How campus libraries became the place to read, pray, learn

Jack Grove learns how sites have been reinvented for the 24/7 digital age, while Donald Brown reflects on the role libraries played in his journey from the Mississippi Delta to Oxford

August 25, 2016
Young female student reading and studying in library
Source: Getty/Alamy/Rex montage

When Phil Sykes took over as the University of Liverpool’s librarian, he made a prediction – library use would fall as much more learning material was placed online.

Eight years on, he is happy to admit that he was spectacularly wrong: “Library visits have actually doubled since I arrived.” While growth in student numbers has played its part, it does not wholly explain this exceptional increase in library use. “Student numbers have increased by 50 per cent, but visits to the library are up 100 per cent,” says Sykes, whose two main libraries were visited a third of a million times in May alone (Liverpool has about 22,000 students).

Sykes attributes the booming popularity of university libraries to a radical reshaping of provision on offer – not only at Liverpool but across the sector – over the past decade.

“We think of libraries as big buildings filled with books and some private study spaces, which we still provide and are incredibly popular,” he explains. “But what pings into the mind of an 18-year-old is quite different. They will think about spaces for group discussions, areas to practise class presentations and lots of social spaces.” Liverpool’s Sydney Jones Library, its main undergraduate library, even has its own Muslim prayer room.

“Each different element encourages use of the other parts of a library,” Sykes goes on, “so if you visit to borrow a book, you may look to have a cup of coffee in the cafe or vice versa.” With libraries now an important social hub on campus, it is no surprise that they are more popular than ever, with students often staying late into the evening. Sykes recalls finding the library full when he “recently dropped by after a Saturday-night concert”, adding that it is generally “much busier at 11pm than it is at 9am”.

On the other side of Liverpool city centre, the Avril Robarts Library is another example of the quiet revolution in library provision that has occurred over the past decade.

“We were one of the first libraries to introduce social learning zones,” Heather Thrift, director of library services at Liverpool John Moores University, says of the soft-furnished enclosed spaces dotted around the library’s first floor. “We actually don’t have enough of them – we could probably fill this whole floor to cope with demand.”

While purists might scoff at the idea of converting shelf or private study spaces into “social learning zones”, Thrift believes that it simply reflects how most students are taught nowadays. They “want to be able to grab a table, plug in a few laptops and start talking as they would in a seminar. As teaching and learning have changed, libraries have changed, too.”

Indeed, students will often borrow a laptop from the library (about 140 are available for use) because many are reluctant to cart in their own heavy personal laptop from home, notes Thrift, adding that “the desktop computers are still in high demand, too” – with 1,000 terminals across the university’s three libraries.

Academic support classes, such as additional maths classes, also take place in the social learning zones, with take-up of remedial help far higher when lessons are scheduled in the library rather than within individual departments.

Careers support is also based the library, and this co-location of university services will be taken even further when Liverpool John Moores’ new £100 million Copperas Hill academic building opens in 2018.

About 40 per cent of the new building next to Liverpool Lime Street railway station – formerly a Royal Mail sorting office – will be given over to a new library, with the rest of the vast structure housing teaching spaces, administration and student support, creating a hub for all student services. The library, however, will also draw inspiration from more traditional library spaces, such as the nearby Picton Reading Room at Liverpool’s historic public library – a grade II listed building similar to the British Museum’s famous reading room.

“There is still massive demand for silent study spaces,” says Louise Makin, library services manager at Liverpool John Moores, where many students like to be cut off from all distractions in an almost “cocoon”-like environment.

“You don’t go round telling people to shush to get these quiet spaces; you can do it with design,” she adds, referencing a range of noise-absorbing acoustic panels now used to damp down chatter.

Liverpool John Moores’ plans sounds ambitious, but they are now almost par for the course within the sector: dozens of institutions are building or refurbishing libraries or are planning to do so in coming years.

Some 19 universities have either moved into a new library or refurbished an existing one in the past two years, according to a report by the Society of College, National and University Libraries (Sconul), which represents about 170 higher education institutions in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

These alterations have created 15 per cent more seats (30,000 in total) and an additional 1,000 computer workstations across these institutions alone – an indication of the huge redevelopment of university libraries happening each year.

