The RLUK Space Programme

Over the past years, developments in educational practices, rapid technological advancements and rising user expectations have had an impact not only on the types of services offered by research libraries, but also on the way library space is used and experienced. As a response to the challenges members face with regards to the way their spaces are built or repurposed, we launched the RLUK Space Programme in March 2019, an informal programme of events and resources. The programme aims to foster knowledge exchange and support members in identifying solutions to problems related to library space. It also forms part of the RLUK response to the eighth challenge of the RLUK strategy Reshaping Scholarship (2018-2021).

As part of the first two, very successful, meetings of the RLUK Space Programme, we looked at the spatial redesign and capital-build work being conducted across the membership as well as the creative and innovative library spaces being created as a response to the challenges of the digital age. Talks from a range of institutions and discussions with delegates revealed the increased focus on user experience and a demand for flexible, multi-purpose environments for supporting curriculum and audience engagement activities. 

Discussions during the programme’s first event at the National Library of Scotland highlighted the need to collect metrics around space from across the membership and, thus, develop a resource that members could use for benchmarking, advocacy, and knowledge exchange.  For this purpose, RLUK ran a survey during November and December 2019 which aimed to shed some light on the types of capital or refurbishment projects members have been recently or are currently engaged in, the employed approach for planning for such projects as well as any information about their development and management, funding and related metrics and figures.

The library space at the heart of the community

First RLUK Space Programme meeting at the National Library of Scotland

The majority of projects mentioned in the survey, which were mostly library refurbishments or new builds, were often initiated with the purpose of contributing to the broader mission of the university or the library to offer excellent customer service through responding to demand for more space and new or improved facilities. In fact, the reported activity can be regarded as part of the recent shift that has been taking place in research libraries, and their home institutions (for university libraries), towards the development of more audience-focused strategies which aim to lead to higher impact. Accordingly, the results confirmed the important role that the library plays as the heart of the university and/ or its community; through investing in modern library spaces and facilities, universities can increase their appeal for students and libraries can achieve greater engagement with their communities and raise the visibility of their collections and services.

Thus, as part of responding to audiences’ needs and expectations, participation in this survey showed the emphasis that has been placed by RLUK members in increasing study and, generally, student-oriented spaces and places  accessible to the general public, such as exhibition and events spaces, cafes, shops, banks, and other amenity facilities. When designing new buildings or during extensive renovations, the focus is on state-of-the-art facilities, including lecture theatres, teaching, training, computer and other bookable rooms, and study areas as well as spaces that encourage collaboration and interactivity, such as makerspaces, and others that can be used for different purposes.

Projects around the development of new buildings can also take into account the need for places where staff can work and other facilities, such as accommodation. However, despite the focus of the majority of projects on catering for audiences’ needs with regards to space, some of the initiatives in the survey also aimed to create better storage space for collections, including modern facilities for their preservation and upkeep. Additionally, improving security, comfort and convenience for everyone, such as through refurbishing the lifts or improving the library entrance and reception, was another consideration for some of the initiatives. Finally, it is worth mentioning that environmental concerns formed part of the reason for some of the improvements.

While a great deal of focus over the past few weeks has naturally been on the digital aspect of our libraries, the vital importance of the physical will return to command attention once the current crisis is over. The results of this report will hopefully constitute a useful resource for RLUK members to use for benchmarking, advocacy, and knowledge exchange.