Tough nut with a sweet centre

January 10, 1997

Birmingham colleges are merging learning resources in a state-of-the-art library, Debby Raven reports.

The designers of the new learning resources centre in Birmingham had a tough brief: design a library for eight colleges with students of different ages from 70 countries and several religious denominations, with widely differing information technology needs and abilities, and house special collections - some priceless and needing specially controlled environments. The budget is Pounds 5.4 million and don't chop down any trees on campus . . .

The Federation of Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham wants to merge its learning resources. The federation comprises eight religiously-based institutions training social workers, Christian missionaries and community development workers. It includes colleges for mature students and people with disabilities; a centre for the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations; and a higher education college. Courses range from church education to sport and leisure management.

Among the centre's "world treasures" are the Mingana Collection containing priceless pre-Islamic Arabic manuscripts which need temperature-controlled storage, a collection on peace-making and Quaker studies and the Raikes archive of the Sunday school movement.

Designers Ahrends Burton and Koralek have answered the requirements with an elegant three-floored structure, a sleek curving edifice containing three subject-based resource halls and rows of networked terminals.

The 4,500-square metre Orchard Centre will be "technically advanced but simply constructed" says ABK which has a track record in winning innovative library contracts, including the Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin. Construction started last March at the centre of the 86-acre campus on the edge of Bournville, the green environment created by the chocolate manufacturer George Cadbury.

Funding arrangements are unusual. The Selly Oak colleges have a mix of public and private funding. Quaker George Cadbury donated land for the range of diverse denominational colleges in 1907. The federation was set up in 1921, becoming a hub for overseas missionary training. While the smaller colleges are privately funded by the Cadbury Trust, Westhill College grew after the war into a large teacher training college. It makes up 80 per cent of the federation with 1,200 students. It is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, affiliated to and accredited by the University of Birmingham.

Fircroft College for adult education is funded by the Further Education Funding Council for England. Prospect Hall, a college for the disabled, is funded by the Birmingham local education authority.

Westhill's principal Jack Priestley considers it a unique grouping: "Without the publicly funded Westhill the federation may well founder. Without the smaller colleges Westhill would be immeasurably poorer culturally, academically and professionally."

For the new centre the Cadbury Trust volunteered a Pounds 4 million gift. The remaining Pounds 1.4 million is from the HEFCE Follett initiative for library innovation.

"There was the feeling that as Edward Cadbury gave the money for the original Central Library in the 1920s, Charles Gillett, his grandson, is to give to the 21st century what his grandfather gave to the 20th," says John Walmsley, business manager of the Federation. "It is also considered a major investment for the future - the nature of the library is so important in the post-Follett environment."

Running costs will be apportioned pro rata to each college. "It is costed by a weighted index according to student numbers, staff and so on but adjustable for future needs. Westhill College Governors are in charge of the public funding, and the private holders agree to HEFCE rules. It is considered by all involved to be a fair way of handling the project." says John Walmsley.

A computer network has just been installed throughout the federation. The colleges are enjoying its unifying effect on a campus split down the middle by the A38.

The Orchard Centre will see a further merging of resources, if not physically at the centre then virtually through a unified online library catalogue. Jack Priestley says the network and the centre will provide a level of awareness not available before: "Our problem is not a lack of materials but that they are scattered; there is not enough central knowledge."

Selly Oak Colleges will have a Web site offering access to the library catalogue: overseas interest in the special collections is high. Negotiations are taking place over the use of the new centre by third parties such as the University of Birmingham.

Gordon Harris, the federation's director of learning resources, has started IT awareness training for academic staff: "We are targeting tutors to give them a good background in IT and this will cascade down to students," he says. The centre will have an IT training room to help students learn to use electronic resources.

The building is designed to serve 3,000 students - double present numbers. It should be large enough to last until 2020 but the design allows for future extensions. It will have 88 PCs. Flexibility for IT needs is an important element. ABK has based the layout on access floors which can be taken up to manoeuvre cabling.

Hugh Morgan of ABK says: "Like bookshelves off a central aisle, multimedia floors follow 100 metres of internal street. Each floor becomes a 'circuit board' for IT, using access flooring throughout. This allows IT tables to be positioned wherever required."

The floor structure also allows air to rise naturally in a chimney effect aided by computer controlled windows. The building is now weathertight and, sheltered from the severe winter, work has begun on the interior.

Resources for education students - the audiovisual collections and children's books collections - will be on the ground floor with educational technology services: desktop publishing, CD-Rom, dissertation binding and video editing.

The first floor, for quieter study, will be composed of three subject-based study halls for religious studies, humanities and social services. Each will have current periodicals, pamphlets, books and terminals laid out in a similar pattern. A reading room for advanced research will hold the Harold Turner Collection of documents from new religious movements. From each hall staircases will lead up to back-issue periodical collections on the mezzanine floor.

There will also be a special needs reading room. The needs of disabled students have been respected throughout the design.

Selly Oak Colleges will open their new Learning Resources Centre in September. It will have been achieved with the sacrifice of just one copper beech tree.

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