The concept of the library is changing. Libraries are symbolic representations of the wider university, with legacy links to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but also as important social hubs for learners and staff alike. They are a testament to university legacy but also a vivid illustration of a future vision.
Since lockdown began in March 2020, the library at De Montfort University has been something of a refuge for students – acting as that essential ‘third space’, alongside homes or dorm rooms, and screens. It is the only building on campus that’s currently open, and as such is also taking on a new significance in symbolising the university as a whole.
But it is the increase in and diversification of digital interactions that have changed the library concept most.
Firstly, with study materials. Reading lists are no longer just texts. The demand for multimedia reading lists has grown, accelerated through lockdown, so now they include different kinds of content, like video and podcasts, to engage varying types of learning needs. However, this requires careful consideration as we’re living through a time of digital sensory overload. Learners are engaging with digital materials constantly, whether that’s Zoom calls with a tutor, finding resources for an essay online, or keeping up with friends and family. That, coupled with a sense of real-world sensory deprivation, is a very fine line to tread. Human interaction feels particularly precious for everyone right now, and this is where the library as a social space comes in.
A multitude of worlds
Libraries remain important as physical spaces on the university campus, especially when most – if not all – other buildings are closed. But their social role in the digital space has also thrown up both challenges and opportunities to revisit the concept of the university library.
The library at De Montfort has always been a very busy and popular place. We often had up to 11,000 visits a day, which is roughly as many as the V&A museum, to put it in perspective. Of course, replicating that space online is very challenging. We have had to make sure to consistently update and refine websites, and in some cases rethink entirely how we might design them.
One of the biggest questions we’re addressing at the moment, is ‘what does it mean to have a library website?’ and considering how we can go about making the digital destination as talismanic, as symbolic, as the physical library.
A library contains multiple worlds, and as such when trying to replicate or transpose its meaning and function into a digital space, it’s almost functioning as a hypertext – both a consistently rewriteable, iterative thing, and a link to another world, if you like. This provides us the opportunity to reinvent and reconsider how learners interact with the space, without having to physically recreate an actual building.
Adapting and thriving
Libraries have always been adaptable, early adopters of technology – from the early days of private collections to the advent of technologies such as microfiche, they adapt to the context in which they operate.
The incorporation of digital technologies is just another chapter in the story. Whatever the context, a library is a space for people to come together with the common object of learning. It’s a place for people to be alone together, and engage with materials that will enhance their learning journey – whether they’re physical or digital materials, or conversations with other people.
There is much more to learn about how the library might inhabit the digital space in five, ten, 50 years, but despite its obvious downsides, lockdown has afforded us the opportunity to at least start to explore it. Library staff are magnificently knowledgeable; they have adapted quickly and efficiently to deliver their expertise and library resources online. I’m excited to see what the future might hold.
To hear more about digital innovation in libraries, sign up for David’s Digifest session, where he will be discussing evolving digital behaviours and the vital role of the physical library space. Digifest 2021 is free for Jisc member organisations. Register your place by Friday 26 February 2021.