Some time ago now (12th August), I visited Imperial College Library Services in South Kensington that was one of a series of Customer Service Group UK visit for Library and Information Assistants that took place over the summer.
Going to South Kensington during the school holidays is never a good idea but after fighting through the family hordes heading for the museums, I found myself in the quieter part of Exhibition Road where Imperial College is based.
During the visit we were treated to a tour of the library, biscuits upon an Imperial College London serviette (now on my desk!) and discussions about different aspects of customer services.
The tour took us throughout the library, meandering through the different spaces, successful and unsuccessful, with many of the features and schemes pointed out.
Imperial have quiet study spaces on the top two floors of their library, group study on the bottom and silent in the middle. This is because of the way the library has been built – only the middle floors are completely sealed off from the staircase, so that, when the top floors had been silent study, students were constantly disturbed by phone conversations occurring on the staircase.
These different study areas are all colour coded with the scheme appearing both on pull-up banners and the furnishings. All floors also all featured quite a dizzying array of different furniture solutions.
Other features included little pod type places where you could make phone calls more privately, a Subject Librarian office with an SL always on duty to answer question on a drop-in basis, a huge book display area with travel and fiction titles abounding, and a scheme I shall go on to write about now (after some more pictures!)
Study Break Cards
We then embarked to a meeting room to discuss a couple of different topics, the first of which was study break cards.
Imperial have recently started using cards as a system to stop “space-blocking.” With 17000 students (and that number rising), 8000 staff, 1412 spaces in their biggest library and study space around campus disappearing, desks can be hard to come by at Imperial. “Space-blocking” became enough of an issue that this scheme was written into their operational plan.
As such, cards were designed to allow students to save their spaces for 30 minutes at a time. These can be found in dispensers throughout the library and the scheme was advertised through the student union and social media when it launched. If students are gone for more than their allotted time, their belongings will be removed to a box (see picture) for them to collect later. So far, they feel the scheme is going well, even if it is just because they are seen as doing something.
Among ourselves we discussed the issue and how our libraries deal with this problem: other universities have implemented similar schemes but have found them subject to abuse or a lot of effort for little uptake. One university was instead encouraging students to reserve books not space, while another is considering making all study spaces bookable.
We then went on to talk about space in the library, which I will share a little of here.
We all agreed on a need for different spaces – shared, social, phone friendly areas, all being examples. At Imperial, UX has really helped to reshape the library. There was talk, too, of needing to make space more interesting, using colour can make a huge difference – one attendee said that their library was too grey – another talked about their library’s use of different scene themes (mountains, forests, etc) used on different floors (although without any connection to its use).
The “too grey” attendee said something that summed up what a library needs to be, I think, and it is on this I will stop typing:
A Library should be:
“a place you can be for a long period of time without ripping your hair out.”