The role the university library plays in supporting teaching and learning has never been more important. Exercises such as the National Student Survey and the teaching excellence framework are placing growing emphasis on the learning environment and the student experience, while students are expecting more from the institutions to which they pay £9,000 fees. There is perhaps no other area of a university that has such a high level of footfall and interaction with students than the library, so it’s an important weapon in keeping student satisfaction high. But is it as good as it could be?
At Alterline, our work in higher education shows that libraries are building on their strengths. This has helped them to stand their ground when campus redevelopments have taken place. They’ve demonstrated the value that they add and have often attracted significant investment. As one humanities student told us: “I find the library a good place to relax, gather my thoughts, get away from hectic lecture filled days. The atmosphere is very motivational for working on assignments and doing group work.”
Examples of good practice include the University of Birmingham, which opened its new £60 million library to give users a “transformational experience”. The University of Manchester opened its new £24 million learning commons in 2012, designed “to give students a focal point for learning, offering a stimulating and comfortable 24/7 environment for study”.
We have worked with a number of leading university libraries to help them improve their services to students since 2013. But what do students tell us about their libraries?
‘There were people sitting in the toilets because it was so busy’
Having enough space and the right facilities continues to be one of the biggest problems libraries face. How do you meet the demand for books when a course has hundreds of students on it? Can you provide enough study space when 20,000 students all want somewhere quiet to revise?
We hear a lot about students studying in areas that are less than ideal. Thankfully, the toilet example isn’t common but a lack of desk space, computers and other facilities are.
‘People work differently now’
With the increase in coffee shop culture, the way we study and work has changed. Students can sit in Starbucks on a Sunday afternoon with skinny lattes, access to free wifi and toilets metres away.
Yet university libraries are still wrangling with long-standing rules such as food and drink only being consumed in designated areas, even though students will – and do – order takeaways to be delivered directly to the library.
Buildings have often been adapted through the years rather than being purpose-built with the modern student in mind. Students can spend hours at a time in the library so factors like comfort, temperature, natural light, wifi, plug sockets and access to food and drink are incredibly important. Students want the library to fit with the way they work.
‘The problem is that books aren’t on the shelves’
Our research tells us that students have problems finding books. It’s not only that they don’t understand the cataloguing systems or don’t know where to look. It’s often that books are in high demand, especially on popular courses where there are simply not enough copies. Students can be late returning them, hide them to ensure they’re available when needed, or take them to use while studying in the library. This means that a book showing as “available” is in fact in use.
‘Library staff are like ghosts’
We often hear that staff are hard to find and that they’re not easily identifiable. Students also tell us that they want face-to-face contact with staff. Introducing a uniform and allowing staff to actively approach students rather than sitting them behind a help desk may seem simple, but can make a huge difference.
‘Only one person can use it at a time’
Remaining relevant and accessible in the digital space means competing with the seamless experiences students are used to in the rest of their lives.
Licensing problems can limit how many students can access an ebook at a time, which is counter-intuitive to the way students understand digital resources. Students also tell us that they have to log in to multiple websites and online programmes to access digital resources.
While navigating between them, they are often logged out or their session expires. This makes searching catalogues and databases a frustrating task – leaving students turning to Google .
How should universities respond?
Students don’t want unnecessary hurdles in their way, and will quickly go elsewhere if they can get better, faster services that are easier to use. Like every other part of the university, libraries must change their culture to become genuinely customer-focused. The only way to do this is to understand the students.
In our research, we live and breathe the student journey, immersing ourselves in their world, whether that’s visiting the library at 2am, living with students for a week or asking them to take “love” and “hate” photos of their library life. Alongside the more traditional focus groups and surveys, it allows us to change the way the organisation thinks about students.
Students want a library where they have enough space and the right facilities to do the range of things that being a student requires. This can be a quick chat with a friend, completing a group work task, or an eight-hour essay-writing session. They want to see books and helpful, friendly people. The library is the students’ office and they expect the comfort, services and functionality of a modern office, with the staff and resources of a top university library.
Universities must make a serious commitment to putting evidence about who students are, what their lives are like, and what their needs are at the heart of decisions. They must use this knowledge to create spaces, products and services that add real value to students’ lives.
They mustn’t stop at physical and digital changes either – it’s about changing the culture among staff. They should feel free to innovate, take risks and make the odd mistake along the way.
Ben Hickman is research director at Alterline.
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• This article was amended on 3 August 2017 to add detail on good practice in libraries. A version of this article has been published elsewhere.
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