“The quality of light, furniture and general ambience is now very different in university libraries – students want inspirational spaces to learn,” explains Mara Maricevic, head of higher education at the British Library, where students regularly queue in the morning for entry all the way down Euston Road.

One such inspirational space is likely to be the University of Roehampton’s new £35 million library, due to be completed in September 2017.

“Two of the silent reading rooms on the uppermost floors will look out over Richmond Park,” explains Hugo Marrack, from architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. “In our atrium spaces, you will also be able to look up and across the library,” he adds, reflecting the “opening-up” of libraries once filled mostly with box-like, single-person study carrels.

The new library – which replaces Roehampton’s current facility, a converted hall of residence – will also include the now-standard mix of noisier communal learning spaces and quiet zones, although it is designed to be highly flexible to adapt to changing student demands over the years.

Many believe that Glasgow Caledonian University’s Saltire Centre, opened in 2006, is largely responsible for rewriting the design handbook for university libraries. It combined cafe-style social learning zones with the more traditional study spaces and book provision, and this is now the model found in many universities.

“It was a leap forward for libraries as a learning space rather than an area to hold collections,” says Sconul chair Liz Jolly, director of library and information services at Teesside University. “Libraries are now designed with the student learner at the centre, rather than as places to deliver services or house books.”

Others view the University of Sheffield’s Information Commons, which opened in 2007, as seminal in the evolution of university libraries.

That £23 million library is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, has 1,300 study spaces, 500 computers but just 100,000 texts – only a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million books held by Sheffield (whose £81 million Diamond Library has also won plaudits for its innovative design). The book-free Alan Gilbert Learning Commons centre at the University of Manchester, opened in 2012 at a cost of £24 million, takes the new concept of a library – or, more accurately, a study centre – even further.

New technology has also helped to make library design more student-friendly over the years, according to Jolly. “We don’t need a big library counter these days as students take books out themselves, pay library fines online and collect reserved books themselves.”

With many libraries having far fewer books on the stacks, the need to build hefty load-bearing floors has also disappeared, allowing architects to move away from the multistorey car park aesthetic that characterised many buildings put up in the 1960s.

The new layout of university libraries and the introduction of self-service machines have arguably transformed the role of the librarian as much as they have students’ library use.

“The main job of a librarian was to run big bureaucracies that were not supported by computers – and it was nice if they had good interpersonal skills,” says Liverpool’s Sykes. “Having these skills is now essential as you are constantly dealing with students who are often fraught with worry.”

The idea of librarians as largely desk-bound is also obsolete, with most roving the library offering help to students. “Looking after library users and supporting them is now the key skill,” continues Sykes, who acknowledges that the service has become more responsive to students in an era of higher tuition fees.

Accommodating students may mean relaxing some of the rules, such as prohibitions against eating or drinking, that were once sacrosanct, admits Heather Thrift. “We don’t want our group rooms to become banqueting suites, but if students are working in the library at 2am, then they will need some food or drink with them. We’ve had to think about these things and say, ‘What is the worst that can happen?’”

Indeed, university librarians have had to rethink their somewhat parental attitude to students. Thrift remembers “staff saying [to students] ‘Perhaps it’s time to go home’”, but now reflects that “people are more 24-hour than they were and some work better after midnight”.

Longer opening hours are also vital for the increased numbers of part-time or older students juggling their studies with jobs and families, so Thrift argues that universities now “want to offer those times when people can grab two or three hours’ study in the library from 9pm after they have finished working for the day”. Such longer hours are also crucial for international students, observes Sykes, whose library use is double that of domestic students.

High-level digital literacy skills are also required of today’s librarians. “Very few people still go around telling students to be quiet,” Maricevic points out. “They are having to manage massive amounts of digital content, often dealing with very complex contracts on its use.”

University librarians are also taking on tasks many might associate with academics or support staff, notes Caroline Rock, director of library and learning support services at the University of Surrey, which has brought together the roles of professional librarian and learning adviser.

