Library as a place

Do you remember the predictions that the Internet would – among many other things – mean the decline of the library as a place and space? Who would need to visit a library when they had 24/7 access to information?

What happened and is happening is that in academic libraries the need for space for users had increased while the need for space for collections has decreased. Our library (as a place) users are mainly students – as teachers and researchers can use the library online from their offices and hardly ever need the library as a place – and they have many expectations, even demands, for libraries as learning spaces. Though almost unlimited access to information is a fact, students need places for group work and other means of collaboration.

Our three libraries are at different phases of the change and we are all extremely interested in new library spaces including among others their furnishings and colors, acoustics and lightning, flexibility and usability.

BMH Library in Trondheim

The Medicine and Health Library (BMH) is a new and radical collaboration project in Norway, initiated by the department in 2009 as a joint project between NTNU and HiST. Together we have established an integrated library for medicine and health science; to support new technologies and new forms of learning, and deliver better and more efficient services. The library is not a merger of two institutions, but rather a community of practice, where we cooperate on the physical library and the user services.

To plan a “library for the future” is a demanding process. Our focus was on flexibility in physical space and user involvement. This was taken care of through user studies, the latest one carried out in 2012 as a focus group study with four group interviews; two groups consisting of students and two of staff members from both institutions. The results show some significant differences between students and staff, but minor differences between the two institutions. This was valuable input to the planning process, and a benchmark to use in the evaluation of the new library.

The main findings showed that students want a traditional library with long opening hours. They need different areas in the library; quiet areas for group and individual study and noisier areas for relaxing. As they are using the library for longer periods, they are concerned about quality of air, light, large windows, and spaciousness. For students it is important with access to printers, copiers, computers and enough sockets. Students use the space – not the library personnel. They are self-reliant, but see the benefit from library courses and classes. Staff on the other hand rarely visit the library; they use mail or telephone to order books and articles. They want a good library website and librarians that can assist if needed, and they have strong emphasize on equal access for both institutions to information resources. They also demand library courses and classes – both for themselves and for their students. It is interesting that staff see the library as a place for the dissemination of the research of institutions.

BMH opened in 2014. It is located at the Knowledge Center in the middle of the University hospital area. So far, the library seems to be a success, with heavy use from student groups from both institutions (two people are sitting on every chair each day!) and from staff members that we have not seen in the library for many years. We believe that the recipe for success with library planning is cooperation with all parties involved – students, other library users, architects, hospital planners and last but not least, ICT people.

 Some facts: 1500 square meters over two floors, serves 3000 students and 11000 staff members. The library offers areas for group- and individual work approximately 300 chairs, 40 computers for students, space for teaching, arrangements and events. Parts of BMH is open 24/7 and staffed 55 hours a week. We are 18 employees, 8 student assistants and 5 students responsible for ICT support.

Some facts: 1500 square meters over two floors, serves 3000 students and 11000 staff members. The library offers areas for group- and individual work approximately 300 chairs, 40 computers for students, space for teaching, arrangements and events. Parts of BMH are open 24/7 and staffed 55 hours a week. We are 18 employees, 8 student assistants and 5 students responsible for ICT support.

Kuopio University Hospital Medical Library in Kuopio

Planning and designing a library today is not easy as one should be able to predict the future and anticipate how tomorrow’s students will use the library. One way to look to the future is to try to maximize flexibility with for example light and movable furniture and partition walls. Already, students should be allowed to remould their study environment.

KUH Medical Library will move to new premises inside the hospital and nothing except the collections — though strongly reduced merely to the core — from the current library will be brought to the new one. At the moment, the new library space can only be seen on paper and some 3D illustrations but in January the brand new KUH Medical Library should open.

Entrancce to new KUH medical library, illustration

Entrance to new KUH medical library, illustration

There will be less square meters (404,5) than in the current one (468,7) but they will be organized more efficiently to provide space for reading, using computers, doing group work, browsing both printed and electronic collections, a circulation area without a traditional desk, and offices for library staff. The library personnel is excited about the new space and is working in mutual understanding with the architect. Also students, hospital staff members and faculty have been consulted and are always welcome to the planning meetings.

UCL library of the Health sciencesin Brussels

The UCL library of the Health sciences is located in the main administrative building of the university medical campus. The building was built in the 1970’s years and is made of concrete. The library is located on the first floor of the building. Its is a large open space, with concrete walls, ceilings and pillars, and carpet on the concrete floor. It currently seats 88 people, at single table places or in little study booths (hosting maximum two people). This amount is obviously insufficient with 6000 medical students.

