Library space: a room without books (or at least less obviously with books)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul” so said Cicero (below), although I’m pretty confident that he would have  excluded business books from his analogy had they been around in the 1st Century BC.

Despite my unapologetic focus on our electronic resources here within Library Services at Cambridge Judge Business School, I have spent quite a bit of time recently considering the future of our printed collections and the space within our physical Library. I’ve always called it the ‘physical Library’ due to my conviction that its only part of what defines our service, and I’ve always disliked it as a space. This is largely because, to the uninitiated, the layout and look of the space here suggests a traditional set-up with a strong emphasis on printed books and journals, that wouldn’t look out of place in a college (or even a school) rather than a modern specialist business school library. The book shelves in particular are very prominent and take up two-thirds of the available ground floor space.

Despite this, printed materials currently account for only 15% of total resource spend, compared to a whopping 80% on e-resources. Although in the time I’ve been here (2.5 years now) it has been possible to alter the activities of the Library team in line with this significant division of expenditure, the physical space cannot be changed so easily and the impression it gives is now detracting, or at the very least distracting, users from our core activities and service objectives.

Morrell Boone’s description of a Library as “no longer simply a monastery full of books and journals for scholars but marketplaces competing for clients by offering different arrays of services” (Boone, M., (2003) Monastery to marketplace, Library Hi-tech) encapsulates perfectly the global paradigm shift in library space over the last decade and is closer to the reality of the service I want to manage, however, our current physical Library neither suggests nor allows it. The challenge before me (in which I’m sure I’m not alone)  is how to change the interior of my physical library according to: our current activities; the needs of our users;and the competition and threats we face: while at the same time, altering the overall emphasis from preservation, classification and storage, to access, communication and delivery.

I definitely would not advocate doing away with the physical Library altogether, despite the fact that our number of remote enquiries well exceeds those taken in person, because I still regard physical contact with our users as important. Any opportunity we have to point a user in the direction of our premium resources and give them some much-needed information skills instruction needs to be grasped firmly, especially as  this physical contact usually proves what wonderfully helpful and insightful beings us librarians are and invariably prompts the subject to come back to experience more of the same.

Although I am certain that the physical Library here is a poor advert for our service, and despite my penchant for banging on about how we can’t expect students to come to us anymore (the Mohammed and mountains bit), during  this academic year our footfall has increased by some 35%, proving conversely that this year’s intake do! This is a neat and unassailable argument for keeping the physical space but a less convincing one for spending money on its re-organisation. Hence the need for a recent survey of all our users to gather their opinions on the physical Library…

The survey went out in tandem with a discussion paper in which I detailed the current problems with the physical space as I saw them and asked questions such as whether we should: introduce social (groupwork) space, move the book collection to a compact rolling stack, try to fit in more study desks etc. I also sought data on the way they currently use the space.

The survey rather unsurprisingly revealed that: staff assistance at the desk; study space; and use of our terminals for premium and general web resources were the most common activities, while use of the printed book and journals collections was relatively low (supporting my argument that these collections do not currently earn their space).

As for future use, the majority respondents wanted more study space and for it to be more comfortable (and to come in a wider variety of shapes and sizes); and did not object to the idea of re-housing the book collection. However, respondents were dead against the prospect of social space. Having been requested to slide a scale between 0 (‘absolutely silent’) and 6 (‘group work permitted’), an average score of 1.4 was recorded, which equates to ‘very quiet’ or ‘near silent’.

So where does that leave the service, well I’m replete with user views on the space and handily they are largely in agreement with my own, so now it’s just time for that little matter of securing agreement for the refurbishment money. The day I’ll be happy to take a new user on a tour of the physical Library may still be some time off.


5 thoughts on “Library space: a room without books (or at least less obviously with books)

  1. Dan says:

    Do you have lapwing? Academics are constantly complaining about lack of good study space, neither in the faculty where the bureaucracy of teaching and working within a large organisation takes place, nor the home, where there are many distractions. But nor is it the Starbucks kind of “Third Space”. There’s no sense in becoming a third rate Starbucks (I think that’s where the 1.4 comes from). Have you seen those business centres in provincial airports? Often replete with Staples-reject cubeware, but we could do a similar thing better. As well as “facing” social (as in a restaurant), there’s also “beside” social (as in a cinema), which is a much less tangible social experience and something which people who think of their body as “a clumsy but effective device to take their brain to meetings” might be reluctant to accept, but I think is powerful nonetheless. Just look in The West Room at the UL these days: everyone’s working on laptops ignoring the room “furnished” with books (which actually are excellent acoustically for a research room).

    I agree, though, about disaggregating the physical and institutional library (but doing away with neither). For a long time libraries have relied on church/school type metonymy, where the building and the institution are one. Now that a lot of their value-add is virtual (eg as a rights buyer, searcher), they’re being challenged where they need not be because users retain that dated metonym. It will mean much more careful attention to a much stronger, less embodied brand.

    One practical impact might be lower shelving, or else shelving in one section (as in the Moore Library with their rolling stacks). With high, spaced-out shelving, the library space adopts a kind of forest feel, with occasional computers browsing in glades. The forest isn’t a very comfortable space, and improving the sight-lines by having eye-level clear sight lines seems to improve the library space enormously (just compare floors 1+3 of the new city library with floor 2).

    On that subject, it might be worth thinking about that desk thing. An academic library isn’t anything like a public library, but Essex have recently suggested (as taking up by Cambridgeshire) that the desk was a massive barrier to queries. There, they go around asking people if they want help, which wouldn’t really work here: but it might be worth separating librarian from library as library from building, by being present in non-library situations as librarian. For example, at UPEI, they’ll help you out with your bioinformatics.


  2. libreaction says:

    There’s of course a great deal more I could have said on the subject. For instance, I want to do away with our main Library Desk which as you say definitely does act as a barrier. I also spend a lot of time outside of the Library ‘spreading the word’ in non-Library situations such as the classroom and the common room to reinforce that the service is not tied to the traditional space. Many thanks for the comments.


  3. Dan says:

    “There’s of course a great deal more I could have said on the subject. ”

    I look forward to hearing them, in time, on this blog.

    It’s great to hear librarians thinking along those lines: sorry for the random stream-of-consciousness!


  4. Dominic says:

    This is one of the great conundrums of our time and is really quite difficult to solve. Undoubtedly our customers want different type of seating/space requirement for a variety of reasons and increased footfall is not to be sniffed at. Although it is a volume as opposed to a value indicator, it still shows the physical library as central to learning experience and I have found that despite all other methods we have developed people still like human touch when with some enquiries, especially with more complex resources. I want to free up space occupied by unused print journals and I promote the physical library as just one on our services, but need to balance this with turning the library into just a combination of computer cluster and and coffee bar. I think books provide a certain gravitas which helps quiet study and lends itself towards a research conduicive environment, which I think libraries also about. Main issue is one of balance because customers want it all (and why not)quiet study facilities, group work rooms/tables, access to PC’s/books and physical staff help from a space. At the same time I want library staff to be more visible in classrooms and other locations and provide both quality services and resources to customers who never come into the physical library.


  5. Dan says:

    “I think books provide a certain gravitas which helps quiet study and lends itself towards a research conduicive environment, which I think libraries also about.”

    Interestingly, when we wanted to improve the acoustics of a room to make it more conducive to study, a sound engineer recommended books solely for their acoustic properties! (Though I like to think that even in our glorious future they will have much more value than that).


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