University libraries: adapting to a changing world

University libraries today offer flexible and adaptive spaces for quiet learning, reports Julie Ferry

Finding a purpose is one of the reasons many young people will find themselves in higher education. The continuation of learning is a vital step in the journey to discovering who they are and will be in the future. Yet, the very institutions that they inhabit are also on a continual quest to justify their own purpose.

In an increasingly digital world perhaps the library more than any other part of a university is having to wrestle with this central question. For as technology marches on throwing up limitless possibilities, the role of the physical book stock decreases.

In some universities this has meant a reassessment of the importance of the library, as a lynchpin of the university’s offering. Other universities have taken a different route and focused on the library as a central hub of the campus, a social and learning space that can add real value to the student experience, and they have adjusted their facilities accordingly. In addition, there are institutions with historic libraries, steeped in unique objects that continue to represent a part of the university’s cultural heritage and will always have a place.

Adaptive environment

Clearly, there is no one size fits all for the future of the library in the higher education sector. For a library to be truly successful, it needs to adapt to a changing environment, respond to users’ needs and reflect the ethos of its institution. The answer lies in flexibility.

“We’re at a really interesting time at the moment for HE libraries,” explains Neil Grindley, head of resource discovery at Jisc. “During the last five to 10 years, there has been a shift in thinking within libraries. They are really examining what the space is for and what people do within it, what the library should look after and what people want to use and how should the people who work there equip themselves, so they can deliver the library of the future.”

He acknowledges that each institution is different and will have to find its own answers, but he is in no doubt that many different ways of learning and conducting research need to be facilitated by the library space for it to be successful, regardless of how the physical space is designed.

For a library to be truly successful, it needs to adapt to a changing environment

Key driver of change

Technology has been a key driver of how libraries have evolved in the past decade and Grindley predicts that it will continue to play a central role in how institutions position their library offering to students. But it isn’t a simple case of the more technology the better: the sector is much more nuanced.

“There will always be some requirement to hold physical materials but how much of it is kept will be driven by practicality and convenience. Digitisation is not about cost, as the cost of electronic materials is not less than print and, in some cases, it is more,” he says. “There will be pragmatic decisions going on all across the sector to decide on the best way of making resources accessible. The majority of libraries will continue to go in the direction of the ease and convenience of digitised resources but that won’t be the whole picture.”

The library is a hub of a campus. It has to evolve and cater for all

When Edward Davies, senior associate architect at Stride Treglown, became the lead designer for the University of Reading’s £40m library refurbishment project, he encountered a client that was committed to both old and new. The project achieved practical completion last year.

“The university was clear that it wanted to maximise opportunities to create social learning spaces,” says Davies. This led to incorporating a number of individual study areas, group study areas and media-led spaces, so that each and every student was catered for.

“People study in different ways, depending on their course and their own preference. The library is a hub of a campus. It has to evolve and cater for all,” Davies continues.

Of course, a library refurbishment, or rebuild, is never an easy prospect. Users still need constant access to study space and materials in all their forms.

“The university wanted students to have access to their resources at all times during construction, so we opted for a phased approach,” explains Davies. “One of the biggest challenges was installing new lifts. They had to be fitted in an area of the building that was technically very demanding. However, in doing so we have achieved a much more legible and coherent layout.”

And it seems the students are very happy with their new library.

“The response from students when they viewed the finished product was very rewarding,” recalls Davies. “Some students remembered how the building used to look and when they came back they were impressed. Our modern design inclusions have really improved the look and feel of the building.”

The University of Reading’s modern library entrance

State-of-the-art transformation

At the University of Bedfordshire, a complete rebuild of the main library was the preferred option, leaving the site of the old library to be transformed into a state-of-the-art STEM building, which was opened in 2019. Choosing to completely rebuild opened up a whole range of possibilities for both the university and the architects but also required careful consideration to ensure the project maximised the facilities now and in the future.

“Part of the process was that the design team met with a student focus group, so that they had a real impact on the library,” explains director of learning resources,

Marcus Woolley. “The onus for many of the student cohort was to have a very academic-looking building but include a lot of social space where students could comfortably spend a lot of time. In terms of design structure, it has been built as a very modular design so that, should we build against or near the library, we could easily move some elements into an adjoining building or join them up.”

In a similar move to the University of Reading, the project created different areas in the library that attract different cohorts of students. For example, there are quiet areas that are acoustically screened off for those who wish to undertake individual study but then there is plenty of group workspace with flexible furniture solutions that encourage interaction.

When it comes to resources, Woolley advocates the need for both digital and physical stocks. He has noticed that students are equally comfortable working in both formats and tend to cherry pick which is more suitable depending on the context. However, he acknowledges that the use of digital materials has accelerated and, as student numbers in higher education rise, this is a trend that is likely to continue.

Optimum conditions

A focus on user experience is something that is being prioritised within university libraries across the UK. Institutions are keen to provide the right conditions for users to positively interact with digital resources and are therefore looking at access, navigation and providing the correct support from librarians.

Vee Rogacheva is UX and service designer for Open Athens and works with libraries to improve their digital experience. “My focus is on users,” she says. “And by users, I mean learners and researchers and also the experience of librarians as well. If they are all having a great experience, the library will be a happy place.”

And what does a happy place look like? From a digital point of view, it requires a seamless, secure and personalised user experience, where users are not baffled by multiple log in requirements and products that don’t talk to one another, creating barriers to transferring useful information. If the user experience is interrupted by such difficulties, it has an impact on the entire online research process.

The University of Bedfordshire’s stunning new library

Another challenge that faces researchers using primarily online resources is finding the most relevant materials.

“Knowing what’s available is definitely a challenge,” Rogacheva says. “There is a role that the library has to play in educating researchers to foster that curiosity and awareness.”

Neil Grindley agrees that the very nature of research online can sometimes narrow the field, resulting in less opportunity for ‘serendipitous searching’. He forecasts the emergence of semantic tools, full text mining of material and the use of AI machine learning to help researchers maximise their discovery time.

The challenge? Getting libraries to adapt quickly enough to the technology.

“If libraries aren’t alert and open to embracing technology and understand how to be custodians of that activity, then other commercial parties will step in and do that for the research community. Ideally they need to adapt quickly.”

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