Tour of Imperial College Library

Yesterday we braved the freezing cold and went on a tour of Imperial College Library (ICL,)  an academic library focusing on traditional full time teaching for science and business studies. Interestingly, its emphasis was not on Special Collections, but on making sure the physical collection (of books) was there to be used- in creating a ‘working collection.’

 In fact, Angus our tour guide, (and a member of ICL staff) told us that most of their students use e-resources, and that the bulk of their budget goes towards updating e-journals (they currently have around 75,000.) According to Angus, Imperial are keen to shift towards electronic collections because of limited study space and a growing number of students. The building itself is large, set out over many floors, and modern in style. It does have a Humanities section, but only a small one, with DVDs, CDs and travel guides included.

What I personally found interesting was that it is open 24/7 and open almost all the year. On Fridays it does close at 3, but this is to allow a weekly computer update. As a result ,  its café (which is unusually  part of the Library itself) stays open until 11, and is also used as a workspace for night-owl students.  Apparently, this was the result of many students requesting 24/7 opening hours, and it is used at all times of the night and in the early hours of the morning, even around 3am.  Imperial has many international students from places like China, who use these opening hours to contact their families. In fact, during busy periods such as exam times, students have even been known to come in with sleeping bags! This may help with the Library’s accessibility, but it does mean that the Library is not as green as it could be, as it has 300 computers which are on all the time and using energy. On the up side, it has put in place recycling facilities, and is working towards reducing its carbon footprint. It also has assistive technology available for students with learning difficulties, including voice recognition software.

One of the key factors of Imperial College Library appears to be study spaces. At the moment, 25% of the study spaces are for groups, and 25% is for silent study only. They are also keen on providing their students a range of study spaces. Study space demand depends on the time of year, especially at busy times. However, as physical stock is reduced to make way for more e-resources, more and more study space is being added. 

Interesting features of Imperial College Library:

·         The Science Museum Library is available through ICL, but it is a very different collection with a different remit. It is separate in this way from ICL.

·         Self-service machines: The self-service machines have been in place for about 8 years, and 75-80% of book issues and returns are processed in this way.

·         Unusually, ICL only charge fines on reserved books, and fines are processed by the College rather than the Library.

·         Interestingly, ICL do not have RFID, as although it is currently a popular technology in many academic libraries,  it was deemed costly to implement and unnecessary given its focus on e-journals.

·         One cool feature was the wide screen in the reception area which lets students know how many PCs are available.

·         It also has group study rooms which are bookable online

·         There is 1 system for printers and copiers throughout the college that is multi-functional. Copiers are operated via the student’s card, instead of using change.

·         It has a large collection of loanable maps

·         It is part of the ‘Research, Reserve’ Project

·         It also keeps music scores and has links with the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Art.

·         Works closely with the SU and with other academic departments. It even has its own stall at the Freshers’ Fair each year, and does ‘treasure hunts’ (with chocolate as a prize!) during library inductions. This emphasizes the library’s keenness to engage with its students on many different levels.

·         ICL is part of the SCONUL Band A access scheme, although they do have to prioritize their own students over visitors and space is limited.

·         Their current LMS is Unicorn/Symphony, but they are intending to change to ALMA, which supports collaboration between other institutions and enhances efficiency.

·         ICL’s website will be relaunched next year.

·         It is part of the social media zeitgeist, with its own Facebook and Twitter page active and running.  The ICL catalogue is even searchable via an app on Facebook.

·         ICL also has ‘phone hoods’ (small cushioned booths fixed to walls) that muffle the noise of users who want to use their phone for calls.

·         ICL’s Subject Librarians also do drop-in sessions for students.

·         Originally, the ICL classification scheme was UDC (Universal Decimal Classification) but for the last 5 years it has been changed to Dewey. However, Angus does warn that some items may still be classified by UDC.

So now the bullet-points are over, what else was intriguing about the tour? One thing I found particularly helpful was the session we had at the end, where we talked about the tour and Angus answered our questions, particularly on the benefit of LIS courses.  One of the reasons I undertook my Library Science course was to improve my career prospects, so I was surprised to hear that, although ICL try to support at least one or two people to go through library school, not all library staff (at Imperial) have LIS qualifications.  However, Angus did warn that the LIS market is highly competitive, and that the skills needed to become LIS professional are changing. Now there is a strong emphasis on user education, particularly at ICL, reflected in issues such as information literacy, Open Access publishing and what to do about plagiarism. Librarians currently do a lot of teaching using VLEs, and there is a stronger focus on improving and promoting standards of customer service.  Customer service is vital to ICL because it facilitates staff in working out what students what, and how to deliver a service that reflects those needs. In fact, there is even an M25 Consortium sub group looking specifically at customer service.

Overall, I found the tour very informative. It was interesting to see how a large-scale academic library in the science and business field operated, and whether it was any different to Humanities or arts libraries. Thanks goes to Angus  for taking us around the Library and telling us all about its features. The general focus seemed to be on keeping up with technological changes, implementing dynamic, useful technology, (eg. Self issue) providing support for its diverse range of students, and keeping up to date with latest editions of textbooks and course reading.  ICL also seems keen to promote the benefits of science to a wider audience, including school children.  From a personal viewpoint, it was also encouraging to see how busy the Library was when we visited- although that may be due to it being near the end of term! It is always good to know that academic libraries are being used and valued by their students, and I found it beneficial to visit an academic library that caters to a very specific branch of learning (i.e. science.)

Useful links:
Imperial College Library:
Science Museum Library and Archives:
Imperial College Library Online Catalogue (requires login) :
Information on how to access Imperial’s e-resources:
Imperial College Library Facebook Page:

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