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CURRENT TRENDS IN LIBRARY BUILDING DESIGN

Objective of Study Visit to United Kingdom - August 2004


To observe and discuss with colleagues the developments and trends in the library as a physical
facility.

The site visits were to view recently completed new/refurbished academic library buildings,
including the recipients of the 2002 SCONUL library design awards (for completions between
1996-2000). This award is on the basis of functional design rather than purely architectural merit
and covers qualities including functionality, adaptability, accessibility, choice of learning spaces,
interactivity of design (between users and services), environmental suitability, safety and security,
and efficiency (in space, staffing and running costs).

I was particularly interested in current thinking about space norms and benchmarks for physical
facilities. This study visit is relevant to the library’s strategic planning priorities which include a
commitment to investigate and improve the physical environment at the campus libraries. The
information collected will provide practical details relevant to future library redevelopments at La
Trobe University.

The libraries which I visited included

- University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield


o College Lane (new building, completed 1997, SCONUL award winner)
o De Havilland (new building, completed 2003)
- Coventry University (Lanchester Library) (new building, completed 2000, SCONUL
award winner)
- Sheffield Hallam University (Adsetts Centre) (new building, completed 1996, SCONUL
award winner)
- Leeds Metropolitan University (refurbishment and extension, completed 2000)
- King’s College London (Maughan Library & Information Services Centre)
(refurbishment, completed 2002)
- London School of Economics (British Library of Political and Economic Science)
(refurbishment, completed 2001)

I have kept detailed notes of features of each of the library buildings, collected relevant literature
and also took photographs.

Common themes
From my visit, I have identified a number of common (although not universal) themes which
characterise the new or refurbished library building. These are detailed below.

Terminology
The terms “library” and “learning resource centre” continue to be used, although the latter tends
to be associated with the ex polytechnic stream. Interestingly, one learning resource centre has
very recently changed its name to library at the request of the incoming new vice-chancellor
(Leeds Metropolitan).

There is no use of the North American terminology “information commons” and its later
manifestation “learning commons” (which also includes learning support services), and I found
that refreshing. Instead, the libraries are characterised by banks of computers, usually termed

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computer clusters, where students can access whatever they require, and beyond traditional
library information resources, usually via a standard university desktop configuration. In such
cases, both library and IT help are available either from a single or distributed service points. This
is not dissimilar to the information commons concept.

Space norms
As expected, there has been no recent progress on the development of space norms or standards
since the 1996 SCONUL publication by Andrew McDonald.

Open plan principles


The buildings reflect open planning principles in their public space areas. Reasons for this are
given as flexibility for future reconfiguration exercises, aesthetics and the assumption that the
majority of present day library users have a preference for this type of scholarly and social space
layout. This latter point has had some follow on effects – specifically the high noise levels that
now have to be managed (and which are a cause of complaint from those who still require silent
surroundings for their work). Solutions include silent study space being located at the building
perimeters and buffered by shelving, and large areas of totally enclosed silent study space.

Two very interesting and different approaches to major refurbishments are Maughan Library &
Information Services Centre (King’s College, London) and British Library of Political and
Economic Science (London School of Economics). Both buildings cater to the needs of
approximately 8,000 students.

The LSE library was totally gutted and rebuilt using open planning principles. The Maughan
Centre was a heritage building and the refurbishment had to preserve many original internal
features, resulting in a library characterised by many small discrete areas configured with single
study, some computer equipped (and large enough for small groups to get together) and collection
space. Capacity of these spaces is usually for no more than 10 - 12 readers. This appeared at least
superficially to provide an ideal integrated print and electronic environment, where many areas of
quiet space are available and disturbing others is not a problem. Yet the level of occupancy
seemed significantly lower during my visit (and apparently this is the norm) when compared with
LSE, with its open environment and large and very visible zones of computer workstation space,
and other study space, often some distance from collections. It may be that, at least for learning
space, many library users would rather work away from enclosed environments with limited line
of sight, and prefer (and perhaps feel safer) to be surrounded by other people and associated
noise. Thorough investigation of user preference for types of library space, and how they work in
such space is obviously a key issue in planning new layouts.

