Spaces are most productive when there is interesting meaningful work to be performed and better locations for engaging in distracting behaviors.
The library doesn't work because of its configuration, it works because the occupants are self selecting. People who want to party go to a bar, instead.
It works because there are lots of areas with different levels of privacy and which tolerate different levels of social interaction, from the carrell in the stacks, to the pairs of lounge chairs by the window, to the reading room, or these days, perhaps a snack bar. Importantly, the occupants of each of these areas are again self selecting.
Finally, library spaces tend to be the commons. Permanent territoriality is discouraged, and this furthers self selection.
Reminds me of my previous (BigCorp) employer who spent millions on redesigning office spaces from individual offices to a network for cube-farms. These were expensive cubes too, because you could move them around and orient them in different configuration to enhance team collaboration. Of course, in reality, no one bothered to move heavy walls around when they could just walk over. Also management, didn't let people organically disperse, instead they assigned cubes to people in the most inefficient configuration possible.
The library example is an interesting one to me, because my personal productivity in libraries varies drastically depending on the layout.
In college, the libraries where I ended up reading and working were impressively tight, vertical, and often almost claustrophobic . Carrels aren't offices, but the ones I used practically were: there were always walls of books all around each one. The libraries also had big open rooms (similar to the pretty U of Chicago photo superuser2 linked to), and I tried working there a couple times, but even to go into those spaces was supremely uncomfortable for me. It wasn't noise: even if there wasn't a soul in the whole library, I wouldn't go there.
I recently quit my job because they moved to an 'open floor plan'. I just don't think I'm wired to work in flat open spaces. Right now I'm working from home, and though my apartment isn't big, somehow I naturally ended up with walls and (medium-to-tall) furniture surrounding me on 3.5 sides, less than an arm's length in each direction.
Very thoughtful post. Many big companies are moving towards "open floor" plan. But, when you look closer, it is simply smaller cubicles and more people in the same space. But this blog provides the insight, how to improve "productivity" by having conscious 60/40 split. I think this is a great insight.