Learning Spaces | Q&A

Remaking the College Library

A seasoned educational designer creates a tech-based, collaborative space at the University of London's library.

The Bedford Library at Royal Holloway, University of London, is a 1960s traditional building that for years had been properly maintained but hadn't kept up with the needs of the 21st century learner. In fact, the university--one of the UK's leading research institutions--had received "disappointing ratings in its library provision, in the annual, national student survey that ranks such facilities throughout the UK," said Les Watson, an educational consultant and visiting professor of learning environment development at the University of Lincoln.

"In the survey, students say what they think about a wide range of [institutional features], and those results are then published," said Watson. Students were disenchanted with the library's lack of study space, for example, and its "uncomfortable" environment (hot in the summer, cold in the winter). "The library entrance wasn't inviting, and there was no use of interior design to enhance the space," Watson added.

With past experience developing innovative library spaces like Glasgow Caledonian University's Real@Caledonian learning café and its Saltire Centre, Watson was called in to create a more student-friendly, technology-oriented environment within the aging library.

Here, Watson discussed the undertaking, details about the project, the budgetary and cultural roadblocks, and just how much students like their new library space, which is known as "tlc@bedford."

Bridget McCrea: What was the impetus behind tlc@bedford?

Les Watson: I was a semi-retired, ex-pro vice chancellor who had just completed the £23 million (United States $35.54 million at the time of this writing) Saltire Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University. In 2007 I was doing a lecture tour on places and spaces for learning for the Australian Committee on Learning and Teaching that covered venues across Australia. I received an e-mail asking if I would be interested in an interim post at Royal Holloway University of London to develop library space. I thought it would be good to see a space similar to The Saltire Centre that could be developed in a different kind of university, and whether it would also work for the students there. I accepted a role as interim director of information services (two days per week for 10 months) with the [goal of] developing the library space.

McCrea: What were you hoping to accomplish with this project?

Watson: My aim was to increase the amount of study space in the library and provide a diversity of spaces for individuals and groups. I wanted to ensure that the library was open to the use of the personal technologies that students carry with them and to also provide up-to-date technological facilities in the spaces developed. Finally, I wanted to create a range of "micro environments" that stimulated, inspired, and engaged students.

McCrea: Can you describe the space that you developed?

Watson: tlc@bedford is an innovative space for Royal Holloway on Level 2 of the Bedford Library. The space provides books, electronic resources, IT facilities, self-service issues, renewals and returns, service desk, refreshment area, and group study spaces. There are 220 seats that are organized to provide group study areas and access to 50 new PC workstations. There's also a refreshment area, an equipment loan facility, self-service book borrowing, and printing, binding, and photocopying facilities.

McCrea: What were some of the challenges you encountered in developing this project?

Watson: The challenges were mostly people-oriented. Early on we established a Facebook group called "Love your Library" to gather opinions about the current library and ask what people would like to see. I also visited many academic and support staff in their offices to get their views, and I held both staff and student meetings in order to gather ideas. It became clear that there were a wide range of opinions that couldn't all be included in the project. For example, some were absolutely against food and drink in the library, and others thought it was a good idea. Other roadblocks included budget challenges. The entrance to the library was not inviting, for instance, but I had initially never intended to repose it. However, it became clear that we had to do this in order for the space to have the impact that I wanted; it cost an unexpected £60,000 (U.S.$92,719). Finally, the heating and ventilation turned out to be a big issue for everyone who got involved in the consultation and resulted in another £120,000 (U.S.$185,424) in unexpected costs.

McCrea: What technology elements did you incorporate into tlc@bedford's design?

Watson: Thin client networks and workstations, WiFi throughout the space, additional power sockets to allow students to connect their own devices, and a projected interactive floor image in the foyer of a koi carp pond to give excitement to the entrance. (The koi move away if someone tries to step on them.) The space can be used for group work [and] meetings and has video projectors so it can be used to give presentations. We rearranged the bookshelves so that we could create study spaces between them in the form of long, computer-equipped benches, and we put whiteboards on the backs of the shelves so that students could scribble ideas and have discussions.

McCrea: How did you come up with the name, tlc@bedford?

Watson: We asked staff for ideas and one staff member suggested the name. We liked its ambiguity--and TLC stands for tender loving care (of the learning center and/or other elements).

McCrea: How was the project funded?

Watson: At the time, the university had a surplus that it wanted to use for significant improvements. The final total cost was around £1.4 million (U.S.$2.16 million).

McCrea: When did tlc@bedford open to students, and how did they react to it?

Watson: I worked there for 10 months, two days a week, starting in November 2007, and it opened just after I finished the contract. The space has been very well received, as evidenced by the video that ends with students saying they "love the library now." This may not be a representative sample, but I think these individual, emotive comments say a lot. Regular library surveys are conducted, and the new space gets a lot of positive comment.

McCrea: Are any more innovative educational spaces on your agenda?

Watson: I'm really pleased with tlc@bedford. There is nothing else in my plans at the moment, but I'm always open to offers.

McCrea: What would you say to other educational institutions that are looking to create progressive learning and socialization spaces on campus?

Watson: Stimulating 21st century technology-enabled learning environments can be achieved on a wide range of budgets (Real@Caledonian was my first, and it cost £450,000 (U.S.$695,383), The Saltire Centre was £23 million (U.S.$35.54 million), and tlc@bedford was £1.4 million [U.S.$2.16 million]). It is possible to do a lot with limited funds, and the changes that we made with each of these projects has had a very positive impact on the lives of students.

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