Expansion and Contraction – The Evolution of an Academic Library

The University of Manchester Library plays a key role in supporting students and staff in all areas of their study, research and work. Since its inception in 1824 (as the library of the Manchester Mechanics’ institute), the Library and its buildings have continuously expanded and contracted to reflect the changing landscape within the University.

Today, academic libraries are facing ever increasing demands to change, the rate of which was never anticipated by the architects of early library buildings. And these changes are coming from many angles:

  • Changing user behaviours
  • The way staff work
  • Technology
  • Weather patterns
  • Physical and virtual boundaries
  • Knowledge structures

At a time when there is mounting pressure for study space and a need to support library users so they can perform at their best, libraries need to adapt, and they need to do it quickly. However, many ‘traditional’ library buildings are struggling to accommodate their new futures due to issues including:

  • Large physical collections and limited storage space
  • Inadequate infrastructure to provide ample power for users
  • Inefficient ventilation and heating systems
  • Poor ambient environments (particularly a lack of natural light and ineffective artificial light)
  • Increasing maintenance issues


The University of Manchester Arts Library (design by Sir Hubert Worthington) opened in 1936 and provides a history of expansion and adaptation of an academic library over eighty years, responding to the changing demands of users and a constantly evolving library service. This period of change (and how the Library responded) can be described as being considerably slow compared to the exponential changes academic libraries are now experiencing in relation to knowledge acquisition.

The Arts Library reportedly won an architectural award and was described as a ‘handsome traditional building’. It provided space for 55,000 books in the reading room, 245,000 books in the stacks and room for expansion to include an ultimate limit of 1,000,000 books. The building was based on classic Library design of its era, reflecting the temple-like knowledge structure of:

  • The librarian as gatekeeper (the entrance being a small arched opening)


  • A solid foundation of books as the crucial media to access information (the book stacks providing the ground and lower floors and the shelving integrated into the buildings structure)



As the University, its student body and the Library’s collection grew, so too did the Arts Library building. The south and west wings were added between 1953 and 1956. Extra reading rooms and book stacks were built and much larger administration areas for library staff were created in order to process collections and serve library users.




The Muriel Stott exhibition and conference centre was added in 1978, located in the courtyard that had been created by the 3-sided extension of the original Arts Library. This expansion was fine for the period, but would not be able to absorb the predicted expansion of the university sector, which was highlighted in the Robbins report of 1963. As student intake began to grow, so too did the Library.


During the 1960s and 1970s a massive expansion to the central campus began to take shape. Many of the older campus buildings were wiped away in order to introduce more clean lined modern architecture and it is at this point that the University began to plan for the former Art’s Library’s fourth extension, now known as the Blue block.


The design of the Blue block began in 1968 (by Dane, Scherrer and Hicks). It was an early brutalist design that was completed in 1972. The proposed opening of Blue block was in 1974 but the actual opening, undertaken by the Her Majesty the Queen, took place in 1981. It is at this point that the five parts of the building became collectively known as the Main Library.


The University finally had its vast Main Library building; 25,800 square meters of space, at least 1000 study spaces, 34kms of open shelving and 27kms of store shelving. As the biggest campus library in the country at the time, surely there was enough space?





But this was the 1980’s – computers and the digital information age were on their way.

1981 – IBM introduces the ‘PC’

1982 – The Commodore 64 is released

1983 – Microsoft introduced Word

1984 – Apple launches the Macintosh

1985 – The Nintendo Entertainment System is launched

1986 – Personal and work computers start to become the norm

1987 – GSM (the standard for digital mobile telephony) is agreed by the European Community

The exponential development of computers and digital information in the 1980’s had a profound effect on the Main Library and its place within the University. The Library started to reinvent itself and with it the spaces that were used.


Databases, computers and easily accessible information meant that the Main Library could do more things. So, more people came and therefore the staff body grew and changed and so too did their offices, along with a growing collection of books and other material. The Library was in transition – retaining the traditionalist view of the Library’s status linked inherently to its physical collection whilst simultaneously moving into an era of the growing importance of the individualisation of user needs and limitless information.


