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Crucibles of creativity: The future of university libraries

Q&A with Dr Nick Barratt, Director of Senate House Library

Firstly, could you explain how have university libraries changed over the last 20 years?

Dr Nick Barratt, Senate House Library Director

Libraries remain a much-loved and important community fixture, if public campaigns against post-2008 austerity closures are anything to go by, and university libraries are no different. While the basic function of the library remains the same – the provision of curated information – there has been a shift in focus from ‘books’ to community hubs or educational discovery centres, where a range of services and transactions can take place, especially the provision of front-line council services.

Whilst technology has played a part in the delivery of content, the need for spaces to meet, study, learn, create and be inspired has increased – in many ways, bringing the 21st century library closer to the original aim of the public library movement in the Victorian period.

Today, we present the library as somewhere you walk in with the expectation of being productive, which is a sense you don’t really get when downloading e-books or working from virtual settings. The role of the library is that of a ‘crucible of creativity,’ providing precious face-time in its collaborative spaces, as human contact is what truly drives learning.

As the Senate House Librarian, you are responsible for leading the development and strategic direction of the library. What are some of the challenges the library faces?

The biggest challenge we face as the central library for the University of London are rising student expectations. Value for money has become a high-profile issue in higher education and the library is a key part of the University’s proposition, so there is a huge demand for the Senate House Library to provide plenty of collaborative, productive spaces and readily accessible resources.

We now serve more than 30,000 student members, so accommodating growing student numbers within a limited physical space is also a challenge. Our many members require lots of quiet spaces to study and collaborate, so we must efficiently manage our ever-growing collection of books to make sure just the right resources are on the shelves and also have easy, fast and reliable access to books in storage.

So, it became clear that SHL required a third-party storage facility to house parts of its collection, near enough for quick and easy access when demanded. What solution did Crown Records Management provide?

Yes, we contracted Crown Records Management to manage storage and retrieval in 2016. They immediately got to work, introducing efficient stock identification and tagging technology, classifying books by series and volume to ensure seamless retrieval.

Now, over 7.5 km of books are stored in Crown’s secure facility. Students and other service users can simply order books online with a 24-hour retrieval turnaround and two delivery runs per day made by Crown, allowing SHL to provide a service without need for physical presence.

How did you find working with Crown Records Management? How well did the library storage solution work?

We have found that Crown ensures all books are handled with the utmost care whilst offering a seamless service. They transport all books in PH free packaging materials, preserving the integrity of the books.

One of the greatest measures of success has been that the students are not even aware that many books are stored off-site by a third-party provider – that’s testament to the skill and expertise of the Crown team. Crown is more than a supplier, they truly are a partner.

Now, we are considering expanding the number of books stored with Crown by a further 4 km as we continue to modernise the libraries.

My greatest ambition for this project would be to create a much bigger depository to provide a shared collection with other college libraries. Hopefully, we can pool our resources to make that a reality.

How do you see the future of university libraries?

In future, the library will become increasingly important to universities’ propositions, as the heart of the student experience and the centrepiece of the campus, all tied to the expectation that the library is a space where you can successfully be creative and productive.

I foresee libraries offering expanded skills training, course provision and publications tools as non-mediated information accessed via external digital platforms, although many students will gather in the library to access content in a different learning environment.

Pastoral care and post-study careers advice – as linked to skills and training – will increasingly gravitate to the library, mirroring the trend to provide additional services in the wider public library sector.

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What best practice advice do you have for libraries regarding rising student expectations and library storage?

I strongly recommend collaborating with regional partner organisations regarding stock and storage, thereby increasing study space and making storage as economical as possible. For example, The National Bibliographic Knowledgebase and associated national monographs strategy will increasingly provide a framework in which to develop shared collections.

Also, challenge academic perceptions regarding required information using hard evidence. For example, do students really need reading lists running to several pages when access data shows they only use the top five to ten items? This will ensure savings are made in the expenditure budget whilst providing the most relevant information in new ways. Remember, millennial reading patterns and information retrieval techniques are different from 20th century ones.

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