Consistency in design and layout on each floor


This is also a common theme and takes into account the need for navigational assistance in
negotiating the relatively complicated library physical environment. The common model is to
have collection and study space (including a range of study space types) distributed in the same
configuration on each floor. Some examples are

– computer space around a central atrium, and study space at the extremities of
the building, with collection space between these two areas as a noise buffer
(University of Coventry);
– a zoning of study space, from noisy open group study at one end of the floor to
single silent open and enclosed study space at the other (Sheffield Hallam)
– group study rooms on each floor and in the same location on each floor

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Access to large numbers of computer workstations
The access to a very large number of computer workstations was probably the most significant
feature in all the libraries I visited. In some libraries, this equated to one in every two or three
study spaces being PC equipped (study space ratios ranged from 1:5 to 1:7). Overall ratios in
British universities average one computer for every ten students, and it is evident that the library
building is seen as a key location for university computers, providing access to not just
information resources, but to the full range of university online services and resources. Apart
from dedicated catalogue workstations, access is controlled by user log in and the desk top is the
standard university desktop configuration. Provision of such public access computers is often not
a library budget responsibility. In addition, most if not all libraries I visited either had in place or
were in the process of implementing wireless networks for personal laptop access.

24 hour opening (or extended opening hours as a study hall)


The majority of the libraries had implemented or were trialling long opening hours, in many cases
24 hours. During extended opening (e.g. after 9pm at night) no assisted service was available,
however computer equipment, the collections and self service facilities such as self checkout and
self checkin machines, ensured basic needs could be met. Entrants used swipe card access, and
security officers were employed (e.g. LSE employed three security staff for 24 hour opening) to
ensure safety and security of users.
Accessibility usually extended to all public areas of the library and was not restricted to specific
parts e.g. a designated 24 hr area.

Self service equipment


The need to provide some basic service during the study hall opening hours is linked to the
significant take-up of self service equipment (including for Open Reserve). All sites visited were
3M installations. An interesting extension to self checkout is self checkin – even to the extent of
providing a special return bin for items with some sort of exception state e.g. holds. The same 3M
machine can be enabled to perform both functions. This checkin facility is still in trial
implementation and I am not sure of the long term success, as all returns still had to be rechecked
by the library staff at the time of my visit.
Self service printing and photocopying facilities were distributed on each floor, often in the same
location on each floor, again to ease navigational difficulties. This trend moves away from the
model of provision of a dedicated photocopying space adjacent to staff assistance.

University of Hertfordshire (College Lane and De Havilland libraries)


In terms of self service, their approach represents one end of the spectrum, where the move to self
service is the modus operandi (and a response to a very large increase in student population in a
very short time, with no parallel increase in library and IT staff). This university is seen as one of
the leaders in the systematic approach to self service implementation. This has been to the extent
that there is no physical lending service desk at all. All loans and returns are expected to be
processed by the self service machines. The machines are located near the only staffed service
point in the building, the “help desk”, where specially trained staff (but not professional level)
assist with loan problems and also provide IT assistance and first level library assistance (IT and
information specialists are available on an appointment basis). In summary the library operates on
a three stage service approach and in this order 1. self help 2. help desk 3. appointment with
specialist.

The self service theme is continued on each floor with provision of self help leaflets on a huge
range of library and IT areas e.g. word processing, how to print, how to photocopy etc.
prominently situated on each floor. A self help laminating/binding/media preparation area is also
located well away from library staff assistance and a vending machine sells computer discs.

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Interestingly, the library staff indicated there is a high level of petty vandalism and theft and one
might speculate that the extreme position on self service and the deliberate minimisation of
interactions with staff has resulted in a lack of identification and respect for the building. In
addition the fabric and finish of the older College Lane library (completed 1997) looked very
shabby when compared to a similar age facility – Sheffield Hallam. Whether this was due to a
similar lack of ownership of the facility by its users or just poor quality was not clear.