The building couldn’t grow any more so it began to change, working harder to serve the changing needs of its users whilst compromising this with the availability and functionality of the spaces being used. The Muriel Stott exhibition centre was converted into a post graduate study space. The south wing of the 1950’s extension was extensively refurbished to provide more data and power throughout. The lower floor reading room of the original Arts Library was converted into fourteen group study rooms. And slowly but surely, more study desks and staff offices began to appear. Blue block also started to notice considerable change. Unsurprisingly, over the coming years banks of PC study desks were introduced on four of Blue block’s five floors. The previous open plan floor plates began to change:

  • Cellular office spaces were introduced
  • The ground floor was completely remodelled to reflect a number of service changes
  • The conditioned storage on the fifth floor was renovated and with it, a new, improved study space was provided.

University - Manchester day 1

Throughout this time, a major challenge was balancing the needs of an increasing number of users with an aim to retain a large but relevant physical collection. However, user’s needs were changing along with how they interacted with the the Library’s collection. Therefore it will come as no surprise that “the traditional library we inherit today is not the library of the future” (Bennet, 2005. Council on Library and Information Services, Washington).

 I’m sure everyone is agreed on the fact that library spaces must reinvent themselves to support changing knowledge structures, methods of teaching, approaches to learning, social interaction and ways of accessing information. Some of these activities happen in physical realities and some happen in virtual realms but regardless of where the activities take place, academic libraries are merging traditional approaches to information and knowledge with existing and emerging technologies and along with it, attempting to create the best possible environment where this can be done (Bennet, 2005. Council on Library and Information Services, Washington). The internal configuration of the Main Library building is under increasing pressure to change in order to reflect the way people move, interact, work, study, research and socialise. There is a shift from structured linear passages and uniform settings to a selection of environments to suit the range of people using them and the variety of activities they are undertaking (in relation to students, researchers and staff). “[academic] Libraries have moved from being a storehouse for printed materials to providing access to a vast network of information resources, workspaces and services that facilitate the creation of content” (Macallaster College, date unknown).

All things considered, I believe the issues we are facing in terms of how much adaptation is required in our own Main Library may be related to the fact that we didn’t follow Michael Brawne’s advice back in 1970, found in his book ‘Libraries; Architecture and Equipment’ (Pall Mall Press, 1970, London):

“The more a library is planned around the notion of an individual study place, the more flexible it is likely to be in the future; it will be more capable of absorbing the technological changes which must inevitably relate to its prime function, the communication of an individual with the information source”

In the past we often looked to design libraries based on specific areas and large scale functions rather than the individual needs of each user. The physical attributes of books and desks ultimately defined the principles of how we designed the Arts Library and all subsequent additions between 1953 and 1981. But how might this approach change in the future, particularly with our own and many other academic libraries providing specialist, external store facilities for physical stock? If we start with the user experience as the basis for our library design plans, could the use of historical data from ethnographic studies coupled with algorithms and 3D printing open up new opportunities for how our future libraries might look?

If the early design of the Arts Library reflected the previously static knowledge structures that existed for millennia, what happens when all of a sudden these knowledge structures are deconstructed and evolve into even more complex, hybrid and self-developing ecosystems? What must a library now reflect in terms of its physical structure and design? I believe that the start of this answer lies in first understanding how academic library buildings are now undertaking two roles as:

  1. Technology rich, central hubs of the physical university campus
  2. Portals into physical and digital collections that aren’t bound by physical walls nor restricted by how users wish to engage with them

The University of Manchester Library is a purveyor of study and research and not just a space for physical collections and desks and the Main Library building is absolutely a huge physical presence at the heart of the campus. It is a gateway to a world of information, data and knowledge. The Library as a service helps people to access what they need, in the best way possible, whilst striving to make sure users are as effective as possible when working in library spaces and beyond. The Library fosters the sharing of knowledge to help users gain further knowledge; provides access to information for users to obtain further information and offers a variety of environments for minds to focus and collaborate in more and better ways. Therefore, our current aim is to offer physical spaces which accommodate and nurture these aims.

