With large sofas in primary colours, computers equipped with the latest multimedia software, high ceilings, large windows letting in natural light and students sitting over coffee, the library at the University of Sheffield looks more like a vast Manhattan loft apartment than a traditional study area. Where one might once have expected to be greeted with a finger over the lips, the space hums with quiet conversation. Even the name - the Information Commons - is unconventional.
Ten years ago, Sheffield decided it was time to overhaul its library service. Space was running out and students were demanding something different. "We had a shortfall in terms of the amount of study space, but more importantly it was apparent that the way students interacted with information was changing," Martin Lewis, director of library services, observes.
The growth of electronic resources and the lack of space across the institution had meant that a policy of zero net growth to the collection had already been put in place. When the university redesigned the library, taking account of students' use of electronic information was at the centre of the plans.
"We were starting to see the growth of electronic journals. The key objective was to provide an integrated learning environment where students could work with print and electronic resources together, similar to how they would use their study bedrooms," Lewis explains. "One of the things that we have tried to do is to create tables and desks that are larger than usual. We wanted students to be able to spread out and to use books and papers at the same time as using PCs for electronic academic resources."
The change was controversial because prioritising high-quality learning space and making room for technology meant reducing shelf space for books. Initially, the institution faced criticism from academics, and teething problems included noise in the open-plan areas and consumption of food in the library space.
"We had one or two criticisms from colleagues in the university to the effect that students are using this expensive space to look at Facebook," Lewis says. "I do think the social and the academic roles are overlapping in terms of space and environment, and it's been very much welcomed by the students. As with a lot of buildings, we're still exploring the ways in which users are inhabiting the space."
And the voice of the students has won out: the library is now open 24 hours a day, and footfall has increased by 50 per cent.
University libraries nationwide are making similar changes. Figures from the Society of College, National and University Libraries show that opening hours at university libraries in the UK and Ireland rose by a third in the decade ending in 2007, from an average of 68 a week to 88. More than half of libraries' acquisitions expenditure now goes on journals, and more than half of those are delivered in digital format. And when surveyed about their greatest concerns, academic librarians overwhelmingly named space and buildings (94 per cent) and the provision of e-resources (86 per cent).
At Northumbria University in Newcastle, a £6 million refurbishment of its main library, built in the 1970s, has had very positive results. Both the ingredients and outcomes were similar to those seen at Sheffield. The outdated building had to be overhauled to accommodate IT services, and the library now has open study spaces, with group-work and social areas as well as quiet rooms.
"We had an old building, typical of its time and typical of the era's learning style, with individual study desks and without IT," says Jane Core, director of library and learning services. "The whole building was stripped. We built our study space under the new infrastructure, and we completely changed the way in which we operate.
"We had an increasing number of electronic resources and, as our student numbers had risen, we needed space. We made room for more IT, and now more than one third of our workstations have IT. The building is more active and more lively - you can have a coffee and read the paper in it."
And the results speak for themselves. Between November 2003 and November 2008, footfall in Northumbria's library increased from 85,000 to 106,000 unique visits. Like Sheffield's Information Commons, the library is open 24 hours a day and overnight use is popular. Peak occupancy of the building between 12am and 8am was recorded on 16 January this year, with more than 400 users in the building at 1.15am. "By and large they are coming in and staying longer," Core says.
But not all university staff are enthusiastic about the sweeping changes being made to the content and environment of university libraries.
Core says that 40 per cent of the library's annual acquisition budget goes on e-resources, and fewer print journals can be stored. Such admissions alarm academics keen to protect the print content of university libraries.
A senior academic at a major post-1992 university described the situation within his institution's library as an "amazing reversal of idiocies" - librarians first failed to embrace the importance of technology when needed, and then prioritised it at the expense of the quality and range of essential print collections.
"In the 1990s, the many advantages that came with computerisation were vocally derided by a minority of university Luddites who didn't appreciate what they were," he says. "Then we got the 'reverse Luddites' taking over the library - people who didn't understand that print is a continuing and equal part of the digital age, able to be used by readers in ways that electronic material can't be and, crucially, easier on the eye when you've got a lot of reading to do. They've been busy chucking away years of expensive print material in the ignorant belief that it's valueless - absolutely incredible."
A professor at the same institution adds: "In some cases the lack of consultation led to people's frustration and anger being vented on the ordinary frontline troops in the library who, although they were forbidden to say so, often agreed with the academics that throwing the journals in the bin was lunacy."
Academics worry that the decision to shrink the print collection is short-sighted, ignoring the demands and study methods of the near future. One of the reasons given for revamping libraries is widening participation - less-well-off students require access to technology and electronic academic resources on campus, the argument goes.
But scholars such as Gill Evans, professor of medieval history at the University of Cambridge, believe this problem will soon sort itself out. "One of the things intimated is that we need all these spaces for IT terminals at the moment because users can't get access to the system from home, so they have to have them in the library," she says.
Evans thinks it will not be long, perhaps just three years, before students will be able to use all university resources from any access point on or off campus, and using cheaper and cheaper technology. Local authorities are already beginning to investigate how they might provide wireless internet access across a borough, for example.
