What universities can teach us about academic library design

Academic library design

Planning a library refurbishment or new build is one of the most significant projects a librarian or LRC manager can face in their professional life. Getting the balance between cost, space management and future-proofing is no simple task. We asked two managers who have recently transformed their university libraries about their experiences. Below Coventry University’s Kirsty Kift and University of Greenwich’s Virginia Malone share their top tips on academic library design – and the pitfalls to look out for. 

Kirsty Kift, Acting Assistant Director, Lanchester Library

Coventry University’s Lanchester library was a landmark of sustainable design when it was built in 2000. One of the first university libraries to feature passive ventilation, it is a case study of best practice in sustainability – and remains the largest naturally ventilated deep-plan building in Europe. But equally important to the sustainability of the library is its flexible space design. Fifteen years on and the library’s internal layout was no longer fit for purpose. “The library has served us well,” explained Kirsty. “But because we have such heavy footfall, it was beginning to look very tired. And, as our student numbers are always going up, we needed to create extra seating areas to accommodate them.” Much like a modern office block, the five-floor library was conceived as an open-plan space utilising steel structural beams, which removed the need for load bearing internal walls. The essential fixed elements – such as toilets and lift shafts – are housed in ‘pods’ beyond the main space. This meant that when Kirsty and her team were planning a complete renovation of the library in 2015, they had the freedom to rework the interior space to meet the changing demands of today’s staff and students. “Students work in different ways today,” said Kift. “We had to respond to that.”

Appoint a specialist architect or space planner

With pressure on space at a premium, Kirsty and her team appointed Birmingham’s Associated Architects to advise and oversee the project. The plan was to compact less heavily used stock and introduce shelving on to the ground floor and a new basement store, thereby freeing up room for more personal and study group areas. “Associated Architects had solid experience of working on a number of academic libraries,” said Kirsty. “It was easy to work with them, because they understood the requirements of a modern library, and the specific issues we faced around a lack of space for student study areas.” Coventry University chose Bruynzeel to supply its library shelving systems. Bruynzeel’s high density library mobile shelving allowed the architects to fit the same number of books into a smaller footprint, thereby releasing floor space for larger study areas and desk space. Kirsty’s team chose low-level library shelving to increase the sense of space and aid orientation on the different floors.

Find a home for your stock

As the two main stock floors of the library were being refurbished, this meant all the stock had to be taken out and stored elsewhere during the refurb. Kirsty and her team came up with an ingenious plan to reduce the volume of books that had to be moved. They increased the number of loans available for each student in advance of the refurb, encouraging them to keep the books over the summer recess when floors one and two were to be gutted. “Because all the books were coming out and then going back in, we took the opportunity to replan our sequence,” explained Kirsty. “We’d previously arranged books in subject floors splitting up the runs of Dewey numbers, but when they went back in we ran them from 0 in the basement up to 999, as this was much more logical and easy to follow.”

Create flexible study spaces

In response to the varied ways students choose to work now, overly big study rooms have been split into smaller group working rooms. Individual study spaces have been created using cubicle seating. Banks of tables of computers are interspersed with low-level seating. There are even large study tables with no computers, by request. “Art and Design asked for tables without computers, complemented with individual study area furniture and reading rooms with soft seating,” said Kift. The redevelopment of the library has gone down well with staff and students alike. “It feels a lot bigger since the refit,” said Kift.

Virginia Malone, Information Services Manager, University of Greenwich

The University of Greenwich built a new library as part of an £80m redevelopment project. Completed in 2014, it has transformed the Stockwell Street area of the town. Designed by Ireland-based architects Heneghan Peng, the building was shortlisted for the 2015 RIBA Stirling Prize. The library’s exterior is modern, yet pared back to match the historical landmarks which surround the site in its UNESCO world heritage location. The interior, by contrast is unashamedly modern, with raw concrete walls, integrated technology, exposed ducting and steel balustrades.

Design and specification

Collaboration and consultation were key to success of the building. The Stockwell Street group, made up of student and staff representatives, met every week to discuss the plans. “The flexibility of the space allowed us to tweak the plans to suit our needs,” said Ginny. So the returns room was situated on the ground floor and a workroom created at the entry point to ease restocking.

Contract route

Taking some components such as shelving out of the main contractor’s remit, instead working directly with suppliers, allowed the team at Greenwich greater flexibility and control over the tender process. This meant they had space to develop user-led solutions for the library. The consultation group insisted on testing samples of new shelving. “Knowing how popular table top displays are in a retail setting, we asked companies to produce samples,” said Ginny. “In the foyer of the old library we put new books on the display. That went down really well, so in every area of the library we have sets of displays where we can put the new books, helping circulation, navigation and encouraging browsing.”

Future proofing

“We’re conscious that as the university develops, we expect other courses to be added to the portfolio on the Greenwich campus so we are aware we will have additional stock coming in,” explained Ginny. “We’ve done two things to prepare for that. In one area in the basement where we have periodicals currently, we have prepared the floor to take rolling stack in future. Should we need the space we could add rolling stack for items not accessed so frequently. This works in conjunction with the future purchase of ebooks and ejournals, thereby releasing that space for other types of physical storage.”

Library as social hub

“The whole building is a social area,” said Ginny. “We’ve got armchairs. We’ve got study rooms. We’ve got high-alcove sofas where students can curl up with their laptop. We allow eating and drinking. We’re very central to the town so we have a high profile. The library has got a wow factor.” The changing design of university libraries is being driven by a wide range of factors, including increasing student numbers, new and varied ways of studying and working, and the integration of digital and open access publishing. Flexibility is central to the success and sustainability of new academic libraries. Just a year after it opened, and Ginny Malone is already looking at a complete reordering of the internal space at Greenwich to accommodate a sudden influx of students from a neighbouring campus. This involves a rethink of its library storage systems, with some shelving being moved and stock reallocated to increase usability and accessibility. With such an emphasis on service provision, the experiences of Kirsty and Ginny demonstrate that the best libraries are those designed with half an eye on the future. As Ginny said: “We’re not just custodians in a warehouse of books any more.”

A version of this article first appeared in The Annual Buyers’ Guide Directory 2016, published by CILIP

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