Tuesday, 11 September 2007

New library buildings

Its the beginning of a new academic term and as students head of to university and college I was reflecting on how the experience of further and higher education has changes and what this means for academic libraries.

The traditional view of higher education was of a small elite of bright young people going off to university where their inquisitive minds would be introduced to the heritage of recorded scholarship as contained in books and journals, guided by the wisdom of their professors.

A modern view is that it is all a giant conveyor belt where paying customers arrive expecting to be fed pre-digested extracts of information which they then 'cut and paste' into assignments with the sole aim of gaining the required qualifications.

The reality lies somewhere in between. The first few years of an undergraduate course have always relied on a high level of pre-packaged information being presented to students, formerly as textbooks and study packs; today as e-books and through virtual learning environments (VLEs). The idea that students today may not need to open a book or journal because everything they need is available electronically may horrify some purists but it has not fundamentally altered the student experience.

At the later stages of an undergraduate course there will be a greater need for students to read around a subject and to consult primary sources. This requires them to develop information literacy (or even fluency) and as much of this material still only available in print format they will need to seek out 'books on the shelves".

For the academic library this means that the emphasis has changed from a repository of printed material - or even an access point for electronic material - to a space where learning can take place. This is reflected in the objectives for the two Sheffield University libraries.

"To create high quality spaces with a variety of study environments including individual desks, group tables and study rooms, informal seating and classrooms". (Information Commons. University of Sheffield).

"The internal layout and design of the building is focused on its use as a learning space, accommodating a wide range of learning styles, and new technologies, rather than just as a resource centre". (Learning Centre. Sheffield Hallam University).

Of course this role has to be combined with the traditional role of the library as a repository for printed material and a resource centre as these will continue to be important.

The criticism that academic libraries are spending on buildings not books is therefore completely wrong. But what about public libraries? Should they be following this "learning centre" model? There is no doubt that new and better public library buildings would boost public library usage but there are important differences. First, for the universities, investment in learning centres promises an immediate payback. High quality facilities attracts students and more students mean more income. For local authorities, while investing in new library buildings would increase library usage this does not translate into higher income. This simple economic fact makes a big difference.

Second, public libraries can never be as central to the general public as academic libraries are to students. They are always seen as a good thing but they are not in a broad sense essential to our lives.

Third, public libraries are primarily a resource centre rather than a learning centre. They are a place were people go to get books and information but on the whole people take this away with them. Perhaps this is something that could and should change. If the barriers between public libraries and schools, colleges and museums could be broken down libraries could function as community learning centres for a range of formal and informal learning activities. At the same time we should be on our guard against the temptation of investing in a high status building without ensuring that the stock is first class.

This week I am leading a SINTO visit to the new Oldham Public Library. It will be interesting to see how this compares with the Information Commons in both form and function.

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