Last year, we installed a range of new furniture on the third floor of the Red area in our Main Library. The section of the Library was the second addition to the original arts Library, built between 1953 and 1956, and has some fine architectural features. It is one of my favourite areas of the Library, particularly as it contains some very specific (albeit now obsolete) areas including a bindary room, dark room and recording studio.

The third floor was previously home to a moderately large part of our accessible collection, housed on a series of free standing shelves. As part of the Main Library Redevelopment project decant, this area was cleared and slowly but surely the shelving was dismantled. Once the area was clear, it was possible to see the sections of the parquet flooring where the original shelving had been located and previous carpet had been situated. These areas were obviously paler due to having not been treated with varnish as opposed to the areas around them.

Pic 1

We now had a fantastic area of clear floor space in order to test a range of existing and new furniture to ascertain which items appeared most and least popular with our users.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, and also stated in the UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit, the way you create, develop or adapt any of your institution’s study spaces must be suited to the context of the environment you operate in. Through the work carried out in Stage 3 of the Main Library Redevelopment project, we quickly came to realise that the main ways our users ‘operate’ were in either a focused, communal or social way. Now this is nothing new, however we started to look in more detail at our user’s posture in each of these three settings and with it the environment and setting they required. Following an assessment of our study spaces in the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons with the Alliance Manchester Business School MBA Not for Profit project team, we investigated Irwin Altman’s Privacy Regulation Theory (1975) and coupled this with Edward Hall’s Proxemics theory of interpersonal distances. The MBA student team found that most library users interactions fall in Social-consultative distance (e.g. a conversation with a stranger = 1.2m – 3.6m) and thus require spaces of at least 1.2m between work areas.

Not only does observing proxemics and privacy allow users to be more comfortable in a range of settings, it also provides us with the opportunity to ensure optimised use of our study spaces. Just because you provide 100 seats, it doesn’t automatically mean they are useful to 100 people at any one time. Due to the type of space, the furniture lay out and proximities, you may find that average utilisation is only 50% (e.g. a maximum of 50 seats used at any one time). If you removed 25 seats and spaced them out, it is highly possible that you’re average utilisation rate might increase to 90% of 75 seats, which equates to a maximum of 68 seats used at any one time. Make people feel comfortable, secure and at ease and watch the use of your space change. Many of these approaches are being used in the design of co-working spaces and are key to the restaurant industry.

What we observed backed up our growing understanding of the ways our users learn. In this area of the Library, our users wanted a ‘focus’ study space. The open floor plate, high visibility and bright lighting made any type of communal work uncomfortable. We didn’t need to tell people that – the space did it for us. on every observation people worked individually on all the types of furniture positioned in the room (round tables, individual desks, sofas, large tables). The utilisation rate of the space was very high in individual study settings and very low in group settings. An arrangement of sofas that provided 10 seats (looking inwards) attracted one person, two at the very most. The 4 circular tables that provided space for 5 people on each were only ever occupied by 1 or 2 people (20% or 40% utilisation). The new, larger study table with 6 seats only ever had a maximum of 2 people working on them.

Pic 4

So, we set to work choosing new furniture based on our findings. We wanted to test the assumption from the Main Library Redevelopment plans that carefully chosen and well positioned furniture could encourage the atmosphere we aimed for whilst making users feel comfortable and optimising utilisation rates. Our theme was that of a researcher space that would have no PCs but would provide settings to support focused, individual study in an open plan area. We didn’t want a PC cluster approach nor a very busy ‘study farm’ so space and light was key. However, we needed to ensure users were insulated and segregated from others. Our colleagues Lisa Grey from Ralph Capper along with support from Jason Oak at Space Invader Design, guided our choices, which resulted in:

16 spaces (with power)

26 spaces (without power)

1 table with 6 chairs (without power)

48 spaces in total

In observing how our users responded to this space in the first week, the results were very interesting.

Power to the people

The first destination for the majority of the people using the area is the study spaces with power sockets – our users want power.

Pic 08

This is our area

We lightly decorated the space with artefacts from the Library’s history including card catalogues, a brail machine and a bust of Lord Woolton (Chancellor of The University of Manchester 1944-1964). Very quickly, Lord Woolton had acquired a woolly hat, which tells us that users are comfortable in this area and see it as their own. Personalisation of space is still a critical element for most people in feeling ‘at home’. We also noticed that one user used the same seat and desk every day for the entire week.

Pic 09

Let there be light

In speaking to one user, she was using the space for only the second day, and previously didn’t know the area existed (I wonder how she found out about it). She said that the space was much better than any other areas in the library as it was quiet, warm and bright. The brightness of the lights helped her to study and she said she felt less tired since studying in there.

All in all, the installation of furniture in this space isn’t anything out of the ordinary. However what we have concentrated on are the small details that underpin most users feeling of comfort and security in physical spaces:

  • Light (and visibility)
  • Insulation
  • Interpersonal distance

All in all, it seems to be working.

Mike Kelly, Library Space Development Manager


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