UCL BSS reading room

UCL BSS reading room

Library as a place is nowadays an important question at UCL. Therefore, the university sent an expert to take part in ISO working group dedicated to Information and documentation — Qualitative conditions and basic statistics for library buildings — Space, function and design (technical report issued in 2012). UCL librarians currently prepare an internal report about their needs in terms of buildings, library space and users places. Trends observed at BMH library match UCL library a priori needs:

  • traditional library with long opening hours
  • quiet areas for group and individual study  (noisier areas for relaxing are probably also needed, but maybe not hosted by the library)
  • light, large windows, and spaciousness
  • access to printers, copiers, computers and enough sockets

The current users of the physical library are mainly students. On the contrary, staff rarely visit the library. They are, however, the library services users, even if they are not aware of it because they do not use the library as a place:

  • virtual serials collection
  • ILL and article copy provision
  • information literacy tuition
  • support in recording their scientific production in university database DIAL
  • and some other support to research activity (e.g. bibliometrics, specific databases use).

Other questions are currently under examination at UCL libraries, about, e.g.

  • computers:

– do library users need to access public computers (are they all IT equipped or do they need to use library IT devices)? – how to give users enough plugs for their library work on own devices? – wifi or wired internet access?

  • desk and loan:

– which activities for librarians at the desk? – automation of tasks like loans and return, buying photocopy credit, etc.?

  • acoustics and shushing:

– how to fit out the library space to muffle the surroundings? – does the library need to be totally silent?

Results should be communicated to the university management during 2015 year.

Visiting each others’ libraries, and also some other libraries, as a part of the benchmarking project has been useful for all of us. It has given us a chance to see and discuss the differences and similarities in the use of the library space — often very practical information — and a wider perspective to library space planning than we had before.

The meaning of library — and life?

The title of this post refers to our interviews with the library staff members in all of the three libraries. We started with questions like “what is your job, what do you work with” and ended up talking about the meaning of the library, sometimes even life. Interviews turned into discussions and interchange of opinions.

We interviewed three persons at the NTNU library; a research librarian who has worked for more than 20 years,  a librarian who has worked for more than five years and a new staff member, also a research librarian. At UCL we interviewed three librarians; one who has worked in the library for more than 20 years, another one who has worked for seven years in her first job there, and a third one who has worked for about 20 years. In UEF we interviewed two staff members, a librarian/information specialist who has worked in KUH medical library for three and a half years, and an information services advisor who has worked there for 13 years.

The starting point for the interviews were about roles and value:

  • What is your role in this library?
  • Why do you work here?
  • What is the meaning/purpose of your work here?
  • What value does the library (and your role in it) add to the university?
  • What would mean if the library did not exist/provide the services?
  • In your opinion, is the library doing the right things/providing the right services?
Kollasj - interview

Discussions with staff members at NTNU, UCL and UEF


What did we learn?

The method turned out be very useful. Staff members were willing to share, and what started as interviews soon turned into collegial discussions. We found ourselves taking part in processes where people reflect their own work. It seemed possible for many of them to talk about the meaning of their work and the value of library with outsiders. Even if their supervisor was also present, it was not official and there were no organizational objectives. It seemed they were able and willing to speak freely.

There were no “right answers” but opinions and views. It was a chance for free expression and reflection. We ended up finding the value together — in connection to each person’s tasks in their library.

To conclude these fruitful discussions: If libraries did not exist, they would have to be invented.

Interviewing library users

We have had fun when talking to users of the BMH library. We asked them three questions that are related to their use of the library space.

Our questions were:

  1. What do you use this library for?
  2. Why do you (study/read/work/group work) right here?
  3. Where would you study if the library did not exist?

We have chosen eight different spots or areas and talked to individual users, pairs of users and groups of users. All the people we approached were happy to participate in our small interview.

People were reading lecture notes and other study material, discussing/talking, writing lab reports and research papers, doing group work, searching for information, using library and own books, using own laptops and library computers.



They appreciated the comfort of the furniture, the satisfactory silence level — not too silent, not too noisy — and the possibility to work together. The availability of computers and reference material were mentioned as well.

If the library did not exist, most of them would have chosen to stay at home instead of for example the “too silent” reading rooms.

It will be interesting to find answers to the same questions in the two other libraries.