“Far from disappearing, libraries are going through a transformation that puts them in a central role within the much-vaunted knowledge economy and moves them into areas as conceptually challenging as they are exciting.”

(Jeffrey Schnapp, Faculty Director at metaLAB, Harvard).

And with this, the next phase of the Main Library’s development  will be, yet again, another expansion, possibly echoing many points outlined in Dan Holden’s recent blog post on future Library designs. This expansion may be driven by a triangulated interaction between a user, their experience and the library, whether this involves the use of a physical book, digital forums, fellow students or a member of Library staff. Physical and digital boundaries are being removed; the points at which the library services stop and users experiences begin are blurring. And with this, physical spaces in our own buildings must be designed with dynamism and fluidity in mind – no longer is there one prescriptive manner in which academic library buildings serve their users. Communication, information flow, access and movement within the realms of academic libraries must be intuitive, effective, tailored and easy.

“University libraries have been faced with a great challenge of meeting those expectations and anticipating future changes, and often in the confines of buildings that were constructed with a particular view of the library in mind – that is a space for the quiet study of books and print journals.” 

(SCONUL report Analysis evolving spaces and practice 2015)

It is right that we are increasingly challenging our understanding of what our physical spaces must do, how hard they must work, how adaptable they must be, whilst making sure we don’t lose sight of the fundamentals. These include making sure people are comfortable and have adequate personal space and privacy. A Library will always continue to collect, provide access to and preserve information whilst nurturing the creation of new knowledge, but the ways this will be done will diversify.

It is relevant whilst talking about the future that we also look back to the past and at the comments made by Sir Walter Moberley during his speech at the inauguration of the Arts Library at the University’s Whitworth Hall in October 1937. Sir Walter emphasised two phrases made by Dr. Moses Tyson (University Librarian) on the uses of a university library:

  • A well-equipped and comfortable… place where one adds to ones stock of knowledge
  • The student’s real home in the university

(taken from the Bulletin of John Rylands Library Manchester, Vol 21, No 2, October 1937

It is also worth commenting on the rules that Robert Propst outlined in his seminal book The Office – A Facility for Change (Birch, 1968) in relation to the office designs. These rules (presented nearly 40 years ago) seem very relevant in line with people-focused and knowledge-centred library design:

Rule #1: Forgiving principle. The complexity of organizational environments coupled with the unpredictable course of future directions requires a forgiving behaviour in facility design.

Rule #2: Grace with change. “If change means a period of dust, confusion, and loss of momentum, it is understandable why the cramped old shoe is lived in too long.”

Rule #3: On-line planning and expression. Implementation has to be the goal of planning, as does changing one’s course if the plan doesn’t work. Users are often the best judges of what works.

In this sense, we should aim to use the lessons of the past as a sail to further help academic library design navigate a very unpredictable future.

In many respects, academic library buildings shouldn’t be judged on their aesthetic finishes, number of desks or footfall. Instead they should be measured on how they support the variety of needs of each individual and how this adds value to their personal experiences and achievements. They should be understood in terms of how useful their spaces are. We need to provide the correct spaces (both physical and digital) that are easy to access, useful and supportive. Each space must be adaptable but must also deliver its current purpose at any given time very well. And with this, it is also crucial that such academic library spaces also suit the context of the academic community that they support. I believe that when these goals are met, it is at this point that the academic library as a place starts to move into the next phase of its evolution.

“The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.”

(Seth Godin, 2011, http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/05/the-future-of-the-library.html)

We are increasingly becoming a knowledge driven economy and society. The next phase of academic library design must be one that is rooted in the requirement for libraries to be knowledge centres of all types and in all realms for as they say, knowledge is power.

This blog post was created from extracts of a talk given at the ‘Mapping the historical Geographies of Higher Education in Greater Manchester’ symposium on 9th November 2016 by Mike Kelly.

All images courtesy of The University of Manchester

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