Study space
Group
The requirement for group study space in academic libraries seems to be universal and a response
to the changing nature of learning worldwide. The libraries provided enclosed group study rooms,
sometimes equipped with a computer, in addition to open space configured for group use, such as
with large tables. The latter open space solution has added to the noise problem which libraries
now must cope with.
Individual
Single study space is still provided, but often in totally enclosed (glassed) study areas which are
shielded from the high noise level occurring within the library walls. These study spaces are
either single rooms or a large room with multiple individual spaces. Configuration in this latter
area is often large tables rather than individual desks, reflecting the need and user preference for
space to spread out a range of material, even if studying in single mode. Individual study desk
design has also been modernised, with low mesh dividing walls providing line of sight and a light
environment rather than the rather old fashioned solid enclosures which characterise Australian
library furniture.

Noise mitigation
This is a big issue for the new open plan libraries. Not all readers can thrive in such surroundings.
The above sections of the report describe some of the ways which ensure quiet space is also
provided – enclosed rooms, use of shelving as a noise buffer and deliberate zoning of space types,
however these are not entirely successful as noise is still regarded as a major problem. I also saw
some rather unfriendly rules and regulations about noise control prominently displayed. One
interesting solution to the control of mobile phone noise is the establishment of mobile tolerant
zones at Sheffield Hallam. The library had lost the battle in totally banning use, and so has come
up with the solution of permitted areas where phones could be used. Having this as an option
defused the confrontational situation which sometimes occurred between staff member and
patron.

Café space
Many of the libraries had such a facility either close to the library (but outside the walls), or
within the library, and part of the overall library space. At Hertfordshire (College Lane and De
Havilland libraries), both have a cafe within the walls. These are also equipped with computers
providing a genuine internet café, however there are some problems with food odours permeating
through the De Havilland library building. Library staff also reported they are not entirely
successful in ensuring food and drinks are confined to such space.

Disability space
Current UK legislative requirements ensure special attention is given to providing suitable
facilities which cater for a wide range of reader disabilities. Interestingly, the trend is either to
mainstream these facilities and distribute them throughout the building or to locate in a general
area, but not to limit location to a confined and enclosed space (e.g. an assistive technology room)
although these can also be present as part of group study room configurations.

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Service space
The number of service points is quite variable. I was told that in some libraries salary budgets
were not under pressure and hence the number of service points was often very generous. At the
University of Coventry there is one information desk on each floor in addition to a help desk
staffed by IT staff (although the organisational structure was not an library/IT convergence) and a
lending/open reserve service desk. At the other extreme (Hertfordshire) there is one single,
multipurpose service point (or integrated help desk) for the whole building (3 and 4 floors). The
third model observed is the traditional lending desk, open reserve facility and single information
desk. Inclusion of a separate and separately staffed IT help desk within the library is also quite
common.

Training facilities
These are routinely included in the new buildings, often more than one and often available for
general use when not being used for information skills training.

Use of compact shelving


This is a routine feature of collection storage, both for closed and open access, lesser used
material. All except one system (Sheffield Hallam) are manual operations.

Other facilities and inhabitants


The new libraries usually from the ex polytechnic sector also featured multi-media services areas
and facilities such as video production studios, editing rooms, multi media development
laboratories and video conferencing.

Teaching and Learning units were often located in the same building or adjacent (LSE, Sheffield
Hallam, Coventry) – though co-habitation didn’t appear to involve organisational integration of
any sort. Rather to facilitate co-operation/collaboration.

As mentioned above, IT Help Desk and sometimes separate IT training rooms were often located
in the library building (Coventry, LSE, Leeds).

Some libraries also provided dedicated graduate study space, usually equipped with computers,
which is only accessible to such students. These are not usually large or particularly well
developed or equipped, and do not occupy significant areas of space.

A couple of the libraries also housed their careers advisory service (Sheffield, Coventry).

Helen King
Associate Librarian
La Trobe University

4 October 2004