Off the books

As print publications begin to leave the library, Luke Evans looks athow universities are making room for the digital age

Anyone who enters a modern university library looking for a book would be forgiven for thinking that they’ve accidentally entered the offices of an internet start-up, with scores of people sitting around and chatting while using laptops, tablets and smartphones. Whereas IT suites were once the main threat to library books, both services are now being altered by the mobile age, with architects seeking to create blank canvases of space where people can sit and charge a device, have a coffee, print out their work and read a book all within the same space.

The most recent report from Jisc, published in 2009, showed that 64.6% of students and lecturers were using e-books, with over half of those interviewed stating that they got their e-books from a library resource. A similar report on the use of research methods stated that 40% of academics use the internet as their first port of call for conducting research. Print resources are becoming less of a priority, while cloud computing and online courses such as FutureLearn are continuing to create an increasingly paperless network of information. Meanwhile, cumbersome pieces of hardware such as photocopiers and servers are disappearing, allowing universities to offset their large carbon footprint while remaining at the forefront of education technology.

Architect and Cambridge lecturer James W. P. Campbell has looked closely at how the spread of information and its corresponding medium affects the design of the university library. In his recent study The Library: A World History, Campbell and photographer Will Pryce comprehensively catalogue the evolution of the library, from the monastic rooms of Trinity Hall at Cambridge to the modernist learning spaces of Utrecht University Library. “Computers have provided a challenge for recent designers,” Campbell said in a private interview. “Some modern libraries are still providing desktops but it seems increasingly likely that students will be expected to use their own devices and that these will have better battery lives and network wirelessly, meaning that older libraries, far from needing radical adaptation, actually turn out to be the more user friendly, providing mixtures of open and more private reading environments.”

Much of the final section of Campbell and Pryce’s book is devoted to studying ‘The Future of Libraries in the Electronic Age’, looking at the way that the dictum of ‘form follows function’ has played out against technological innovation. “The biggest problem with IT is anticipating future developments,” Campbell said in conversation with University Business. “Anything installed today is likely to be obsolete within five years.” As such, he believes that an architect has to balance functional considerations with a less time-sensitive understanding of aesthetics. “It is a mistake to think you can design a purely functional building. Great architecture is functional and economic but also makes places that people want
to be in.”

When it comes to planning new library buildings and refurbishments, some universities are drawing on research from within their own ranks on how to improve the spaces for work and study. A graduate report published in 2005 by New York University looked at ways in which the University could “improve its physical spaces and services to best address the current needs of scholars.” Five years later, architect Joel Sanders implemented the research in refurbishing the university’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. Along with adding a number of study areas and wireless spaces, the new design of the library’s atrium also serves a more morbid purpose: after three suicides in the last decade, the architect created perforated aluminium screens along every floor, preventing students from being able to jump over the 150ft drop to their deaths. In other words, Sanders’ design has to accommodate for every use of the library space, whether educational or otherwise.

The University of Manchester, meanwhile, has listened to its students with Eureka!, a Dragons Den-style competition which allows students to pitch ideas for improvements to the university’s library services. Last year’s winner Jade Brodie won £1,000 in vouchers and will see her idea for individual log-ins at study desks implemented in the near future. The University has proven to be very forward- thinking when it comes to creating learning spaces; their £24m Alan Gilbert Learning Commons offers a smorgasbord of digital features, from high definition screens with laptop connection points to group study rooms offering inbuilt computers for video conferencing.

While Manchester’s building is strictly an all-digital zone, the University of Aberdeen chose to integrate its existing library resources into the high technology spaces at its new Sir Duncan Rice Library during its completion in 2012. The library features a mix of resources, from rare books and manuscripts to flexible learning areas with plasma screens, laptop connection points and moveable furniture. The ground floor houses a café and exhibition space, and the majority of floors feature Co-Labs – IT-ready desk spaces which include a PC and plasma screen with headphone ports. Laurence Bebbington, the University’s director of library services, believes that keeping all these resources under the same roof is useful for both staff and students. “It emphasises connections between activities in finding, getting and using information,” he said. “With so much in one building we can also work closely with other services (such as IT services, estates, campus services, etc) – and working together underpins the desire of all of the service units on campus to provide the best possible student experience.”

Bebbington believes that the shift from print resources to digital technology is a positive one for libraries and librarians. “It has changed how we do things but not what we do,” he said. “Losing those vast silos of volumes has allowed us to develop the new facilities and spaces, and hopefully improve and update librarians’ skills and knowledge to continue to support student learning and teaching.” He added: “Our role has always been to support the student learning, teaching and research experience. Changes in the way we deliver that support – for example, self-service issue and return of books – free staff for more qualitative things, such as answering enquiries, or delivering information skills training sessions. Also, IT allows us to deliver 24/7 access to absolutely core materials.”

The library, which took the place of its existing Queen Mother Library, was designed by Danish architect team schmidt hammer lassen (SHL) with construction from main contractor Pihl UK. They were tasked with creating a place that could accommodate the 10,000 or more students the university had gained since the older library’s last extension in 1982. The finished building bears a funhouse mirror resemblance to Helsinki University Library inside, with asymmetrical white contours winding upwards around a large open atrium, while the glass façade fills every floor with a flood of daylight. A series of energy saving initiatives saw the building receive an ‘excellent’ Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM) certification: these include harvesting rainwater for flushing toilets, keeping the fluorescent lights on programmed timers, and supplying 15,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year using roof-mounted solar panels.

It looks like Birmingham University will be the next to enter the foray, with a projected £57m going towards a new building created by Associated Architects. Unlike some other universities, Birmingham have chosen to fund the development in a number of ways, with their website offering a video presentation and other information as part of a crowfunding pitch, accepting donations of any amount both privately and by text. Not all universities, it seems, can afford to dive straight into the digital age.

Rather than view this as a weakness, The University of Worcester took it as an opportunity to team up with the local authority. The Hive is Europe’s first joint university library, a £60m project that took eight years to reach fruition, with help in the form of £10m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and £7m from the regional development agency (not long before its dissolution in the face of the post-recession deficit). As a joint venture, the University has to balance public, family friendly features with more student focused facilities. Although certain issues required careful planning and consensus – such as ensuring that certain books are available during exam periods – the project has also created unexpectedly fertile areas of crossover, with resources including the local authority’s archaeological archives being easily accessible for university students. Teacher training students also benefit from the children’s library and resources on the first floor, while public-focused areas such as the gaming zones on the ground floor also provide a great place for students seeking to take a break in-between studying.

As we begin the long road to recovery from the global recession, it falls on universities to train the next generation of thinkers, workers and educators who will be responsible for sustaining economic growth. Although creating new studying facilities and keeping abreast of technological developments can be extremely costly, many universities cannot afford to lose students to places with superior resources.

New ventures such as those in Worcester and Birmingham show that there are alternative ways of achieving the same goal, and it is essential that universities across the country strive to remain at the forefront of information technology as their students continue to shape our future.