What Do Students Need In A Campus Library? Just Ask Them.

To understand further how students are using their libraries, a Cincinnati architecture firm surveyed more than 20 of these higher education facilities.

by Tom Sens and John Bloomstrom

The college library’s exterior might be majestic and ivy covered and appear to be a solemn place where words of wisdom literally are etched in stone. But inside, it’s a different story. Rather than silently poring over books and penciling notes, today’s students might be working with a team of classmates, using the internet to research, creating a PowerPoint, or practicing a podcast.

“I have walked by some study areas where each student has three or four electronic devices, all running at the same time or charging,” said Arne Almquist, dean of the library at Northern Kentucky University. He also noted that lively group-study sessions are another trend, and libraries have become social hubs.

library design
W. Frank Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University (Photo: Northern Kentucky University)

As a result, library architects and designers face many challenges when they plan and create spaces that work well for these young patrons. To get the best results, a good starting point is to ask students what they want and get ready to rethink the role of one of the most important buildings on campus.

How To Update An Icon? Carefully.

Dramatic shifts in the ways students use libraries — driven by trends in education as well as technology — have made college library design a busy field. Often these buildings are in central, scenic locations that beg for creative architectural solutions. Their historical status may make them icons to faculty and alumni. They might even be featured on logos and letterheads.

Understandably, administrators tend to tread lightly when updating such venerable structures. Rather than designing from the ground up, campus library projects are likely to involve renovation and remodeling. This reflects the financial constraints that face most universities today as well as a desire to preserve history.

How can this be achieved? BHDP Architecture of Cincinnati decided to go directly to students for insights on what would make campus libraries more tech-savvy, welcoming, and user-friendly. The investigators were their peers, graduate students in architecture and design. Over the past year, student teams visited more than 20 libraries in Ohio and Kentucky that included a mix of larger and smaller campuses, public and private, urban and suburban.

The teams observed, photographed and sketched, at varying times on different days. Most important, they asked students questions:

  • How often do you use the library?
  • What do you come here to do most often?
  • On average, how many books do you check out/use from the library in a year?
  • Where do you work on schoolwork if not here, and why?
  • What is one thing you would change/add/remove in the library if given the chance?

Some results of this research project were surprising — even to Bruce Massis, director of libraries at Columbus State University and an authority on library trends. His campus was among those studied.

library design
A quiet, collaborative space in a campus library provides privacy. (Photo: BHDP Architecture)

For example, Massis noted that as libraries have become centers for socializing and collaborative learning, one might expect demands for features like audiovisual perks. But some students told the teams they were most desperate for sanctuary, away from noise and crowds.

“As much technology as students requested to be installed in the library, there was still a need and numerous requests for quiet study spaces where they could work on their studies in peace,” Massis said.

Key Findings From The Project

What else did the students want in their libraries? Here are some highlights.

Places to plug in. Laptops, tablets, iPods, cellphones… students are bringing all of these to the library, and all need to be plugged in and recharged. Accessible outlets are a must, for convenience and safety. A busy library is not a place where you want to add the hazardous clutter of extension cords.

A brighter outlook. Academic enlightenment isn’t the only kind students crave. Well-placed task lighting helps keep them on point, while ambient, natural light promotes a feeling of health and cheer.

Specialized spaces. Long lines of tables, long rows of chairs… that isn’t a sufficient setup for the ways libraries are used now. Students want a variety of specialized spaces for work and research. That means spaces for collaborative study assignments; small, insulated rooms; places with audiovisual equipment; and comfortable areas for group discussion or tutoring.

Improved signage. As libraries add spaces geared to various tasks, clear signage becomes even more important. Not only does it help people find their way around, but it indicates which tasks and sound levels are appropriate in different areas. Additional signage also can help students translate the call numbers of the Library of Congress classification system into more understandable categories that permit easier navigation of a library’s vast print collections.

A sip and a snack. Although once forbidden, people are eating and drinking at the library. Students need to recharge their bodies as well as their electronic devices, or grab a snack on the way to their next stop. Northern Kentucky University’s Almquist reports that a coffee and bagel shop adjacent to his library has been expanded twice and “it’s the most popular space on campus.”

Fewer books, perhaps. Pragmatic decisions about using the available space might mean a choice to jettison some of the book collection. This can be controversial for the generation that fondly remembers browsing bookshelves for the classics. But it’s a no-brainer for today’s students. In addition, making resources such as academic journals available digitally can expand access to a broader variety of materials. When there’s pushback, a diplomatic approach helps: Northern Kentucky University publishes a list of items to be removed 60 days in advance, allowing time to field possible objections.

Look For Student-driven Solutions

Thanks to tech-dependent students and collaborative trends in education, significant changes are happening in every corner of campus. The library — increasingly more of a “learning commons” — is one place where updates might be most urgently needed.

True, today’s students are less likely than their elders to be strolling through library stacks and checking out books. But it would be a mistake to let these venerable buildings become obsolete — not to mention, a squandering of both tradition and resources.

Strategic innovations in technology and library design are vital for meeting the needs of students and the expectations of their parents, often paying the bills. And as with any architectural project, it’s crucial to consult the people who’ll actually be using the space. Students have great answers about what they want and need from the library — if only we ask the right questions.

library designSens (seen here, left) is a client leader on the higher education team at BHDP Architecture. He has a BA in Environmental Design and MA in Architecture from Miami University. Bloomstrom (right) is the marketing director at BHDP Architecture. He has a BS in Administrative Science and a MBA from The Ohio State University. BHDP Architecture, established in 1937, is an international design firm that focuses on creating innovative environments and experiences tailored to the client culture and work process.