Flexibility and Adaptability

I am currently re-reading ‘University Libraries and Space in the Digital World’ (2013) and the notions of flexibility and adaptability are both mentioned in the book a number of times. Many of the drivers for flexibility and adaptability in learning spaces are based on lessons being learned from the ongoing evolution of libraries and from the challenges experienced in attempting to redevelop buildings built during the last century (particularly those from the major capital building projects).

As user trends, library services and customer demands continue to change, it is paramount that we better understand our requirements of both adaptability and flexibility. We must fully understand where we believe aspects of a library are due to change in the future and areas where we can confidently expect there to be little change. This type of planning should be strategic and based on broad understandings of extreme scenarios. Major new build and redevelopment projects can often be too specific and flexibility and adaptability often lose their effectiveness as they only address a small number of specific aspects, e.g. technological advance or changing demands for physical stock.

In Stewart Brand’s ‘How Buildings Learn’ (1994) he talks about low road buildings as those which are less finely finished and have the ability to be gutted and refitted. He sees these buildings as “low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover” and ultimately, customisable. High road buildings in comparison have “high intent, duration of purpose, duration of care, time, and a steady supply of confident dictators.” Our Main Library building is comprised of both types – one half (the 1980’s space) being low road (to a certain degree) and the other half (our 1930’s and 1950’s spaces) being high road. It is the range of flexibility we wish to achieve in the improvement and reconfiguration of space across the whole site that presents us with both opportunities and challenges. We have recently received the results of our 2015 Know Your Customer market research project, the outcomes of which are very important to helping justify some of the decisions we are making throughout the design stage. There is also a broad range of other research and development work taking place within the Library which is helping to shape and better inform our understanding of what users require now and may expect in the future. Technology is a driving force of many of the changing habits of Library’s users but so too are changes in pedagogy, how people learn, research (both individual and collective research) and the ever expanding role of academic libraries within their institutions.

We are progressing with the fit out of our external store facility (the shelving installation is now complete) and the pictures above show how customisable low road buildings can be. The rate of work undertaken by Bruynzeel to install the shelving has been truly astonishing, considering the level of precision they have achieved.

We are currently discussing how we want to use the facility, both in relation to storing our materials and also in regards to the functions that library staff will undertake. To inform these discussions, colleagues from our library have visited Newcastle University Library’s Research Reserve, which is a fantastic example of a well develop storage and research facility.

Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University

At the beginning of the week I met Christine Haddock (Library Services Manager) at the Aldham Robarts Library at Liverpool John Moores University. We spent some time exploring this large, multi-purpose library, which is nestled in the heart of the University’s Mount Pleasant campus and is surrounded by a wonderful mix of academic buildings of varying ages.

Opened in 1994 the Aldham Robarts Library, like many others, has changed over time. It now houses a careers service, a high demand collection, a special collections reading room, a variety of student workspaces and customer services. The University’s estates team was undertaking painting works on the day I visited, with workmen concentrating on one of the large, metal staircases located at the end of the crucifix-shaped central core that runs north to south and east to west through the building. An aerial view of the building (below) shows its crucifix fashioned roof paying a fitting homage to the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral to the North and the Liverpool Catherdral to the south.

Aerial view of the Aldham Robarts Library

Adjacent to the Aldham Robarts Library is the well-known Church of St Andrew on Rodney Street. Opened in 1824 and closed in 1975, the church fell into disrepair and was seriously damaged by a fire in 1983. Having transferred to Liverpool Council, it was announced that the church would be redeveloped into student residencies, which are now in use. It is great to see this former church renovated into a very useful purpose for the student population in Liverpool. It is also a fantastic example of a high road building which, though left to disrepair, was gutted and re purposed in a similar fashion to many low road buildings due to its structure having survived the test of time (and the elements)


We made a quick visit to the recently opened Redmonds Building which is home to the University’s Faculty of Business and Law, the Liverpool Screen School and Professional Centre. Named after Phil and Alexis Redmond (creators of Mersey Television and famous shows such as Brookside, Hollyoaks and Grange Hill) the building is located in Liverpool’s knowledge quarter; the architect’s vision of this area was to “promote confidence, interaction and knowledge transfer”. The building’s external skin is made up of tiled cladding, which soon after opening had to be re-fixed with holding plates due to a number of the tiles coming loose.

We continued to walk through the city and passed the former Royal Mail sorting office. This site is the now the university’s Copperas Hill development and will become the single home of the University’s libraries. It is a huge building and the plans for its redevelopment are just as immense. The University have created and redeveloped a number of learning spaces in the James Parsons Building (located on the City Campus) and the group and individual study spaces have proved to be very popular with its users. The learning space we observed was well used with collaborative discussions taking place near to where others were working alone and in silence. It appeared that users of the area were happy to tolerate different levels of noise and disruption, although as an obvious ‘communal’ learning area (located next to a large café) it would be naive to expect anything less than discussion.

We finished the morning at the Avril Roberts Library, which replicated a number of the study spaces and customer services areas (by way of furniture, colour scheme and configuration) found at the Aldham Robarts Library. Approaching the building we were welcomed by a yellow ‘SuperLambBanana’ (SLB), a hugely popular and controversial survivor of the 1998 ArtTranspennine98 exhibition (that took place between Liverpool and Hull). The Library is currently trialling a range of new furniture in its silent study area with users being able to feedback their thoughts and preferences in a comments box. I noticed that one of the sample chairs had been moved and used for someone to study with in an existing study space adjacent to the trial area. As Diane Bruxvoort (University Librarian, University of Aberdeen) said at my recent visit to the Sir Duncan Rice Library “students are going to move furniture whether you like it or not, so make it easy!”

The University of Manchester Social Justice Festival ‘Just Fest’ is taking place on Wednesday, 9 March. There are a number of events taking place in and around Manchester Academy that will allow you to explore and consider what Social Justice is, and how to combat injustice in the world today. Definitely one to get involved in.

I have registered for two events in the city, both of which sound incredibly interesting in relation to Manchester’s development as a key player within the Northern Powerhouse. The Manchester Strategy launch on Wednesday, 9 March at Manchester Central Library will mark the beginning of the city’s vision to 2025 following a wide ranging consultation across the borough. City Horizons on Monday, 18 April at the People’s History Museum will see Tristram Hunt MP draw on his latest book Ten Cities That Made an Empire, to outline the importance of cities to modern Britain, and explore how their changing nature is affecting the political geography of the country.

Next week I will be visiting the newly redeveloped Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull with Penny Hicks (Head of Strategic Marketing and Communications), Amar Nazir (Academic Engagement Librarian) and Zoe Makin (Strategic Project Officer). I am very excited about this visit as I have already read much about their redevelopment project and the history of the building, which in some aspects is very similar to our own Main Library.

Thanks for reading as always,


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