Lancaster University Library

I had the chance to visit the newly redeveloped library at Lancaster University and meet a number of staff who had been instrumental in the project. I visited with colleagues from The University of Salford Library who are preparing to start a redevelopment of their Clifford Whitworth Library this summer; Sue Hoskins (Library Development Project Client Lead), Nicola Haworth (Library Services Manager), Maggie Barker (Library Services Manager), James Anthony Edwards (Associate University Librarian) and Dominic Marsh (Customer Support Manager). I wish them the best of luck with their own project

On the train we talked about the ever increasing automation and quickening of service delivery: Apple stores, sports centres, super markets, public transport and libraries. This became an even more relevant conversation as we arrived at Lancaster train station. An engineering train had derailed from the tracks near by – every taxi was being used by Virgin Trains and I was suddenly in a world with no über. I had to wait and be patient without technology on hand to serve my instant demands and needs. I began to think about the ongoing evolution of academic libraries, changing user expectations and the development of quicker and more seamless library services (many being optimised for mobile use).

Before visiting Lancaster University Library, I had several conversations with the leading architects on the project (who are coincidently friends of mine). I had learnt much about the Redevelopment, mainly the phased approach to construction within a live environment and the lessons that had been learnt to date, and so I was looking forward to seeing the finished result.

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On arriving at the Bailrigg campus, I remembered that I had been here before through my role as an Aimhigher Project Coordinator for Oldham Council. Perched on the side on the M6 motorway, a short ride out of Lancaster city centre, the campus was originally designed with the aim of creating an environment that integrated social, residential and teaching areas. The history of the campus is incredibly interesting… the architects soon realised that the stern weather of Lancaster meant that they had to think long and hard about their design proposal!

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The Library at first impression doesn’t stand out within the surrounding buildings on campus – this is part of the overall design of the campus and the decision of the architects and the University not to alter this (either with grand signs or special cladding) was the right one. The Library is comprised of two sections. The east wing built in 1967 and completely refurbished within the Redevelopment, and the west wing which was opened thirty years later in 1997 and required less renovation. However, the project aimed to standardise the finish across both wings and provide consistency of services and aesthetics throughout. The Library and their estates team had contemplated the option of phasing a smaller number of redevelopment works over a longer period of time, but when assessing the risks and benefits, the chosen option was to tackle the building in one go. A display of the evolution of the Library before and after the Redevelopment were on display – it was fascinating to see how much the space had evolved.

We met with Liz Hartley (Assistant Librarian), Phil Cheeseman (Head of Academic Services), Lynne Pickles (Redevelopment Project Manaer) and Pete Maggs (Director of Library Services) to discuss their redevelopment journey. It was clear that the project had been an overall success. Occupancy was up 50% and this was steadily increasing month on month. There had been a clear shift in user’s understandings of the space. Previously, many users (and staff) perceived the pre-redeveloped building as being full, when it was shown that its use was well under capacity. This refreshed and well-designed building now provides a clear understanding of available space and ensures that users can find and easily use a range of settings that are provided. The overall number of study spaces hasn’t increased although the ability to find and use these seats has improved dramatically, which is key in ensuring easily navigation and use of any library. With this overall improvement of the Library spaces, an important lesson that the team learnt is that some of their most popular areas are also their noisiest, an effect of users dictating how they perceived the designed area’s environment should be.

A small but useful detail to highlight is the usability and ease of access to the giant customer service touch screen that is located in the main reception. Seemingly based on a giant tablet, the icons are clear to see and easy to use. I often find that such interactive screens are not incredibly helpful, from the over-detailed interactive maps in shopping centres to the under sized and hand held tablets in city centre shops. Returning to my earlier point about user expectations of efficient self-service provision, Lancaster University Library seems to have got this right as soon as you walk through the main doors.

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A big talking point of the project was the famed tree – a real focal point of the library. But this isn’t some throw-away design feature; it has real purpose and creates a fantastic environment. The area where the tree is located was formally an open courtyard, with the Redevelopment enclosing this space to provide a real heart to the Library. There’s something very powerful about trees in an indoor space. The tree at Lancaster dominates the central space with an air of authority and cascades a level of calm and serenity to the users who flock around it. It also has to be watered manually by staff, a task which I’d be delighted in doing, however it begs the question as to whether the tree would know if it was being watered automatically? The care and attention needed for plants (particularly those indoors) seems a perfect match with the attention library staff pay to their services, collections and users. More trees in libraries I say, or maybe plants to start with!

As we walked around the spaces, every user was calmly engaged in their activity. The areas were relaxed but serious, people being able to access what they needed quickly and without confusion. The addition of lowered sections for study booths created spaces within space, although users observed were quick to realise that the spaces were too small for two users to sit comfortably next to one enough, but for an individual they were incredibly generous. Users respect this new environment, evident immediately at the front doors where people consistently adhered to the entry and exit lanes. The post graduate study space is not over complicated, in fact the setting and furniture are simple, spacious and very functional. I noticed a brilliant detail on the oversized fire doors that if I remember rightly, were part of the link between the two wings. In full open position, the doors folded back into the adjacent all with the triangular section created framed with a beautiful wood finish throughout.

Something I was very happy to see, and see working very well, was the new staff workspace. The space is similar to those which we aim to provide through our own Main Library Redevelopment and of the many case studies I have visited, this was one element about the trip to Lancaster that really stood out to me. Housing the entire library’s staff from digital technologies to collection management, the rectangular section of the building was incredibly efficient and well organised. Modern desks and ergonomic workstation settings provided the right amount of space and circulation space throughout. The area was supported by meetings rooms (some with video conferencing facilities), casual seating, built in storage, administration spaces and a well-equipped kitchenette. Acoustic panels hung from the ceiling to provide absorption to any sounds that may otherwise travel. Lynne told me that overall the staff liked the new space and it was working very well. Maybe a good indicator of the evolution of academic libraries is the manner in which the staff workspaces are changing.

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I really like this redevelopment but not just because of the work to the physical building. They have refreshed their library, blending modern design features whilst enhancing aspects of the buildings original features, from the original staircase to the wood finishes. Importantly, in the team achieving this improvement throughout the space, the Library has not lost its identity. In fact, and after speaking with various people who knew the building before the Redevelopment, I believe that it may be more of a ‘complete’ library now than it ever has been. From the absence of a café to the quiet and calm environment instantly experienced when entering through the main doors, this is definitely a library in every sense of the word and the team seem very proud of this fact as is shown in The Library Towards 2020 strategy document. Their new promotional leaflet states the delivery of “your new library”. This is exactly what it is and it is marching from Bailrigg right towards 2020.

Mike Kelly (Library Space Development Manager, The University of Manchester Library)

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