Visit to Imperial College Library

On 27th January, we visited the recently refurbished Central Library at Imperial College. We were treated to a comprehensive tour of the library by the Team Leader of Public Services, Angus Brown. I for one gained a valuable insight into some of the challenges such a major project inevitably involves, and a hint of what the academic library of the future might well resemble.

The use of space for level 1 of the library has been totally reassigned over the course of a two year refurbishment costing around £11 million. The library now has a very innovative and contemporary feel, created in part by the modern art donated by artist Bob Brighton, the waffle-like concrete ceiling and the vibrant orange and walnut colour scheme. The environment is bright, enlivening and stimulates interaction. Interestingly, library staff have not felt the need for signage to dictate the way that space is used or defining general codes of conduct – the clever architectural design means that the layout itself guides student behaviour.

The fact that much of the furniture is impermanent means that the library has the flexibility to move and redefine spaces to meet the ever-evolving needs of its users: the sliding mesh screens and the round tables (each linked with their own flat screen PC) that are so conducive to group discussion are all easily dismantled and moved, and the thin walls and glass screens separating the short loan collection are easy to relocate, should the section need to shrink or expand.

The whole of level 1 has a spacious, light feel and also contains several semi-open study capsules (each with their own flat-screen PC) encouraging group discussion and the free exchange of ideas. However, students favouring quiet study can still find plenty of space on the upper levels, where the traditional layout of rows of book shelves, and individual study, spaces can be found.

Downstairs the emphasis is now very much on flexible study, with large sections devoted to group study. The reliance of students on the Internet and various software packages is reflected in the large amount of space devoted to PCs. Wi fi connectivity is available throughout to enable the use of laptops, and around 90 new computers have been installed. There is also a plush 30 seat training room available to support the library’s provision of research and study skills’ training. Seating has also increased generally from 666 to 1090 – Angus identified the increase in seating as one of the most basic yet core aims of the project.

Feedback from student surveys, (assessing student needs and preferences), and the visiting of other libraries that had recently undergone refurbishments informed the new design. Perhaps the most exciting part of the library, for the students as well as for us, was the library café, situated adjacent to the entrance. Open til 11pm most weeknights, the café is in many ways the hub of student activity and offers an array of hot and cold snacks to users working away well into the night – a necessity since the library is open 24 hours a day. The café is separated from the library only by a glass screen, and is more an extension of the study space rather than a separate eatery. Many of the tables are complete with flat screen PCs for group use, and there are also rows of computers for individual use - it’s a surprise to find students actually using the area solely as a space eat and relax!

Visiting the science library of this prestigious college was a real treat, and very different to the arts and humanities libraries where most of us work - in terms of the range of its collections, the length of time materials are kept, the level of funding available and also in terms of the privileges it extends its users.

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