Hatfield's stock and roll show

October 10, 1997

Tony Durham reports on a state-of-the-art learning resource centre in Herts that offers a choice of study environments

In many ways it is a traditional library design, with a long central well flanked by stacks on three floors. The central atrium, a luxury denied to the warren-like learning resource centres of hemmed city centre campuses, unifies the space visually. You will walk further but more purposefully, since even a destination two floors away remains almost constantly in sight.

Space is not unlimited on the University of Hertfordshire's Hatfield campus, but there was room for local firm Architects Co-Partnership to create an 11,000 square-metre learning resource centre, thought to be the country's largest, with no obvious compromises.

The Pounds 16 million development (Pounds 2.5 million of that figure for furniture and fittings) provides 1,600 study spaces, of which 800 have computers. There are Apple Macintoshes, mainly for the art and design students, Sun Unix workstations for the computing students, and Intel-architecture PCs running Microsoft Windows software for most other purposes.

The spectre of obsolescence haunts such places. A budget for rolling replacement of the computers is only the start. Entire media, perhaps even the book itself, could go the way of Betamax and the eight-track audio cartridge.

"We don't see the book disappearing," says Jane Arthur, who as project officer has handled the liaison between the university and the architects. "We might see some of our journal needs diminishing as more becomes available electronically." The layout would allow the stacks to retreat and the computer workstations to advance towards the building's core.

Small acts of future-proofing are apparent everywhere: the modular furniture which easily converts from traditional carrels to computer workstations and back again; the stacks where video and CD racks can replace bookshelves as the blend of media resources in each subject evolves; the raised floors and structured cabling which allow administrators to move equipment and reroute networks without tearing the place apart.

Eleven days before the centre is due to open, the builders are touching up plaster and paintwork and the new grey carpets are in a sorry state. Someone has 11,000 square metres of hoovering to do before the centre opens to students on the first day of the autumn term. When the crowds pour in through the card-controlled gates, the predictable scholarly hubbub will test the building's noise-limiting features: the glass screens around the central well, the sound-absorbing material on the ends of the stacks.

"Noise" says Jane Arthur "was one of the things we gave a great deal of thought to. The ground floor will be our noisy floor, I think." Conversation is an essential part of study: many Hertfordshire courses include group projects. Students can book private rooms for group work. Sensitive souls can retreat into 40 bookable individual study rooms, mere cells really, though netsurfing occupants may count themselves kings of infinite cyberspace.

On the ground floor there is a big helpdesk where staff from the merged Learning and Information Services (LIS) offer assistance with both printed and electronic resources. Opposite, behind its own security gate, is the reserve collection of high-demand stock, available either for reference only or on loan for a few hours. There are more security gates at the main entrance. All books are electronically tagged. Students can refuel at the cafe bar, in the pit of the lower ground floor.

A passage leads into the bowels of the building, where heating and ventilation plant nestle with a video studio, a multimedia workshop, and three 30-computer classrooms where students are inducted into the IT skills they will need in this building. Serious electronic study kicks in at different stages in different courses, so bookings for these rooms are likely to be spread through the academic year.

The multimedia workshop is there both for staff who want to develop educational materials and for students on multimedia production courses. Demand is likely to come from the computing department and the department of art and design. The video studio, besides the obvious uses, is a place where people can rehearse presentations and polish their style. Trainee counsellors can appraise their own technique on video.

The network infrastructure has been engineered for future growth, with a 155Mbps ATM fibre backbone and 10Mbps switched Ethernet to the desktop. The Category 5 cable has plenty in reserve for the time when even faster data rates to the desktop become necessary. The ATM and Ethernet switching equipment was supplied by Xylan, an aggressive newcomer to a market dominated by a few big names. Geoff Coombes, the assistant director of LIS responsible for media and information technology, will not reveal the discount that the university got from Xylan, but admits contentedly that "they were very keen to supply us."

Some books and resources remain at other campuses: business at Hertford, humanities and education at Watford, and law at St Albans. But as Jane Arthur explains, "Any student at the university can use any resource." She will have plenty of opportunity to test the inter-campus delivery service since, with the great Hatfield project completed, duty now calls her back to Watford.

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