The Library: Trial and Renovation

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A trial period of round-the-clock access to the Library building is proving to be “extremely valuable” to a select but stable number of Lancaster University students, monitoring by Library staff has revealed.

The trial period, which began on 21 April and allows access for 24 hours per day from Sunday night to Thursday night inclusive, will remain underway until the close of the exam period on 14 June. Although conclusion cannot be reached in full until after this time, the continual surveys of usage and monitoring undertaken by staff manning the 24/5 access indicate that the space is being utilised by broadly the same sets of students in regular and stable patterns throughout each night.

Approaching midnight there have tended to be around 200 people using the Library. This number declines to 150 (roughly one per cent of the student population) by 1.00 am and to 90 by 2.00 am, then gradually tails off at around 30 people at 4.00 or 5.00 am before building up again to customary daytime numbers. Contrary to expectations, first-year students account for the majority of students staying late into the night, with third-years comprising the smallest percentage of undergraduates.

In discussion with SCAN, Head Librarian Clare Powne and Deputy Librarian David Summers reported that “early indications [have been] incredibly steady” and that the service is “appealing greatly to a very small group of people and that’s interesting for us; it’s clear there is a demand but it is not a massive demand”. Powne expressed her surprise that usage had not been higher during the trial, as 24-hour opening is a recurrent wish on students’ feedback and satisfaction surveys.

In weighing the costs and logistics of running what is one of the largest buildings on campus against the benefit of the extra opening hours experienced by a minority of students, Powne summated, a “difficult judgement call” would have to be made.

This lack of what Powne called “strong evidence of a real demand” is particularly pertinent given the timing of the pilot scheme. If ever there were a time when students would be pulling ‘all-nighters’ in a bid to cram in that last bit of revision or finish that 3,000-word essay before a next-day deadline, one might imagine it to be the Summer term. Summers expressed a keen wish to conduct further trials at different times of the year in order to give a point of comparison.

More encouraging is the findings on the usage to which students are putting their nocturnal library sojourns. Almost a half of all students staying overnight access the computer facilities, with a small number citing the midnight closure of PC study rooms as a key reason for their late-night Library use. Summers stated that there had been no reports of students using resources inappropriately or for leisure activities: “Anyone who was wanting to come in [the Library] and sacrifice a whole night was going to be getting on, getting their head down and doing some work,” he told SCAN.

This is valuable information for Library staff, as it will enable them to report to the University not only the extent of the demand for longer opening hours but also the types of resources most needed by students. “We can tell the University that [PC access] is a solid need. Whether that need is best met in [the Library] will be up to decisions other than ours […] It may well be that there is a better way of answering that need,” explained Summers.

An alternative may be to extend opening hours, for example until 3am, which is the point at which the numbers of students consistently drop off to their minimum level of each night. Both librarians agreed that this was a strong possibility. Summers also pointed out that Library usage evolves each year: “The use of this building and the use of the resources that we provide…continue to change all the time”. Up until this academic year students could not normally use the Library on Saturday and Sunday evenings, but weekend hours were extended until midnight following a three-year cycle of trialling this extension during the exam period.

It may well prove that these things operate through a gradual shifting of study cultures. Each year of extended weekend opening hours saw an increase in demand once students became accustomed to having greater freedom over the times they could access the Library.

“As you go through cohorts people accept what they had in their first year as the norm, and that’s how they then approach their next couple of years,” Powne observed. One initiative that may prove fruitful, as posited by Powne, is the use of social media to connect with students and to promote Library resources even when the students themselves are away from campus, such as during vacation periods.

Further to this, social media engagement looks to be a promising way whereby feedback could be gathered on architectural designs for proposed Library refurbishments. This would mitigate the difficulties currently facing the University in its plans to redevelop the Library building. Under design process guidance issued by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), a crucial aspect of design planning and refinement comes at the ‘in principle application’, or Stage C, part of the process. During this time, focus groups and consultations with both students and members of the local public would be vital in the progression of the refurbishment, but given the paucity of student numbers over the summer vacation it is unlikely that this stage could be initiated and satisfactorily completed before the beginning of the 2013-14 academic year, as had originally been hoped by LUSU VP (Academic) Richard Clark.

Though students may rest assured that redevelopment plans are in the pipeline, Powne was keen to emphasise that this process “is not going to be a quick project by any means at all. It is going to extend over three years at least”.

She added, “We’re very clear that we have to continue to provide an excellent Library service throughout all of that disruption, and that’s a challenge.”

Powne and Summers explained that, ultimately, whether or not the extended opening hours “become the norm in future years” will not be a Library decision, though they themselves would be keen to implement the 24/5 access in subsequent exam periods at the very least. “We’re very aware that once you’ve offered something it’s very hard to take it away again,” Powne said.

The Library staff will compile a report at the completion of the trial period, but ultimately it will be up to the University Management, in consultation with, among others, members of Library staff, to decide “what is appropriate and sensible for the University as a whole”.

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