A little hush, please, for the modern university library

The modern academic library is changing rapidly to keep up with learning trends and demands from fee-paying students, with a new-found focus on flexibility and variety

A university’s library is a vital place for its students, with almost every aspect of modern student life revolving around these humble spots – they are places to research, to study, to meet, and to discuss. Libraries are often packaged with other student services, either nearby or even in the same building, meaning they are unavoidable for even the most revision-averse individuals. These days libraries are less about being solemn spaces of solace, but bustling community one-stop shops where students can learn and live at the same time.

Innovative library spaces

Dickson Poon China Centre

Innovative library spaces

“Many new and refurbished libraries are now incorporating break-out seating areas and catering facilities as the library is now becoming much more the focal point of the campus being that no matter your course, you’ll need the library,” Richard Ryan, Managing Director of Forster Ecospace, said. Ryan continued to say that the company has reflected this in recent projects (such as the Dickson Poon China Centre at the University Of Oxford and the Leeds College Of Music) with pizazz in their designs: for example, static grey shelving gives way to movable screen-printed storage.

University libraries are clearly key parts of an institution’s infrastructure – but they haven’t kept still over the years, and libraries have evolved drastically to keep up with societal and technological changes. Many major elements remain the same (yes, you’ll still find a few books floating about…), but the value placed on the different functions has shifted along with changes in learning trends. This is partly driven by the advent of invigorating technologies, but also by the way society has moved and discovered better methods for educating effectively.

“Ten years ago, academic libraries were in the grip of digital transformation,” said Andy Duck of Bruynzeel Storage Systems, who’ve worked on innovative solutions for universities such as Roehampton and Coventry. “A second generation of libraries had begun to emerge from the early 1990s onward, replacing traditional ‘repository’ libraries characterised by individual learning and shelves of dusty books. Universities in particular set about transforming their libraries into learning resource centres… where technology ruled the roost.”

University of Coventry

Duck went on to say that despite the relatively recent shift, an emerging third generation of libraries is looking beyond a total reliance on tech and over towards “a new model of engagement”. There’s a fresh focus on things such as variety and flexibility; freedom is very much top of the list of students’ demands as they become high-fee paying ‘customers’.

“There is no doubt there has been an increase in demand for a wide variety of study spaces in university libraries, driven by both changes in the way we study and also in the altered relationship between students and institutions as a result of the introduction of fees for higher education study in the UK,” Duck explained. “Students are no longer passive recipients of teaching, but active clients in a dynamic partnership between customer and provider. Collaborative and individual study spaces across the university estate are both demanded and required – from studio spaces and group study rooms to pod seating, project tables, and ‘meet and eat’ spaces.”

“There is much more call for automated solutions now as [libraries are a] selling point for universities trying to entice students to attend their establishments,” added James Breakell, the UK Managing Director of D-Tech International, who design security and storage systems (among other things) for libraries. “Embracing the 24/7 culture and opening libraries around the clock is a student expectation now, as is remote access to library accounts and services… having library security that facilitates 24/7 opening is an important step towards acknowledging the changing needs of 21st-century studying, as is easy access to technology, charging points, laptop loans, and library services.”

University of West London

Breakell touched upon an important note about 21st-century studying. Although state-of-the-art facilities are increasingly commonplace, it’s not the tech that’s leading the way – it’s the students themselves. 24/7 opening is a big one of these changes, with students wanting the chance to study on their terms and timetables: in short, they want that freedom to choose.

As students desire more versatility and rely on social learning and collaboration to bounce ideas back and forth, the idea of libraries being a place to just sit nose-deep in old tomes begins to fade. No longer only places of intense isolation or the dreaded ‘shushing’, universities libraries are stuffed with life and conversation. Bruynzeel have reacted to this movement in learning styles by maximising the social aspects in new projects, such as the University of West London (which was designed with Nomad RDC).

“Intelligent space planning is an essential part of modern academic library design to avoid overcrowding,” said Duck, offering a selection of tips. Keeping shelving low, maintaining sight lines, relocating seldom-used resources off-site to free up space, and varying storage options all help the spaces retain a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere. Again, Duck pointed out the need for variety and flexibility, not just in terms of students’ needs but for universities themselves, citing Coventry University’s Lanchester Library as a great example of this: “Much like a modern office block, the five-floor library was conceived as an open-plan space utilising steel structural beams, which removed the need for load-bearing internal walls. The essential fixed elements – such as toilets and lift shafts – are housed in ‘pods’ beyond the main space. This meant that when university staff were planning a complete renovation of the library in 2015, they had the freedom to rework the interior space to meet the changing demands of today’s staff and students.”

Leeds College of Music

Another way to maximise limited space is to digitise older or less-accessed resources, but while digitisation can be a handy trick to shrink the amount of journals and similar materials, it can also bring about its own problems.

“Printed journals do seem to be diminishing due to the rise in online publication that readers can access as digital media,” said Forster Ecospace’s Ryan. “In the long term this may give rise to need for increased storage for digital media in pull-out drawer units.”

As well as physical storage for digital files, rummaging through the data without a secure, comprehensive search system can be tricky – luckily Capita produce top-of-the-line software for this very purpose, making sifting through dozens of jargon-tacular studies and journals a cinch for students seeking quick information.

“Serendipitous discovery from one user interface is important to help students and staff find relevant information, more quickly, and across a wider range of resources and media types,” explained the company’s Business Development Manager Susan Wignall. “For this reason we have introduced Library Search for full library discovery, a model of presenting ‘surfaced’ content bento-box style.”

Duck builds on the idea of digitisation in a library environment, explaining that he and Bruynzeel have seen an increased demand for flexible storage solutions as well as books themselves: “It has broadened our remit by increasing the demand for high-density storage using mobile shelving. Interestingly, far from rendering books obsolete, third-generation libraries are investing in more varied display shelving and table top displays. It’s not a case of turning back the clock, but there is definitely a greater interest in the value of traditional books for learning – an almost fetishisation of the book as object – including a significant increase in focus on unique collections.”

University of Coventry

This idea of ‘fetishisation’ and unique collections might not be widespread in 2018, but it could be a direction that university libraries are heading in – a highlighting of unique characteristics in a crowded student marketplace.

“Academic libraries are turning to their rare books and special collections,” continued Duck. “This trend has created some noise in the sector about ‘libraries as museums’ and vice versa. Either way, this development requires a new kind of solution, drawing on our expertise from the world of museums and galleries, including display cases, lockable cabinets, glass-fronted shelving and bespoke solutions for object storage, preservation, and display.”

It’s clear that universities are in the midst of change to keep pace with ever-evolving learning trends and the increasing requirements of a modern student body. Now libraries are finding themselves at the heart of campus life, with much more than just books available. Universities, architects, and companies like Bruynzeel, Forster Ecospace, Capita, and D-Tech must be creative in their approach to designs. Variety and flexibility have been mentioned a lot, but these concepts are paramount in today’s university libraries.

As paying customers, students are no longer bending to the resources that are available at university libraries – the universities themselves are changing to meet the students’ needs and desires, and while the future is impossible to predict, that role reversal looks set to stay.

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?