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Steve Wright hears how today's university libraries are adapting to a changing set of demands from their student users

Posted by Hannah Vickers | January 29, 2017 | Facilities

At groundbreaking new projects across the country, the changing design of university libraries is being driven by a range of factors – increasing student numbers and increased demands, both academic and beyond, from those students; changes in studying and working habits, driven by the fast pace of technological development; and the integration of digital and open-access publishing. To attract today’s crop of techno-literate, highly self-assured students with one eye already on the post-graduation employment market, today’s university libraries have to be flexible, multi-faceted spaces, far beyond the large book-lined spaces of the past. 

“With students becoming ‘customers’ since the introduction of fees, universities are increasingly looking to their estate to attract the new intake – and libraries have become a key element of this,” reflects Andy Duck of Bruynzeel Storage Systems, who have recently provided state-of-the-art shelving for, among others, the Universities of Coventry and West London. “Not only are libraries required to be better designed, better-looking and more receptive to student input (for example, requests for 24-hour opening), they also have to serve more functions. Demands for collaborative learning spaces, social areas and quiet study areas all put pressure on space.” 

In Bruynzeel’s section of the university landscape, this has led to an increased take-up of high-density mobile shelving. “UK universities are leading the way in this regard and are early adopters – particularly of electronically-driven mobile shelving, with its high levels of safety features. Mobile shelving – traditionally used in archive and back-office areas – has the advantage of saving a minimum of 50% floor space over static shelving.”

As Andy explains, the university library’s role is being reinvented to suit new demands – for such things as collaborative work spaces, for example. “At the 2016 SCONUL Library Design Awards Dr Paul Ayris, Director of Library Services at University College London, explained how UCL’s Cruciform Hub – one of the shortlisted new libraries – had fulfilled this brief. Individual faculties at UCL were demanding collaborative workspaces but did not have the space to provide them in their own faculty departments. The redevelopment of UCL Cruciform Hub has provided collaborative workspaces not available in faculties, reworking the role of the library.”

Elsewhere, as digital subscriptions for main stock become more widespread, there has been increased interest in the importance of unique and distinctive collections for higher education libraries. This has resulted in a wider range of storage solutions – plan chests, picture racking and digital media storage – being used by libraries to house their special collections, with one prime recent example being Huddersfield University’s Heritage Quay, winner of the SCONUL Library Design Award 2016. 

The University of Bedford’s stunning new library, which opened back in the autumn, was very much a co-operative venture between architects Moses Cameron Williams and University students and staff. “Our students were at the heart of the designs: we wanted to ensure that the new library responded to how students want to learn, not how we think they ought to learn,” explains Bedford’s Director of Learning Resources and Service Excellence, Marcus Woolley. “The design team started their process by meeting with groups of students to listen to their thoughts about features that should be included. 

As work progressed, students were able to evaluate the fixtures and fittings and attend meetings with designers and contractors.”

The completed, 7,400m2 library features 154,000 books on six kilometres of shelves and, crucially, is open 24/7 during term time – a popular feature that is also in operation at other university libraries including those at Manchester, Northumbria and Strathclyde, while others including Queen Mary and South Wales are exploring the idea. Other Bedford features include laptops for loan, 530 PCs, 916 study spaces, café, student practice presentation room, bookable group study rooms, state-of-the-art IT/AV, automated temporary card system, lockers for student use, improved silent study areas, and a Study Hub where students can find advice and guidance on academic and study skills.

Another recent landmark development has been the University of Manchester’s Alan Gilbert Learning Commons, the UK’s first truly digital library – and the first building at Manchester to take on board student desires and suggestions from the outset. Students were involved in every decision in the design of the ‘library without books’ – from grand concept through to technology choices, furniture design, interior colour and opening hours.

“In a nutshell, the Learning Commons delivers interactive, informal, advanced 24-hour learning facilities in a comfortable, bright modern setting that continues to engage our students and draw them in, encouraging learning and inspiring thought,” explains University Librarian Jan Wilkinson.

A principal design objective was to minimise the building’s CO2 emissions. To that end, energy-saving features such as natural ventilation (wherever possible), heat recovery systems to limit the amount of heating and cooling of fresh air, and energy-efficient appliances were incorporated. The library also hosts quarterly showcase events for its DigiLab initiative, where staff and students can come to try out future technologies for the learning environment.
“The library without books works,” Jan concludes. “Its bright, bold, open-plan workspaces with multimedia facilities for presentations and Skype conferences have proved very effective. The 30 state-of-the-art group study rooms and multiple PC clusters, the training room for skills sessions and workshops, the socially driven atrium and the café all work for our students.”

Crucially, the building is also constantly adapting to and learning from the needs of its users. “We constantly review the configuration and use of the building through observation and market research,” explains Penny Hicks, Head of Strategic Marketing and Communications. “For example, our Alliance Manchester Business School MBA students recently carried out an intensive project in the building. This recommended clearer demarcation of space for individual study and less reliance on sofas and open seating areas.”

Elsewhere, shelving systems providers Forster Ecospace were responsible for the shelving at the University of Birmingham’s new library, installing shelving throughout both the basement and upper (open-access) floors. “To contain the collection to be housed in the lower ground floor area of the new building, it was critical to provide 50,000 linear metres of shelf space,” explains Richard Ryan, Forster Ecospace’s Managing Director. “To achieve this meterage, and working in conjunction with Associated Architects and University personnel, Ecospace produced a final layout using mobile shelving that would accommodate not only octavo, folio and quarto-sized books, but a comprehensive audio collection and 46 plan chests, some on mobile bases. Layouts were also produced for both static and mobile shelving in the ‘open access’ areas of the library on the ground and three upper floors.

“A feature of the shelving in the open-access areas of the library, where nearly 13 linear kilometres of shelf space have been installed, is the use of glass end panels for both static and mobile units. These mobile units, which are situated on the third floor where there is a raised computer floor with a 650mm void under, necessitated the installation of a steel support structure for the tracks to ensure that the weight of the systems was not only carried by the structural concrete deck but maintained the independence of the computer floor itself.” 

Designing a modern, fit-for-purpose university library in times of rapid technological advances, not to mention an ever-changing profile of students using the building, means that future-proofing is a key area for vigilance. 

A fine example is the University of Greenwich’s new library, built as part of an £80m redevelopment project. Designed by architects Heneghan Peng and completed in 2014, the building was shortlisted for the 2015 RIBA Stirling Prize. While its exterior matches its UNESCO World Heritage surroundings, the interior is unashamedly modern, with raw concrete walls, integrated technology, exposed ducting and steel balustrades.

“We’re conscious that as the University develops, we expect other courses to be added to the portfolio on the Greenwich campus, so we are aware that we will have additional stock coming in,” explains Ginny Malone, the University’s Information Services Manager. “We’ve done two things to prepare for that. In one area in the basement, where we have periodicals currently, we have prepared the floor to take rolling stack in future. Should we need the space, we could add rolling stack for items not accessed so frequently. This works in conjunction with the future purchase of ebooks and ejournals, thereby releasing that space for other types of physical storage.”

We shouldn’t forget, finally, that the modern library is a social as well as an academic space. “The whole building is a social area,” said Ginny of Greenwich’s new library. “We’ve got armchairs, study rooms, high-alcove sofas where students can curl up with their laptop. We allow eating and drinking. We’re very central to the town so we have a high profile. We’re not just custodians in a warehouse of books anymore.” 

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