Reinventing the library

Student’s study habits are constantly changing – Cecilia Forfitt finds out if university libraries are still meeting their needs

During the technological revolution of the 1990s, it looked as though the fate of the library was sealed. It seemed obvious that books would be packed away to make room for rows of screens, that visitors would vanish and the bricks and mortar themselves would eventually be demolished – after all, information could now be accessed with a few simple clicks. 

Instead, the opposite happened – academic libraries began to evolve, adapting to the needs of the modern student. The task was now not to keep the libraries open, but instead to create an environment conducive to different types of study, with a range of different media and resources available. Learning behaviours are constantly changing, and with them, the concept of the library is being redefined.

Around the world, the academic library has changed its image – no longer is it a dusty place with dog-eared books and a tutting librarian, but a lively hub of discovery and creativity that universities are proud of. “For years we have spoken in hushed voices of the library as the ‘heart of the university’ – but now we’ve lost the hushed tones, and happily promote the library as a major factor in promoting a positive student environment,” explains Diane Bruxvoort, Librarian and Director for the University of Aberdeen. 

Recent evidence collected by SCONUL, the group representing university libraries in UK and Ireland, shows that libraries remain an integral part of the campus, with the average number of visits per FTE student at around 52–53 per year – the same as in 2006–7. And with so many students stepping through the doors of the UK’s universities every year, it’s vital that space is used in the most intelligent way possible.

The new £42m library at the University of Birmingham

Watch this space 

When rethinking the use of space within the library, Aberdeen employed the ‘Third Place’ construct, which suggests that every person requires three places: the first being home, the second the workplace, and the third a community space promoting social interaction and creativity. Diane says: “We believe that a student’s Third Place is the library, and tailor our service and space to fit this concept. We have long hours, allow food and drink, and work to meet the student’s needs for study, social and technological spaces. As a result, on any given afternoon we have between eight and nine hundred students in the main library alone, and see thousands of students through our doors each day.”

Laidlaw Library in Leeds has used colour to create zones for different purposes, and a livelier environment where social interaction is encouraged. Group spaces are a warm, welcoming orange, and areas for individual study are a cool, soothing lilac. Red is used for print zones – places where people aren’t likely to linger for long periods – while skills zones are pink and have a common room feel.

More efficient storage systems and shelving mean more room for collaborative study and social areas – Bruynzeel Storage Systems have provided innovative, space-saving solutions at Coventry University, including electronic mobile shelving, situated in the public areas and housing 100% more stock than the equivalent static shelving. Little details like magnetic book supports make life even easier. 

Of course, making enough space within the walls of the library itself is sometimes impossible, and many universities are creating new areas across the campus to maximise study potential – satellites of the central learning spaces. In Middlesex, new informal learning areas are being introduced across the campus buildings in Hendon to build on the successful refurbishment of the main Sheppard Library, in corridors, empty spaces behind lecture theatres and even on stairwells. At Southampon Solent, vibrant areas for both individual and group study, complete with Wi-Fi access, have been introduced, as well as the Spark building, with its spaceship-like Pod.

With universities competing to show students around bright, shining libraries with impressive facilities, aesthetics, comfort and an inspiring atmosphere are all of the utmost importance. No surprise, then, that universities are spending millions on re-energising and rebuilding libraries – and they’re not afraid to shout it from their shiny new, solar-panelled rooftops. 

The Henighan Peng architects responsible for The University of Greenwich’s simply elegant four-story architecture school, which includes a library and teaching facilities, were shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015. The building, designed to complement the historical architecture of Maritime Greenwich, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was part of an £80m development to attract newcomers as well as improve the university experience for the existing student body. In Brighton, the £100m Circus Street development sees a new arts and humanities library in the pipeline as part of a creative hub that includes a dance studio and a public gallery. In Birmingham, £42m has been spent on a new technology-rich library with huge study spaces and state-of-the-art facilities.  

Those building on what they have already include the Edward Boyle Library in Leeds, which is undergoing a £24.7m transformation which will offer 2,000 group and silent study spaces, the University of Nottingham’s George Green Library extension and retrofitting by Hopkins Architects and the three library buildings at Nottingham Trent University, which have all been redeveloped over the past three years. “The students’ needs have been considered throughout the project,” says Mark Toole, Head of Libraries and Learning Resources at NTU. “In all three developments, we involved students throughout the programmes; from extensive market research of their needs and aspirations before any plans were made, their representatives being full members of the governance and project teams while the work was taking place, to even enabling them to evaluate candidate furniture by sitting on them and working at them.”

Technology continues to transform the library experience. Full Library Discovery is a recent innovation that allows users to widen their search from a single search box – Karen Reece, Head of Libraries, Capita


The day-to-day technological needs of the modern student are ever changing, and universities are constantly striving to meet their requirements by introducing facilities and creating systems to help things run more smoothly. At the University of Cambridge, Modern Human have been trialling the ‘WhoHas’ Concept, which seeks to “re-conceptualise the library’s role in relation to physical and printed resources.” Paul-Jervis Heath, Principal at Modern Human, a design practice and innovation consultancy, explains: “Modern technology enables us to connect the person who currently has a book to the person who needs it next; meaning that we can circulate the physical collection without books ever returning to the library.” Digitised book collections like the HathiTrust, which
holds almost 12.5 million volumes, allow libraries to keep single copies of titles for long-term preservation and reference, but provide digital access to the text for everyday use. And that means more space for students to meet and study.

Meanwhile, in Middlesex, a sector-leading eTextbook project is now delivering a personal ebook for every student on every module at the university’s UK campus. The University has partnered with John Smiths & Kortext to deliver ebooks that students can access via Moodle, download onto several devices and keep forever. 

At Bath Uni, individual records of books and journal titles available on the shelves include a QR Code on the library catalogue. By reading the code, you can save the title, author and classmark of the book to help you find it on the shelves. In addition, library floorplans have a QR Code that links users directly to an MP3 audio tour on that subject floor. 

While the digital revolution looked set to challenge the traditional library at first, it now helps to bring students through the doors in search of more exciting experiences than they can afford, and greater expertise than they themselves have. Some libraries have begun to install 3D printers, and librarians often have vital knowledge when it comes to restoration, not just when it comes to books, but also in outdated storage media experiencing digital decay.

Bruyneel Storage Systems at the University of Coventry

Tomorrow’s world 

Not all university libraries are experiencing such exciting changes, nor are the students enjoying such innovative technological advances, with some older institutions resistant to change. Mike Boxall, Higher education expert at PA Consulting Group, told The Guardian in June 2015 that the UK is still behind international competitors when it comes to modernising systems and services, and that the most important developments were happening overseas. “What the university system needs today is more brave leaders, willing to grasp the nettles of creating more relevant, accountable and student-centred university provision,” Mike explained. 

With buildings like the brain-shaped Philological Library of Berlin, with its temperature controlled by solar-driven convection currents and futuristic interior built in 2005 by Norman Foster, one of Britain’s most prolific architects, is it time for UK universities to take more of a risk, and embrace the future wholeheartedly? Undoubtedly. But with listed status restricting work in historical buildings, it can be tricky keeping up with the Joneses. One thing is certain, the modern student’s needs are always changing, and libraries must be ready to meet them head on, or face being left behind.

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