In Surrey’s case, these specially trained staff operate a “triage” system for students seeking academic support. Rock describes how they “may ask students to present a sample of work and make them think about how it is structured or their line of argument”, adding that “students can then be referred for further academic or information support as needed…Librarians have always wanted to connect people with information…so it is not a massive radical departure for us to do this.”

University libraries may look and operate very differently from a decade ago, but many see that core mission as unchanged.

Young female student writing and studying in library
Getty/Alamy/iStock montage

Universal access: ‘Seeing all those books makes you aware of how big the world is and invites you to explore it’

In the working-class Mississippi Delta community in which I grew up, I didn’t know anybody who wanted to be a writer or an academic.

Most of the people I knew who were employed were always juggling two or three jobs: firemen all night and morning, car mechanics on the side, and trying to earn a quick dollar by cutting hair or building houses as well. There were many other options for how to live – or, at least, survive. The drug game, of course, was always looking for workers. And the homeless somehow made it from day to day by scrapping a bit here and a bit there. I would not want to exaggerate, but every time you went to certain downtown areas of my town, you were never quite sure if you were watching Dawn of the Dead. You saw men wandering aimlessly around like zombies, sometimes with a hand in a brown bag covering up a bottle, sometimes with a black rubbish bag that contained all their possessions.

One place my parents encouraged me to go as a young child was the library. They knew that literacy rates in our part of the US were comparable to those of a developing country, and they wanted me to envision the better future for myself that they, being African Americans raised in an era of codified segregation, had no access to. My mother went online and found a list of “100 Books You Should Read Before You Go to College”. She had read none of them, and probably never will. However, she encouraged me to read them. There were not as many women or people of colour among the authors as, in hindsight, I would have liked. But it set me on a path to a world-class education at the University of Oxford, where I hope to play my own part in diversifying the canon.

One of my favourite writers, James Baldwin, once said in an interview for the Paris Review that he “read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way.” When he realised that he wanted to be a writer himself, he felt that he had been dealt “the worst possible hand” because the world he grew up in conditioned him to not “take the idea of becoming a writer seriously”. However, with persistence and hard work, he rose to international acclaim, spending his time in France, Switzerland, Turkey and many other places.

Such stories are not told often enough. Children from humble beginnings need to know that libraries can do wonders for them, too. Just seeing all those books positions you in a certain way towards the world. It makes you acutely aware of how big it is, of how much there is to know, and invites you to explore and become a part of it.

I loved the books in the Vicksburg Public Library more than any girl I ever dated. I knew the girls would come and go, but the books were my way out: not just out of the city but out of a particular state of mind that held so many I grew up with in cycles of parochialism and poverty. I was subconsciously reminded of that every day, when the homeless people would come into the building to get some respite from the sweltering heat of the day. It was a fate I hoped that an education would protect me from.

By reading Dostoevsky, I learned of the exotically harsh winters of Russia, and I longed to go there. By reading the poetry of William Butler Yeats, I gained an affinity for the green hills of Ireland. By reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I began to understand what war was all about. I was active on the Youth Advisory Council Board, organising events to get people to use the library, and suggesting new acquisitions that would appeal to the youth. I bought classics from the used section in the basement for 25 cents an inch, checking nearly every week to make sure I didn’t miss out when they put more on sale. One time, I bought an entire set of encyclopedias for fourteen dollars.

I go to the Bodleian Library daily now to study. The Bod, as many call it, is a part of Oxford University Library Services, which houses some 11 million items on 117 miles of shelving, and every book in the English language can be accessed through the system. I often have to pinch myself to make sure that it is all real. Since coming to Oxford, I have visited the Spain of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the Italy of A Farewell to Arms, the Ireland of Yeats. Recently, during a trip home to the Delta, I met a man who said he knew me. I didn’t recognise his face. He said his sister worked at the library. “I’ve heard about you for a long time. She would always talk about you, how you read all those books!” he told me. It was the greatest compliment I ever have, and ever will, receive.

Donald Brown is a Rhodes Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford. He is studying for an MPhil in modern British and European history.


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