Saltire Center at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Brian Sullivan, a librarian at Alfred University, wrote “the academic library has died” in an opinion piece responding to the gloomy tone of a 2011 report on the future of academic libraries. “One reason for cause of death is that library buildings were converted into computer labs, study spaces and headquarters for informational-technology departments.”




Although Sullivan is being facetious – the headline for his piece was ‘Academic library autopsy report 2050’ – there’s no denying that the university library as we know it is changing. And this has become more evident over the past decade through changes in the way university library buildings look the world over.

From the so-called Berlin Brain (the Philological Library at the Free University of Berlin) to the shimmering gold exterior of the award-winning Hive at the University of Worcester, from the forest-like interior of the University of Queensland Ipswich Library to the seven-story white and shiny Sir Duncan Rice Library at Aberdeen University, the role architecture plays in shaping how today’s library is used, accessed and perceived is also building our understanding of how university libraries will be used in the future.

“Libraries are some of the most evolutionary buildings that you can imagine,” says Diane Job, director of library services at the University of Birmingham, who is leading the design of a new £57m library building and research annex to open at the university in 2016.

‘Future proofing’ the library building was one of the main criteria for the design. The installation of extra-strong floors and well-placed lighting will provide the flexibility and versatility that the library will need for the future, insists Job.

“We know that the changes will come, and what we are trying to do is look at the building and predict what some of those changes might be and build that in,” she says. “Our fundamental principle is putting people at the heart of the library – whereas libraries from a bygone age put the collections as the most important thing.”

This drive to refurbish, redesign and rebuild university libraries plays into a wider shift occuring in higher education – the change in the way students, researchers and academics are accessing and studying information.

“Pedagogy is the driver for the changes in library design,” says Ann Rossiter, director of the Society of College, National and University Libraries – “changes to the way undergraduates are expected to study, for example, including more social spaces, more social learning and group learning. The way that library buildings are changing is designed to reflect that.”

With universities investing so much time and money into making these aesthetic changes, is there any evidence to show that building design actually enhances learning or drives more people to use the library and its resources?

There is evidence pointing to an increase in usage. David Lindley, executive director of Designing Libraries, an online resource for the library community, says: “redesign and refurbishment will commonly increase usage by 50% and even double the occupancy as libraries introduce multi-purpose spaces, study spaces and more relaxed furnishings”.

He adds: “A new library invariably succeeds in helping students to rediscover the library as an essential resource and learning space, confuting preconceptions of the library as out of date and peripheral to their needs.”The question of whether well-designed space actually improves learning is yet to be proved, however.

Les Watson, university library consultant and former pro vice-chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, believes how we feel in a certain environment has a significant part to play in the way we work: “It is clear to me that the spaces in which we work and learn have both psychological and emotional impacts on use and also that learning is affected by our emotions and psyche so it seems feasible that better space can enhance learning performance. But there is no real evidence about what works and why so far.”

Watson continues: “Students are undoubtedly affected by inspirational university buildings and libraries in particular have a great influence on the reputation of the university and the ability of the university to attract prospective students. This is especially so in the era of annual national student satisfaction surveys.”

It may not be long before students view library spaces filled with computer labs and study pods as the norm as technology plays an ever greater role in the workings of higher education. A recent study into the library habits and expectations of young Americans aged between 16-29 found that 25% read an ebook during 2012, up from 19% in 2011, and one in five use mobile devices to access library resources.

While it’s important for libraries to stay ahead and provide users with access to the latest online resources and technologies, research shows it’s also about being able to provide a delicate balance of ‘blended learning’ – study that takes place in both the digital and physical space.

A recent JISC report stress the benefits of this blended approach, concluding that academics and students will need both the virtual and physical library for years to come. It may prove more challenging for university library buildings of historical significance, where listed status will force them to be more creative in the way they use their space.

“Libraries were places of silence with pockets of group work and activity,” says Watson. “In the 21st century university, they are becoming places of learning activity with pockets of silence.”

Via The Guardian