Student library visits fall 20 per cent in a decade

October 12, 2007

Study pinpoints need to adapt facilities to reflect increased IT use and project work. Chloe Stothart reports. Universities will have to invest heavily in revamping their library facilities, it was warned this week after research revealed a 20 per cent drop in student library visits over the past ten years.

The drop in the number of student visits, highlighted in a study by the Society of College, National and University Libraries (Sconul), has been offset by a rise in the time students spend in the library and by an increase in the use of online facilities.

The society is calling for more funding for radical redesigns of libraries to reflect the shift in the way students use the facilities. "Students do more project work and collaborative work now, so they may plan their visits more and stay longer than they would if they were just returning books and leaving again," said Toby Bainton, secretary of Sconul.

"There is a need to be imaginative about learning spaces, and universities will have to invest in remodelling their libraries to accommodate demand."

The figures showed that the number of visits to the library had declined by 22 per cent over the past ten years and 3 per cent between 2005 and 2006. Students visit on average twice a week.

The number of e-books available in each institution had risen more than 60 per cent between 2005 and 2006 on average. The report also noted that some universities were creating virtual libraries online in the Second Life website.

Mr Bainton said that, while the number of student visits to libraries had declined over the decade, students were tending to stay longer on each trip. He said: "We cannot say the students are using the library less because they are staying for longer and that is an important factor for library planning, including opening hours."

The average library spend in 2006 of £332 per student was a rise of £25 over the previous year. The 146 institutions that responded to the survey spent more than £523 million on their libraries in 2006, with Oxford University spending the most - £28 million.

The decline in student visits is not seen in every institution, but many are changing their facilities to meet new demands from students.

Jane Core, director of library and learning services at Northumbria University, said the number of student visits to the library had gone up per cent on last year and their use of electronic facilities had also increased.

A growing number of libraries were revamping their facilities to include more space for collaborative work between students and for electronic facilities, she said. Northumbria's £6 million refurbishment of its library building included putting more material into space-saving electronic shelving stacks to make room for IT and group-working facilities.

Ms Core said universities were likely to need more investment so they could alter their library buildings and electronic facilities to meet new demands from students.

"Libraries are still hugely important to students, but they are not the same places as ten years ago. There is a lot more group work happening there. I think there does need to be more investment in reconfiguring the spaces," Ms Core said.

Anne Bell, university librarian at Warwick University, whose Learning Grid including IT and reference library facilities opened in 2004, said footfall at the university's traditional library was slightly down but this was more than offset by usage of the Learning Grid facility.

She added that less than 3 per cent of library visits were now by academics, who preferred to read electronic journals supplied by the library at their computers in their offices.

Martin Lewis, director of library services at Sheffield University, which officially opens its new Learning Commons building this month, agreed that an investment scheme for university libraries was needed.

He said: "There is a good case for seeing some kind of structured programme to bring learning spaces into the 21st century."

The report covers more than 96 per cent of full-time education students in the UK.

E-BOOK PILOT TO BE ROLLED OUT

The body that supports UK universities' information technology infrastructure has signed a deal to provide free online books for all students as part of a research project on students' IT use.

The Joint Information Systems Committee has appointed MyiLibrary, a digital content provider, to provide 26 popular textbooks in e-book format to UK students, as part of Jisc's national e-books observatory project.

Hazel Woodward, librarian at Cranfield University and chair of the project's advisory board, said: "We hope the project will have a major impact on the e-book publishing market and on libraries across the UK as they struggle to keep up with demand for taught course texts."

Textbooks in business and management studies, engineering and media studies, selected by academic librarians, will be made available in partnership with a series of publishers, including Pearson Education, Taylor and Francis and Cambridge University Press.

MyiLibrary is collaborating with Jisc on a national research project that will study students' use of electronic books.

Christoph Chesher, group sales director at Taylor and Francis, whose media studies textbooks are being made available, said: "This project will provide us with critical information on how best to refine our services to the higher education community."

- Phil Baty.

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