Libraries as Social Spaces

Yesterday I attended my very first CILIP seminar.  As a non-member of CILIP, I was particularly interested to experience a little of what membership brings, as well as meeting members.  The seminar itself was very interesting, focusing on how libraries can develop as social spaces.  There were a variety of speakers there, including representatives from Kent County Council, Demco Interiors (whose speaker came out with a controversial public library/supermarket comparison) and Angus Brown from Imperial College London whose library has recently been the subject of a major refurbishment.

Each of the presentations gave a particular perspective on how space was utilised to maximum effect.  The KCC presentation (see below) used a series of examples of the ongoing modernisation program to demonstrate the difference that can be made to library usage by re-imagining layouts and presentation (alongside other aspects of course).  All of the libraries that had been subjected to a process of modernisation had shown immediate results in terms of visitors and issues.  One of the interesting things that emerged from this presentation was that when the general public were consulted on what services they would like their local library to provide, they generally desired services that the local library already provided.  Which, for me, underlines that there is no great problem with the actual service as such, merely in making the public aware of what a modern public library offers.

The presentation by Angus Brown was also very interesting.  The work that was done at Imperial College, although very time consuming (and probably quite stressful), clearly paid off as ‘student activity’ in the library increased by a third.  Although, as he rightly pointed out, the work isn’t finished when the library is refurbished.  It is vital that the process is reviewed for future reference, as well as continually assessing whether the library is continuing to meet the demands if the users.  The statistics were certainly interesting though, and they are available via a press release from the Imperial College here.

Overall, it was a very interesting opportunity to hear how different library services are dealing with the challenges that they are having to face and the difference that can be made by viewing the library through the eyes of the end user.  I’d be interested to hear how other libraries have successfully modernised their service.


7 thoughts on “Libraries as Social Spaces

  1. And how was the seminar for you in terms of persuading you that CILIP membership might be a beneficial thing?

  2. My local (library, not pub) uses its space well, with zoned areas, including a children’s library tucked away from the book shelves, PCs and study spaces for other users skirting the walls. People using the different areas were respectful to other users and quiet without being shhh’d by staff, who went about their business efficiently and with smiles on their faces.
    Having gone looking for space away from my computer, it was interesting to notice what other users were after. The PCs were in real demand, booked ahead for individuals and attended by able staff when difficulties arose (like a crash in one instance & a misunderstanding of how to activate a booking in another). The study spaces (on tables seating 4 people) were all in use by people referring to books, maps and reports. A separate room hosted newspapers and a meeting space.
    Both my local and the library I work in (an FE college library) have an open-plan layout, sloping ceilings and a lot of hard surfaces for noise to bounce off and reverberate through the space. Offering study spaces at tables seating 4+ people whilst requiring quiet or even silence sends a mixed message, IMO, but my experience today was that the users in my public library were purposeful and aware of what services they could access. In my workplace, the library’s purpose as a place for quiet/silent study has become somewhat submerged by the demand for more social space by the main user group (16-19 year olds).
    Anticipating and meeting the needs of different user groups is a real challenge for services. My public library seemed to be able to satisfy its users (including those in the 16-19 year old age bracket) who were taking care of e-mails, using the Internet, avoiding the PC (that was me!), checking reference sources, photocopying, browsing for pleasure reads or diverting their children’s energy for half and hour.
    At work it sometimes seems as if the determinedly and predominantly social behaviour of relatively few in the total user group has created a completely different set of cues for others to follow and the result is reduced awareness of the service and how to respect the needs of others who’ve come looking for some peace.
    I heard a phrase recently at a COFHE organised event, which was ‘library etiquette’ and it’s prompted some real thought about how user behaviours impact on how successfully a service can communicate messages to all of its stakeholders. More and more it seems to me that without the buy-in of management and leadership strong enough to carry a team effort, a service will always be playing catch up no matter how its space is arranged.

  3. Sounds like your public library is doing a really great job there. It is very difficult to meet the needs of all users, it is a real challenge. I don’t think public libraries get enough credit for the services they offer (which might partly explain why library usage has declined). My experience of public libraries is that, by and large, we do not need to act as some form of crowd control and that people will behave appropriate to the area of the library they are in. It would seem, from your comment, that it is not easy to ensure that users respect the different aspects of the service in an FE library. I certainly feel that the way the service is delivered in public libraries is exactly as it should be. Space for quiet study where required, and space to relax and enjoy what the library has to offer. Public libraries need to provide for all sections of the community and, in my opinion, they do this far better than they receive credit for.

  4. But what about my comment about the merits of the seminar as an introduction to CILIP? It’s just that it would be useful to have a few thoughts for me to take to the next CILIP in Kent committee meeting.

  5. It was an interesting insight as to what CILIP events are like. There were certainly lots of interesting discussions around the idea of social space in libraries. I am still not entirely convinced that CILIP membership is for me, but maybe I might change my mind after a few more events (should I get the opportunity). I will say, however, that I was very disappointed that the first comment/question raised was regarding silence in libraries. Particularly at a point where there was an opportunity to examine outcomes in a little more detail. But then that is a personal bug-bear of mine.

  6. Thanks, this is very useful feedback. I too was disappointed in the question about silence in libraries but I suggest that this is not typical of CILIP members’ concerns. I hope so anyway. And as you and others have pointed out, perhaps academic libraries have issues with this and are coming at it from a different angle to those of us in public libraries. I certainly feel also that CILIP needs to engage more with non-members and believe that, very slowly, it may be moving in this direction (e.g. the recent CILIP 2.0 conference on Twitter). It would also be useful to know how many views your blog post on this seminar has had, if you are able to provide this information in due course. Perhaps you are reaching the parts that CILIP does not reach?!

  7. No problem. So far, there have been 45 views on this post. Although this doesn’t include those who have accessed the whole blog and read this post whilst scrolling down the page. So could be slightly more.

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