UMSI students design a makeover for the university's archives
Anyone who has watched HGTV knows the satisfaction of seeing a space undergo a transformation. Oftentimes, a digital rendering shows viewers what to expect by the episode’s end: walls put up or taken down, fresh carpet installed, new furniture arranged to create a better flow.
Last semester, University of Michigan School of Information students Stephanie Vettese (MSI ’24), Ziyan Zhou (MSI ’24) and Clayton Zimmerman (MSI ’25) used their contextual inquiry and data gathering skills to reimagine the public spaces at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.
Established in 1935, the Bentley serves as the official archives of the university and preserves the history of the state of Michigan, housing over 11,000 research collections alongside a state-of-the-art conservation lab. Its collections are open to anyone who wishes to access them — an undergraduate working on a final project, a faculty researcher or an Ann Arbor resident studying genealogy. But many members of the U-M community and general public don’t know these resources exist, or don’t feel knowledgeable enough to approach them.
This was a makeover with deeper meaning.
“Not everyone feels welcome in an archival environment,” says Zimmerman, a first-year Master of Science in Information student on the library and archives track with a focus on connecting information and communities. “There has been a multiyear initiative within the university to get more people involved with using these archival materials to support their research and their coursework.”
This fall, Bentley director Alexis Antracoli — who earned her own MSI from UMSI in 2011 — proposed a student-led project to make the Bentley’s physical spaces more welcoming to visitors.
Vettese, Zhou and Zimmerman were connected with the project in SI 547 Engaging with Communities, a client-based course taught by clinical associate professor of information David Wallace. The course emphasizes multidisciplinary approaches to identifying and meeting community needs.
Antracoli gave the team free rein. “She really encouraged us to dream big,” Zimmerman says. “She said, ‘Let’s take something that’s very conceptual, very aspirational, and see what you can do. Then in the future we’ll figure out what we’re going to implement.’”
They each brought different perspectives and strengths. Vettese is a second-year MSI student on the archives track, while Zhou is a second-year MSI student focusing on user-centered agile development. Zhou jokes that she didn’t know the difference between libraries and archives before beginning the project. But, in addition to her expertise in user-centered design, she brought a skill set that proved crucial: an undergraduate degree in architecture.
The team chose to focus their recommendations on students and faculty of U-M who use the archives infrequently or have never done archival research before. They conducted qualitative research with two U-M professors, five U-M students and a group of 10 reference staff from the Bentley.
“We really wanted to get those people's perspectives to say, ‘Hey, what's working well about this space? And what are the challenges or barriers you're facing to engaging?’” Zimmerman says.
Reference staff pointed out that researchers often spend long hours in the Bentley analyzing materials. “The researchers want a break to make a phone call or have some food,” Vettese explains. “And the issue was, there's no place for them to actually do that.”
Among students, lack of awareness of the Bentley’s offerings was a barrier for some, while nervousness about following “the rules” of the archives was a barrier for others. Unlike a library space in which students can come in, browse, and take any book off the shelf, an archival space carries a set of norms for requesting materials and interacting with them.
“One of the main themes was that students really wanted a digital welcome before a physical welcome,” says Vettese, who can relate to using technology to prepare for a new experience. “At least for me, I'm very introverted. So I need to know everything as I'm going into a space.”
Roll up the red carpet
Like any good home makeover show, some of the team’s findings related to the physical space. “Staff mentioned that the overhead lighting gives them headaches, but they really liked the natural light coming in through the windows,” Vetesse says. “And the red carpet, while it’s iconic — ”
“It was universal,” Zimmerman laughs. “They said it's very fatiguing on the eyes and distracting to have this bright red carpet.”
After the team analyzed their data and determined recommendations, it was time for the reveal. Zhou used computer-aided design software to create detailed 3D renderings of the reimagined spaces.
In the main room — which has an open floor plan — the team created a clearer distinction between the reception area, research area and exhibition area. They repositioned the welcome desk to better direct the flow of visitors and erected frosted glass walls to form a separate break room. As for the carpet, they proposed a more calming (and U-M-appropriate) blue.
To make the Bentley’s website a first point of entry for students, “One of our recommendations was to have a centralized ‘New to Research’ section that would be able to gently bring someone into the fold if they’ve never used an archive before, or serve as a one-stop shop if you need a refresher,” Zimmerman says.
The goal is for the Bentley’s physical and digital spaces to mirror the approachability of its staff.
“I know archives — the word ‘archives’ — is really intimidating,” says Diana Bachman, assistant director for reference services. “I was intimidated when I came to the Bentley for the first time as an undergrad student.” Bachman went on to earn her MSI from UMSI in 2015 with a specialization in archives and library science. She is now one of the friendly faces visitors see when they walk through the entrance.
If the team’s recommendations are implemented, “I really hope people will know what the Bentley is and feel comfortable coming in,” Vetesse says.
Zimmerman agrees. “One of my ideal impacts would be that the Bentley becomes a destination in and of itself, even if you don't have research to do,” they say. “That the space is alive enough with photos of materials and exhibits about certain subcollections that anyone wandering off the street and saying, ‘Oh, what's going on in here?’ will have an activity to do.”
For Antracoli, the transformative nature of the project is twofold — extending to the Bentley and the team of UMSI students.
“I know how important it is for people to be able to talk about real-world experiences when they're interviewing for jobs,” she says. “I could see a student, for example, applying for a job as a reference archivist and being able to talk about this project in a way that makes them a really appealing candidate.”
— Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer
(Lead image: Diana Bachman, assistant director for reference services at the Bentley, stands with Ziyan Zhou, Stephanie Vettese and Clayton Zimmerman in front of the library's welcome desk.)
Learn more about the Master of Science in Information.
UMSI invites organizations from all industries and sectors to propose information-based projects for students to work on through capstone projects, client-based courses and programs. Find more information here.