- Encoding Space: Shaping Learning Environments That Unlock Human Potential by Brian Mathews and Leigh Ann Soistmann
Encoding Space: Shaping Learning Environments That Unlock Human Potential is uniquely engaging. Written by Brian Mathews, an associate dean at the Virginia Tech Libraries in Blacksburg and a learning space developer, and Leigh Ann Soistmann, an interior designer and graduate of Virginia Tech, the book functions more as an invitation than an argument. Encoding Space encourages the reader to consider questions about the many possible futures of libraries, asking “What might libraries become?” Answers are whispered throughout the text. Whatever libraries do become (and the possibilities are endless—at least according to Encoding Space), they should consciously support the well-being of communities, campuses, and individuals.
Mathews and Soistmann blend perspectives from a dizzying array of disciplines, including architecture, biology, business, city planning, civics, color theory, computer science, economics, environmental psychology, food science, geography, instructional design, interior design, and neuroscience. And this is not even an exhaustive list. The authors encourage their readers to consider how library spaces might become more collaborative, evocative, and interdisciplinary, and they model such an approach in their own work. Encoding Space crosses many boundaries. Rather than prescribing what readers should do with their libraries, it encourages “what if?” thinking to explore the possibilities of space and place. Such creative thinking appears on page after page as the book’s design creates spaces within which the reader can encode meaning. Text is interspersed with pictures, drawings, white space, and visualizations, demonstrating the ways that old forms become new. Familiar spaces, such as rows of words, are transformed into stimulating new experiences. Mathews and Soistmann ask how libraries can do the same.
Such explorations do not come without challenges, however. At times, the book’s layout is difficult to navigate, and contradictions pop up here and there. For example, the book relies heavily on making comparisons between libraries and retail venues, only to later warn against relying too heavily on a customer service model. In addition, the way Encoding Space compares libraries to other venues, such as beehives, playgrounds, boutiques, and fitness centers, [End Page 845] can be bewildering. While helpful for illustrative purposes, such analogies raise the question, if libraries could be like any of these spaces, what makes a library unique from them?
Mathews and Soistmann seem aware of these difficulties. In both the introduction and conclusion, the authors exhibit a strong awareness of the tension between print and digital culture and of academic librarians’ anxieties about remaining relevant in a rapidly changing environment. They strive to make the book’s contradictions consistent with one of its central pieces of advice: to leave enough unfinished space in any room so that it can evolve organically. Rather than pristine and perfect buildings, Encoding Spaces suggests that we should think of living, breathing, and evolving structures. Similarly, rather than thinking of Encoding Space as a finished work, readers should think of it as a book that is slightly unfinished and rough around the edges—inviting readers to continue working on it.
Encoding Space will appeal to a variety of readers within and outside of libraries. Given the breadth of its research and the accessibility of its writing, Encoding Space should be required reading for librarians and library administrators. Though every reader may not have the ability to influence the layout of his or her building, many principles, such as reconceptualizing users, asking transformative questions, and embracing innovation, can be applied to any evolving library space.
Brigham Young University