#LibrariesTransform – The Relevance of the Library in the Modern University

A modern University

Since joining RefME and talking to many librarians across the UK, Europe and the US, I have become increasingly interested in the role the academic library plays in the lives of its staff and student communities, and whether this role is changing in the context of the modern university.

I was fortunate enough to talk to Claire Ridall, Head of Management Services in Library and Student Support Services at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), and get her insight into how students today are engaging with their university library and whether this behaviour has changed in recent years.

In 2014, Learning and Information Services (as it was then) at SHU worked with Art & Design students on a visual storytelling exercise to explore their perception of the library and how relevant it was to their learning experience and overall academic success. Typically, Art & Design students use the library less than students from other departments and, when asked about how they perceive it, the associations were quite negative and and outdated. Above all, the Learning and Information Services department was viewed as a place of refuge for the panic stricken student with a looming essay deadline, desperately looking for a book or journal recommended months ago in a reading list. For these students, the purpose of the library seemed to be two-dimensional: a place where they could occasionally loan books or use a PC, and a fairly restrictive environment where they could expect a stern telling-off for talking too loudly.

In the 18 months since this study was carried out, the staff at SHU Library have worked hard to shift the perceptions of its student population around the range and depth of services it provides to underline the pivotal role that the library plays in a student’s overall academic success and fulfilment. The view that a trip to the library is a last resort or emergency measure has been challenged continually. The move to 24/7, 365 day opening and effective and ongoing communication across the institution has helped drive this message.

Amongst the observations Claire made about how students in 2016 were typically using the library, the following are just a few. There has been a growing trend of staff needing to clear away books from areas within the library and fewer books being taken out on loan, suggesting that students are using the library space itself more to read and reference printed material. The percentage of study space has increased as a result of this on-site demand. At the same time, ebook downloads are steadily on the rise. It seems that print content still plays a significant role in the learning experience, but how and where students are accessing this content is continually evolving and shifting.

With the omnipresence of smartphones, tablets and personal laptops, I had assumed that the need for a student to visit the library, in order to access e-resources in particular, would have significantly diminished in recent years. But the prominence of personal devices doesn’t seem to have reduced access of e-resources from the library itself, with many students preferring the structure and focus the library gives them when they need to write an essay.

Even more surprising was the fact that students are making active use of the library’s ‘smart lockers’ to borrow laptops for up to 24 hours at a time. When the library surveyed students about their use of loaned laptops, the response was that carrying personal laptops around campus was cumbersome and many didn’t want to bring their own machines for security reasons. Loaning a laptop from the library seems to be a more convenient way of working, and more than that, students expect this level of service from the university. Students from some departments (ACES – Arts, Computing, Engineering and Science) need to use high spec software packages that they generally can’t get access to from personal laptops and are very reliant on library PCs for that reason. As a result, and despite the fact that most students have their own laptop, Claire explained that the demand for library PCs often exceed availability at SHU Library.

Claire’s view that the library wasn’t promoting its resources and services as frequently and vocally as it could have prior to the past few years is one that has been echoed by many other university librarians. It seems that it is not just the students, but often the staff at an academic institution that simply aren’t aware of the potential the library has to offer in supporting them in their academic career.

The link between NSS results and the student community’s regular use of the library has certainly helped put information and learning services departments in a more prominent place on the institutional map, but so too has the evolution of the library space to accommodate modern study patterns. At SHU, footfall numbers alone in recent years have proved continued, if not growing, demand for a physical learning space. “Students value both the space and the resources” says Claire Ridall. “They feel comfortable working there (often in their socks!). Bank holiday opening of the library was a big win for students and overnight use is becoming more popular with an average of 3-400 students using the library overnight at peak times”.

This shows, certainly from Sheffield Hallam University’s perspective, that as long as the library continues to evolve with the study and lifestyle patterns of its students, it will continue to play a central role in the success of the modern university.

I’ll leave you with two videos produced by Digital Media Production students at Sheffield Hallam University capturing their thoughts on the library.

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