Freiburg and the Liber Lag 2016 Conference (part two)


In developing libraries the involvement of the end user through dialogue, not just discussion, is crucial. At the University of Manchester Library, our current modus operandi is founded on a desire to ensure we know our users the best we can; historically, presently and for predicted future scenarios. That is why I was very excited to have the opportunity to listen to Graham Walton, Associate Director at Loughborough University Library and author of one of my favourite library redevelopment books ‘University Libraries and Space in the Digital World’.

Graham, a leader in the field of Library use with almost 30 years of experience, hosted a seminar entitled ‘How Library Users Use Space: Research Results’. Loughborough University was recently voted the top university for student experience in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey. With this in mind, Graham explained that future proofing should be about more than just physical renovations; it should be a strategic approach to exemplifying what great value a library adds to the student experience, continuously.

Graham noted that though we’re responsible for developing library spaces, we are also responsible for the effect this has on the overall user experience. The terms ‘user’ and ‘customer’ are not just about people using spaces or absorbing the services delivered in them, it is about everyone in a space or place (be it physical or digital). As libraries  are often one of the only places on campus where every section of the university population may visit or interact, Graham explained that “a lot of people are interested in libraries but their areas of interest differ… as librarians we need to capture and understand it all”. Usually, we are great at capturing. Less often are we good at understanding what’s captured. It could also be argued that often what we capture is irrelevant or at least should be regularly checked and updated if required. Graham pointed towards the growing and ever more effective use of ethnography and mapping to more accurately capture the user experience. The analysis of his research from a number of library user experience case studies pointed towards a broad set of general user trends in academic libraries;

  • Users display similar behaviour:
    • They reserve spaces (formally or informally)
    • They like their own space
    • They often use space designated for groups for individual use
    • They want flexibility of learning spaces
  • Furniture is crucial:
    • Tables are very important
    • Users like to move furniture around
    • Users spend long periods in the library and therefore need comfort
  • I.T isn’t a bonus, it’s a minimum expectation
    • Good wifi must be provided
    • People want charging points (and have recently expected a variety of leads to be available for hire)
    • There is a high use of lap tops
  • Noise is complex
    • Some user like ambient sounds
    • Some like group study, some like silent study
    • Noise is context specific
  • Lighting is simple
    • Dim lighting is not acceptable
    • Day light is preferred
  • Libraries provide a sense of community
    • Users naturally develop their own zones and spaces (both for individual and group needs)
  • Social Learning is embedded
    • Users undertake focussed collaboration
    • Users undertake intermittent exchanges
    • Users have serendipitous encounters
    • Users want indirect involvement in ambient socialising

I was inspired but more importantly assured with Graham’s analysis of the research. At this point, and as Graham made clear, this ‘analysis’ was not a thorough, scientific undertaking – it was a collation and summary of a small range of findings for the conference. However, this in itself may have more impact – even a quick glimpse at how users are using our libraries provides obvious patterns and requirements. Although we may capture this through our eyes, surveys, focus groups, etc I think we need to ensure this understanding is linked with the context of each of our libraries and therefore reflected in any development plans.

Wednesday afternoon continued looking at user involvement in library planning and design. Olaf Eigenbrodt (Hamburg State and University Library) outlined his library’s approach to involving students in the design of library spaces. Olaf opened his seminar with the  following thought provoking statement: “The difference between formal and informal learning is melting”. This linked back to an earlier keynote speech, in which Prof Dr Maarten Hoenen outlined the role libraries historically played in reflecting the (formal) knowledge structures through history. The demands of learners and solutions to satisfy them seem as varied as the options available for the development of Higher Education learning spaces. During a recent renovation of a 1960’s functionalist building, Olaf’s team learnt the value of appointing contractors that had specialist knowledge in working on such buildings and how this knowledge could help shape the redevelopment proposals.

Agnes Manika (Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf) presented an overview of research into the link between public and academic libraries in city planning. Agnes had secured funding to visit libraries across the world, a key part of her research and the cornerstone of her presentation “Libraries in Informational World Cities”. Agnes moved through her explanation of informational world cities (creative city, knowledge city, smart city, digital city), how libraries accurately reflect knowledge societies and the link between knowledge and economic growth. Great responsibility was placed on libraries from Agnes’ perspective, in that their role was critical in ensuring lifelong learning, transfer of knowledge and 24/7 access within knowledge societies, both in physical and digital space. The seminar summary left me thinking about the current and future roles of libraries with Agnes stating that the development of the knowledge society is shifting how we learn and work and we need to better understand “why would users like to go to a library?”. You can find more about it here.


The last seminar was presented by Dr Frederic Brodkon (Library of Sciences and Technology, Catholic University of Louvain) and covered a recent project to map library user’s habits and patterns of use at his library. Overall, the seminar provided a good summary of expanding on the range of surveys and user analytics we currently use and capture. An interesting point was that when staff at the Library of Sciences and Technology undertake headcounts, they also capture what the users are doing – individual study, group study, using books or devices etc. One of their startling findings was that generally, 75% of users recorded were not using any sort of library resource.


Before the end of a fantastic day, we were treated to an evening at the Freiburg University’s Peterhof building. Peterhof is the oldest building on the campus and is linked to the St. Peter monastery in the Black Forest (which we visited earlier in the day). The building had been used for many purposes, from a residential outpost for the St Peter monks to a wine store . Having been damaged during the World War 2 bombing raids, the University invested heavily in its renovation and it now provide a seminar/event space in cellar and academic spaces. This was a beautiful setting to conclude the first day of seminars. We were treated to a specially created video covering the demolition of the former Freiburg University Library and the creation of the new library, which included a unique musical composition and a dialogue provided by professional actors. The canapés and wine were enjoyable too – no wonder this former monastery outpost worked so well as a wine cellar.

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