My Week - 27 October 2014 - Libraries address the challenges of the future

The main structure of the new Laidlaw Library is very nearly complete, bringing us a step closer to the opening of this flagship building.

It has been an enormous joy for me to lead this project, supported by a great team of people from across the University. Developing the designs has been a complex process- we have consulted colleagues in departments and services, worked with partners in Leeds University Union, sought input on design and artistic content from our students, and considered how to link all these things to ensure we develop a highly IT-enabled environment that is as interesting and stimulating as the physical one.

The project has really highlighted the changing nature of what we mean by a library, and provided an opportunity to consider the importance and value of libraries within the academic enterprise. Libraries today mean much more to our students than simply places with books on the shelves. Traditionally, libraries have been places where students come for quiet, individual study – and we welcome huge numbers of them, particularly around examination periods – but this is not enough for the current generation of learners. Students adopt different styles of learning and, coupled with different forms of pedagogy, particularly around problem-based learning and collaborative study, this means there is demand for collaborative and group study areas where students can interact and learn together.

The Laidlaw Library will be a building of wonderful quality. Light and airy, it will provide much-needed individual study spaces and plenty of areas for students to work collaboratively, including bookable rooms for seminars and group work. However, despite the significant number of seats the new library will bring into the system, it will not solve all our space problems. With around 2,100 study spaces, the Edward Boyle Library (EBL) remains our largest library but, as anyone who has recently visited knows, it desperately needs updating and improving. As a result, immediately after Laidlaw Library opens, we will begin a two-year refurbishment programme. The work will be done in two phases, and will involve installing new infrastructure, including heating, lighting and cabling systems. We’re aiming for a very high BREEAM* score and a much more energy efficient building – a difficult task with a building that was constructed in the 1970s! The end result will be a comfortable, spacious, highly-IT enabled environment.

The EBL will be predominantly for silent study although the refurbishment will also deliver group study areas, better teaching facilities, and a dedicated Research Hub for postgraduate students and research staff. Similar facilities have worked well at other universities, and our research has told us that both taught and research postgraduate students will value a central space for interdisciplinary activities such as seminars and training.

The physical refurbishment of EBL also provides us with an opportunity to look carefully at our collections to see how and where stock might be reduced to create valuable study space and make items easier to find. Although we have significantly reduced stock in this building recently, we will still have huge numbers of books on the shelves. The number of books we buy in print format is inevitably declining as we move into a more pervasive electronic environment for all reading material. However, printed books are still very important to many of our students and staff and we will continue to meet demand as long as it exists.

As well as providing texts in different formats and a choice of learning environments, our libraries are now more complex in terms of helping students and staff with research. Nearly all academic journals are web-based and electronic, and we have a role in both purchasing and delivering many of them. We also have an increasing role assisting in the process of publication, particularly in the area of open access. The Research Councils UK’s (RCUK) policy requiring all RCUK-funded research to be open access, and HEFCE’s requirement that journal articles and conference papers must be open access from 1 April 2016 to be compliant with future Research Excellence Frameworks, present a challenge for some academic colleagues. In response we’ve made changes to our staffing structure and set up a library team to play a key role in communicating and advising on open access requirements, as well as new teams dedicated to providing support for researchers.

As a member of the Research Councils UK review panel on open access, and also as chair of Research Libraries UK, I can ensure that the Library – and the University – is kept abreast of current national and international policy developments, in scholarly communications, policies and processes like open access, and key areas such as digitisation.

On the latter note, I chair the academic advisory board for a Wellcome Library and Jisc** project – the UK Medical Heritage Library – which aims to digitise 19th century books and pamphlets on the subject of medicine and related disciplines. It is a huge project, involving five other university libraries and the libraries of three Royal Colleges. Approximately 15 million pages will be digitised over a period of two years and made available to researchers and the public under an open licence. The project is enabling us to learn a lot about managing big print collections collaboratively with other libraries, which is increasingly how we will manage print collections as we move increasingly into a digital era.

This is just a very brief round-up of some of the projects that the Library is involved with – there are many more – but I hope it underlines the fact that today’s libraries are much, much more than places with books on the shelves!

Stella Butler

University librarian 

* The world's foremost environmental assessment method and rating system for buildings.
**Jisc is a registered charity that champions the use of digital technologies in UK education and research.

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