Whose library is it anyway? Thoughts from the CPD25 conference: Managing the Learning Environment (25th November 2014)

In 2014 I attended two CPD25 events on managing student behaviour. The first, held in March, was called ‘Managing Student Behaviour’, and was split between Customer Service skills-building in the morning and talks from representatives from different academic libraries in the afternoon. Because such a large part of managing student behaviour involves managing the environment, the second event and the subject of this post, the ‘Managing the Learning Environment’ Conference on Tuesday 25th November was almost like an extension of the afternoon event. At the conference, we heard from universities who had the opportunity to create their own library and learning spaces, such as Canterbury Christ Church University, University of the Arts Learning Zone at King’s Cross and the University of Bedfordshire’s Bedford library.

I’ve always thought that the environments in the best managed library spaces (i.e. the best libraries) play a big part in dictating users’ behaviour. The speakers at this conference convinced me that the way a space is managed impacts more upon students’ behaviour than almost any other factor, including staff intervention and signage.

At UAL’s Learning Zone, David Bracegirdle has designed and oversees a relaxed open space with movable furniture designed for Arts students who might not otherwise have space to work on projects. Food and drink are allowed, and Bracegirdle uses student feedback to drive decisions. He reported that despite the university’s low NSS scores, the library boasts a 79% satisfaction rate due to their approachability and engagement with students. He said that their goal was to create a space where students could feel at home in a part studio, part sitting room, part open access environment. The result was a space mostly controlled by the students.

At Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Michigan, the control is also very much in the hands of the users, as Ellie Hunt reported. She visited the unique Mary Idema Pew Library on a grant from Kingston University’s European and Study Abroad Office last summer. Lee Van Orsdel, who planned and runs the library, designed it using theories about how people use shopping malls as analogous to how people manage their experience when searching: they know where to go for things they’re looking for (i.e. reading list items), and the space also facilitates browsing and serendipitous discovery. The library eliminated signs, instead using colouring and types of furniture to zone the library.

The library employs a User Experience Librarian whose sole job is to observe students interacting with the environment and find ways to improve the service based on their behaviours. For instance, a television showing a film on how to use the library was installed in a slightly quieter area in the bustling entrance of the library. The students treated the space as a place to meet friends and take phone calls, turning away from the television. As a result, the User Experience Librarian took action to have the television act as a digital display with opening hours instead of playing library films, even though they were expensive to create.

The library provides 31 different types of chairs, which the students are free to arrange to suit their needs. The furniture is not rearranged until the beginning of each term, as Van Orsdel believes that whatever arrangement they choose is the one that best suits their needs. Students are welcome, encouraged even, to bring food and drink with them into the library. To support this, the library has budgeted to have frequent cleaning. Throughout this large library building, only four signs are on display, which are used in a part of the library called ‘The Knowledge Market’, and they indicate where students can find academic advice. The fixtures and fittings dictate behaviour successfully in the rest of the library. To be honest, I’m a little in awe of Van Orsdel, and following the conference, I looked her up and found this talk she gave in October.

The opening and closing talks from Julie Rees and Annette Linton of Canterbury Christ Church University and Sarah Arkle of the University of Bedfordshire presented an opposite approach to GVSU’s. It was during the final talk from Sarah Arkle that a key question occurred to me: ‘Whose library is it?’ At the University of Bedfordshire’s Bedford Library, they’ve installed noise meters: giant ears using a traffic light system to indicate the level of noise in a space gathered from microphones placed strategically on the walls. In the staff office, a television monitor shows more details of the noise levels, and if it goes above a certain level, a member of staff is meant to go out and attend to the matter.

It’s a basic idea in staff management that staff are motivated by a sense of ownership over their work, and if front-facing staff are constantly being told what they can and can’t do, they’re not likely to invest any interest in the space or users’ perceptions of it. If we hold this premise to be true for library staff, then how can we expect anything different from library users? New library space or not, a successful library gives control to the users.

At City, we do this in part by utilizing feedback through feedback. In February 2015 the Library Loves…Feedback campaign will highlight the improvements we’ve made in the library over the past year, linking them to feedback we received from students. My hope for this campaign is that students will develop a sense of their influence over the space and will feel empowered to direct open and honest feedback about their experience with us. That said, however successful the campaign is, it only happens once a year. We can do a lot more, without investing millions in a new library (like the libraries of the presenters) to give students this sense of ownership of the library in an immediate way. Among the six areas addressed in the Strategic Plan, it is through developing the spaces that we have the most potential to achieve this.

One thought on “Whose library is it anyway? Thoughts from the CPD25 conference: Managing the Learning Environment (25th November 2014)

  1. Very interesting to read about these innovative uses of space and ideas that have been applied to improve the study environment in other libraries. I hope we can work in a positive and constructive way with colleagues in Property & Facilities and LEaD to develop some of the ideas that emerge from user feedback, as well as learning from events like this and the good practice in other libraries.

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