the space. I imagine instruction spaces existing along two continuums: lecture ←→ conversation and stationary ←→ mobile. A long, narrow seminar room facilitates conversation, but is probably not conducive to moving around. In a room like this, an individual or paired document analysis followed by group conversation is likely to work better than a scavenger hunt. A lecture hall with fixed seats is, by its design, most suited to stationary lectures. Active learning can still be integrated, but it requires planning that takes the limits of the space into account, and perhaps uses technology to side-step them, such as online surveys for real-time feedback, shared google documents, and the like. 

At one of my previous institutions, the primary instruction space was also a computer lab with desktop computers arranged on both sides of a U-shaped table. Although much smaller than a lecture hall, this space also made both movement and conversation difficult. There simply wasn’t space to lay materials out by theme and free browsing felt dangerously chaotic because all the equipment made it hard to keep sight lines on the materials. To ameliorate the situation, I used small books that fit comfortably between computer stations and asked students to work on the 1-2 items closest to them. My most successful classes in that space embraced its opportunities by placing an archival box or a box of reproductions between each pair of computers, and asked students to use the materials in conjunction with online finding aids and digital collections. 

Another possibility to consider, if your special collections is part of a larger library, is to use other library spaces for instruction. However, like classroom technology, taking special collections “on the road” is a large topic that merits its own future consideration. 

Works Cited:

Access Advocates. “12 Basic Requirements for ADA Compliance at the Library.” Accessed July 18, 2019,

Recognize these room arrangements? Or do you something different in your teaching practice? Share your thoughts on arranging special collections classrooms in a forum thread.

Juli McLoone is a curator at the University of Michigan Library’s Special Collections Research Center, where she seeks to engage users with a wide range of collections including children’s literature, culinary history, and rare books dating from the 18th century to the present. 

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