In the "Living Room" of the University

By Karen Lauritsen, Cal Poly Science Cafe


Robert E. Kennedy Library serves the 18,000 students and faculty at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, California. Here, you can order a small cappuccino and croissant to go with your collaborative learning space, your easy iPad checkout and your accessible online research guide. We’re affectionately considered the “living room” of the university, which is about as good as it gets.

Why an academic library
Kennedy Library is a popular gathering spot for up to 10,000 visitors a day, with a friendly feel. We’re a place where Learn by Doing (a Cal Poly principle) happens outside the classroom, in collaborative spaces enlivened by great coffee and technology. Our Science Café takes place in an open area in the middle of it all, so that students and community members can happen upon the event and feel welcome to join in.

We’ve also extended Science Café into downtown in partnership with local businesses, and we recently used the library’s grand staircase as an experimental site for February’s Science Café, DIY: Physical Computing at Play, when we transformed the stairs into a live game board.

Not only does Kennedy Library offer open spaces for study and coffee on the second floor, but it’s a destination that draws people together. That means a retired community member and a current English major can find themselves at the same table, working on a customized computer science experiment that becomes an interactive art installation.

Working with the space
We’ve played with the space. A lot. Recently we put up dark curtains to better control the light. We continue to experiment with audio in what is essentially a sound vacuum. We’re now set up to capture events as podcasts and sit down with speakers for quick video interviews before they present. Luckily, we have a team who collaborates on making all of these moving parts happen.

Documenting and sharing Cal Poly Science Cafe
You can see archives of every program offered since inception (because libraries do that sort of thing!) on our event pages at Cal Poly Science Cafe. The library also just launched a blog, where we share podcasts and videos from recent Science Café and other events.

We interpret science in a very inclusive way – along with talks on bionics and hypersonic speeds, we’ve offered coffee taste tests and a conversation about what makes a book a book. Next we’re offering a hands-on workshop on Japanese Bookbinding as part of a spring exhibit celebrating fine-press publishing and collecting in California.

Since 2009
We’ve been partnering with on- and off-campus collaborators since 2009, inviting experts to tell stories, give demonstrations and invite participants to play hands-on. Sometimes the speakers are faculty at Cal Poly; sometimes they are guests. Sometimes hundreds of participants attend and we sit next to each other in rows, other times we sit six to a table and taste coffee, examine nanotechnology, or explore questions together. Everyone is invited, we provide free refreshments (always a draw!) and students with busy schedules are free to come and go. 

Cal Poly Science Café

Cal Poly Science Café on Facebook

Kennedy Library Out Loud

Kennedy Library Science Café on Vimeo

April 2012