Amherst’s Lack of Study Space


(Craig Campbell)– The discussion about changes to Keefe has quickly become a hot topic on campus. Students are voicing a litany of concerns that seem to have been on the tip of their tongues for quite some time. However, at this point an architect and interior designer are in the process of drafting a construction plan that allows the campus center to better serve the student body. While our suggestions are helpful, ultimately the opinions of professionals are the final word on reallocation of space. But the conversation the changes have generated testifies to the force of will of the Amherst student body and our general awareness of campus issues.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to an Oversight Committee focus group. We discussed the roots of campus social culture, both in general and how it pertains to sexual disrespect. We agreed that at as Amherst students, we have too much work to lead healthy, balanced lives. While this complaint is entirely true, it is not going to change. We chose Amherst for its intellectual rigor; we chose and continue to choose to lead these unhealthy lives. The time students spend studying displaces the more leisurely activities in which they would be otherwise engaged. Study time feeds directly off of social time.

Given these facts, the question becomes not how to reduce the workload but rather how to socialize the studying experience. While social bonds are typically formed in the process of shared dialogue, shared activities produce interpersonal connections of at least equal value. It’s for this simple reason that one feels a certain amicability toward a member of a shared course, despite little oral communication.

I’ll begin my analysis of study space at Amherst by identifying an ideal study room on our campus. The Rosenblum Study is one of two 2nd floor study rooms in Charles Pratt Dormitory. I did the majority of my schoolwork there freshman year. It overlooks, with its enormous floor-to-ceiling windows, Merrill Science Center and part of the Social Quad. It also has a view of the distant hills, over which a late-night studier is afforded a direct view of the sunrise. A table, the only thing occupying floor space in the room, provides seating for 10 people. The room’s electrical capacity matches its seating capacity. Gentle, non-florescent lights fill the space with comfortable luminescence. The wall opposite the exterior windows is entirely glass so that one can see into the room from all angles, inside and out, of Chuck Pratt.

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My friends and I used the room for both studying and non-academic activities (games, food, etc.) With ten seats, entering the room in the presence of strangers was not awkward (like, for instance, sitting at a partially occupied table in Frost would). I formed many rudimentary friendships there with students I would have otherwise not encountered. Finally, the room occupies a residential space. The college constantly touts in its admissions literature that Amherst is a place that encourages the formation of vibrant academic communities – a common area that serves as a study space in a residence hall allows for exactly that.

Consider now the Marsh Library. I live in Marsh this year and am often disappointed by the lack of residential community in the building. The library is a popular alternative to the ballroom for smaller social gatherings, but fails as a study space. One table, seating at most four, sits in the middle of the room. None of the chairs quite reach the top of the table. The lights are too dim for effective reading, and none of the floor lamps work. But the single worst aspect of the space is its separation, by two heavy doors, from the rest of the building. With no casual reason to ever go into the library, entering the room always feels like – and often is – an intrusion.

Morgan Reading Room.  Morgan Hall was the College's library from 1855 to 1917, before moving to converse.
Morgan Reading Room. Morgan Hall was the College’s library from 1855 to 1917.

Based on my observations of these and other study areas on campus, I’ve created five criteria that define a space conducive to effective study-as-socializing:

Outlets: Often laptops are left strewn about random corners of Frost, charging in the sparse collection of outlets. While the need for outlets in the library might not have been as important 20 years ago, they are completely necessary for any study space now.
Lighting: Lights can be both bright and soft. The space must be bright enough to read finely printed text without the headachy, unflattering brightness of fluorescent light. Natural light, provided by large windows, is especially effective.
Table space: Tables should be large enough to comfortably accommodate more than a couple students.
Visibility: In my opinion, a space’s visibility is the most important component of a social study area. As in the Rosenblum Study, a sight-line into the room should be direct and transparent so that one can quickly evaluate, from afar, its state of use. Visibility is an issue of comfort, and a common space is incredibly important to the formation of groups. Without having to specifically prearrange a meeting, friends should have an understood area in common. This is not territory – the idea is to create spaces of inclusiveness – but rather a sort of watering hole where someone is bound, at any point, to be working. Physical transparency into such a room fosters this kind of communal space.
Availability: Residential study rooms are by virtue always open. The same cannot be said for our libraries. (Meaning, every dorm on campus should be equipped with a good, self-sufficient study area.) Most students, I imagine, are still studying when the library closes at 1 a.m. on weekdays. The classrooms and other study rooms on campus close at 10 p.m. While placing oneself in the science library or pre-reserving a room in Seelye Mudd allows a student to work later into the night, the institution is simply unable to accommodate the late-night studying it demands of its students. Extending these hours should not be difficult. Alternatively, the rooms could officially close at 10, but remain available the students already working there, who would then lock the door behind them as they leave.

The path to the Noah Webster, now Frost Quad.
The path to the Noah Webster statue, now Frost Quad.

As it stands, most students study in Robert Frost Library. Although it is lacking in aesthetic appeal – it replaced the far more beautiful Walker Hall in 1965 – the facility provides all the resources one could want from an undergraduate college library. B and C level provide hidden alcoves, satisfying the need for silent areas free from distraction. A-level is a perfect example of a computer lab. In a high-ceilinged, open-air layout, the spacious surface areas of the desks and large screens lend well to writing assignments. While the cubicles maintain privacy, there is a sense of transparency and openness that is lacking in the rest of Frost. A-level also contains the underutilized Special Collections room, as well as private group study spaces – spaces that require socialization for their use. With the exception of Frost Café, the rest of the library’s study tables are hidden between the stacks, which instead of uniting students working just a few yards apart, keeps them separate and secluded from one another. If the stacks were rearranged to group the study sections together, each floor could develop a distinct community atmosphere.

There are plenty of spaces on campus that are better suited to group study than Frost (see below). But our main library is both the physical and symbolic center of academic engagement on our campus, and accordingly should be a physical and symbolic display of the values we claim to espouse, including the importance of community, both intellectual and social. Take a look at the black and white photos I’ve included from a different era at Amherst – what shift in attitude occurred that led to these beautiful, open study spaces to be replaced by the currently sequestered ones? I hope that, moving forward in our discussion of space and architecture at Amherst, we consider not only how to remodel the space, but also why it fails to serve us in the first place.

Finally, I present three rooms on campus that should serve as models for effective study spaces.

The Fitch Room, Converse Hall
The Fitch Room, Converse Hall
2nd Floor Reading Room, Beneski Museum of Natural History
2nd Floor Reading Room, Beneski Museum of Natural History
Rotherwas Room, Mead Art Museum
Rotherwas Room, Mead Art Museum

[Thanks to Mike Kelly, head of Archives and Special Connections, for the black and white photographs. The feature image is the Freshman Reading Room on the third floor of Williston, before it was renovated as a residential building.]