"If the argument is that we do all our work electronically, then it doesn't follow that we take away library space for an interim need," Evans adds. "There are patches in the holdings of all libraries. There is always the danger of gaps, and the gaps can't always be filled later." Ultimately she fears these holes in library print collections could mean we end up with a gap in history. "It is a short-termist attitude."
Campaigning bodies such as the Booktrust have also noted with concern the changes in academic libraries. Viv Bird, the trust's chief executive, warns university librarians that the availability of books is "an important element of modern academic discipline".
"Students still need access to books for ease of use and more detailed study. It is essential that all libraries - school, public and academic - ensure that there is a balance of learning resources and that access to books is not restricted to those who have the funds and the opportunity to locate them," Bird says.
Although academics may bemoan the changes within their institutions' libraries, studies show that in their own work they make increasingly less use of the print resources they claim are essential. Research into library use at the University of Warwick has found that although overall footfall has risen, and students report satisfaction with the service, academics prefer to use online resources and work at their computers in their own offices. The library provides access to more than 28,000 academic journals, 90 per cent of which are available digitally. Academics account for less than 3 per cent of annual visitors to Warwick's university library.
"For academics, time pressures typically mean that convenience is the key driver," says Anne Bell, university librarian at Warwick. "The fact that so many information resources provided by the library - particularly journals and databases - are now available online means that academics and researchers can access them not only from their offices and laboratories but also when they're at home, on the move or when they're abroad attending an international conference.
"Certainly some academics still visit the library, but primarily to access local resources that are available only in print, manuscript or other non-digital formats."
Meanwhile, some previously outspoken critics of book disposal are beginning to soften their attitudes towards the nature of library content. Even Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, has embraced the shift. "The role of librarians as information specialists has changed, and assessing the worth of information from the internet or sifting through it demonstrates the clear need for a professional. Preserving book stocks where that knowledge is not yet available on the web is absolutely critical, but managing knowledge now must have equal importance," she says.
University libraries have little choice but to make the changes to study space that today's students demand, including social spaces and access to the latest technology.
Perhaps the key for libraries is to manage attitudes towards change. The University of Exeter disposed of 12,000 library books between 2006 and 2007 after an audit found that library facilities were running out of room. "The library was above the professionally accepted optimum level of 85 per cent capacity, and it was still acquiring enough items to fill an additional 1km of shelf space per year," says Steve Vinall, a spokesman for Exeter.
External consultants employed by the university found that just 10 per cent of stock accounted for 90 per cent of loans, and advised that space could be created by withdrawing books. It was decided that the library, like others, would rely more heavily on electronic and multimedia collections, with better access for high-use items and reduced access for those in less demand.
Vinall says the university realised that the removal of stock would be unpopular, so it worked hard to explain to academics what was happening and why. "Effective communication is the key to stock withdrawal. It's important to identify all the people who need to be consulted at the outset and then to be very clear about the process. We have dedicated library staff who work with each academic department, and they were key to keeping staff informed about progress."
In the end, a traffic-light system was devised that allowed academics and students to nominate those resources that must be saved as well as those that could be axed. "As soon as the overriding principles of the collection development and traffic-light policies were confirmed - most importantly that no item would be withdrawn from stock without agreement from the relevant school - concerns were allayed," Vinall notes.
The story at Exeter offers some useful advice for those institutions about to embark on a library redesign. But it is clear that change is in demand. Sheffield was one of the first research-intensive institutions to make such a radical change to its library services, and as well as satisfying its students, its plans have elicited interest from universities as far away as New Zealand.
"It's not about the number of books, it's about the quality of the space," Sheffield's Lewis says. "If you build a high-quality space, the students will file in."
'LIBRARY SCIENCE' IS SO 20TH CENTURY
- Today's research and data environment requires an information manager
"The archives of the future are going to be electronic," says Pat Whatley, director of the Centre for Archive and Information Studies at the University of Dundee.
As libraries have changed, so has the academic discipline of information management. Trainee librarians now require a new set of skills, and departments have adapted to embrace - and indeed focus on - electronic information systems. Five years ago, Dundee introduced a masters programme in archives and record management.
"The whole profile of archive management has really changed. In the past it was known as 'library science', and it would have focused on people learning how to archive manually.
"Now they have to know how to do that online, and they have to look at all the massive library systems online," Whatley says.
Students have to understand how to deal with information across a vast new domain.
"Second Life and all those Web 2.0 tools are becoming far more prevalent. Information professionals have to be aware of the enormous changes taking place in the digital revolution. There are also information management issues that just did not exist before."
The Robert Gordon University is undergoing a similar change in its information studies department.
"The move is away from teaching how to deal with traditional hard-copy collections to a greater emphasis on how to develop search strategies, how to be familiar with databases, and how to become an effective searcher for information," says Peter Reid, subject leader for the university's department of information management. "That's also reflected in our management teaching. We're in the business of teaching people to be information managers, and the way in which we manage budgets has had to change over the years."
Librarians must rethink how to purchase products, Reid says.
"Once, you bought a book and put it on the shelf. Now we subscribe and have to renew access. A library is a completely different organism than it was 50 years ago."