Alongside every other university in the UK, King’s College London moved almost all our activities online as the national lockdown began in March 2020. For Libraries & Collections this involved a massive acceleration in our shift to digital collections, online support, e-learning and home working. While much of this work was already under way as part of our transformation programme, Library Evolution, the pace of change became staggering. This has combined a massive switch online alongside the pressing need to re-open our physical spaces in a safe and secure way. Amongst the many things we have learnt has been how much the digital affects the physical environment and how interdependent the two are for a campus-based university delivering blended learning. Of particular note are the ways that a mostly digital student experience drives demand for physical space, the inequalities that the digital shift intensifies and the disparities between disciplines.

Digital drives new and challenging demands on physical space

As we reopened our libraries, it became apparent that the move to digital education has created new requirements for physical space. Alongside the more traditional need for study space, students require quiet, secure, private space to undertake online assessments, they need to be able to talk and contribute to seminars and lectures and they have to speak confidentially on video calls with personal tutors and other support services. These all need separate spaces and can’t be easily accommodated in an academic library, especially operating under strict, Covid-secure restrictions. As many of these activities may remain online, universities need to ensure that their campuses have appropriate and accessible spaces for digital activity.

Digital highlights inequalities

While the concept of digital poverty and digital exclusion has rightly attracted attention, lack of access to suitable physical space in which to work has become particularly acute during the pandemic, with associated lockdowns and the digital shift. Many students at King’s do not have access to the quiet, private space with stable wifi that is required for online learning. King’s has many students on protected programmes (mainly education, health and social care) who were permitted to have on-campus teaching through lockdown, demonstrating how they also need space when their timetables combine online and in-person activities. Demand will not go away as the pandemic ends.

Digital is not equal across disciplines

King’s has a large number of highly-regarded, popular programmes in the Humanities and providing the required reading and viewing has been challenging, despite close collaboration between lecturers and librarians and frank conversations with content providers. The sudden digital shift has highlighted what librarians have known for a long time, that e-book provision is much better across the STEM subjects and that physical collections are still required in many subjects. Academic publishers and providers of streaming media need to move to affordable online models to support the digital shift in higher education. The growth of the open education movement is accelerating, and publishers risk being side-lined if they don’t work with libraries to meet the needs of our students and educators.

Author: Gavin Beattie, Associate Director (Research & Impact), Kings College London

Reference: Beattie, G., (March 2021), Case study: digital – some are more equal than others. Research Libraries UK.