What makes a library?

Library refurbishments can sometimes seem like a simple trade-off between stacks of books and rows of seats, with the latter increasingly trumping the former. As we have prepared for our own summer works, some staff (although hardly any students) have expressed the concern that we are betraying our core mission by reducing our on-site book stock in order to create more study spaces.

Space has certainly been a big driver for this refurbishment. During the last few years, and in line with the rest of the sector, the use of our printed books and journals has declined steadily as more information is supplied digitally: our users borrow 46% fewer books than they did ten years ago. However, during the same period, library visits have gone up and a greater number of students than ever are choosing to spend time here, either to read, write or work collaboratively. This has meant that the we are often full to capacity – and at busy times of the year there are literally no free seats available. Moving some of our lesser-used volumes to a nearby location seems a reasonable solution to this problem. The first phase of the refurbishment will increase the number of study spaces in the Library by about 15%.

But there is a broader vision behind the refurbishment: the creation of a space which reflects the Library’s evolving role within Birkbeck. That role includes, but is not confined to, the provision of information resources, and encompasses many other services which add value to the institution and the student experience.

The project will create a physical environment which better supports current teaching and learning practice at our university. IT facilities for the delivery of digital education will be central to the newly-designed space. There will be an expanded group study area with bookable pods for collaborative working as well as enhanced zones for individual and silent study with booths and softer seating. We are also exploring the possibility of incorporating a separate room for research postgraduates in the future. We want a space in which different levels and styles of learning – blended learning, project work, traditional text-based research – can all take place under the same roof.

We are building two additional study support rooms for disabled and dyslexic students, and further improvements are planned for our popular Accessibility Centre. The refurbished Library will better reflect the diversity of our students.

There will be a new training room: a modern, flexible space in which Library staff will deliver workshops on subjects such as research skills, information literacy and data management. Increasingly, we provide training as part of College-wide programmes and we will invite other student support services such as Study Skills, Birkbeck Futures and the Birkbeck Graduate Research School to share this teaching facility. The refurbished Library will become a hub for skills support.

Finally, this theme of collaborative working will also be reflected in a new single helpdesk where Library and ITS staff will work alongside each other. Students will receive a more joined-up service and the Library will become a place that students and staff can visit for an even wider range of support and advice.

So, the project is about more than just books and study spaces. It will establish the Library as a key location for learning, teaching and research at Birkbeck. It will enhance the student experience and support efforts to improve retention and achievement. The refurbishment will ensure that our physical space reflects the reality of our role as a modern academic library.

Reading for pleasure in an academic library

It might seem counterintuitive to launch a collection of leisure reading in an academic library, particularly at an institution like Birkbeck, where students are often time-poor, and juggle multiple commitments alongside their studies. For them, reading for ‘fun’ might seem an unaffordable luxury. But, in fact, libraries are increasingly recognising the importance of promoting reading for its own sake, both to improve personal wellbeing and to support lifelong learning, a concept particularly close to Birkbeck’s heart.

In recent times, we had started receiving feedback from our students that they would appreciate a collection of books geared more towards leisure, with some mentioning that they enjoyed the serendipity of browsing our print collections. This gave us pause for thought, as the trend across academic libraries is very much to reduce print collections and replace them with digital resources. Indeed, our own Library is about to undergo renovations which have required us to shift our lesser-used print material into an offsite store in order to create room for additional study spaces. The students’ comments encouraged us to revisit our assumptions about what our students might actually want from the Library.

Last year, inspired by similar initiatives at London Metropolitan and Loughborough, we applied to the Birkbeck Alumni Fund for money to create a Reading for Pleasure collection. We were successful with our bid and, during the summer of 2018, recruited students from our Student-Library Partnership and Team Birkbeck to select the books. The students were paid for their work and given minimal selection criteria. These were that the Library couldn’t already have the book in its collection, and that they could only choose one book per author.

We encouraged the students to take advantage of Bloomsbury’s wealth of independent bookshops, such as Gay’s the Word, Housman’s Bookshop, Persephone and Gosh! Comics, and saw the project as an opportunity to support these outlets rather than going via the larger suppliers we normally use. This also allowed us to select books with nice covers. While we’re always told ‘don’t judge a book by its cover!’ we wanted our new collection to look attractive, using displays to evoke the joy of reading in the way that public libraries are so good at, rather than the often utilitarian method of shelving academic libraries employ.

In the meantime, we had identified the lovely wooden shelves in our Group Study Area as a suitable location for the new collection. These were sitting empty after the area had been converted from a reading room a few years ago, so we had an attractive home for our new books and didn’t have to worry about adding a large number of extra items to our main collection, just as we were trying to reduce its size.

We are extremely happy with the resulting student-chosen collection, which was officially launched on 31 January 2019 and has proved very popular already. As we had hoped, it is attractive and diverse, ranging from graphic novels to poetry, cookbooks, popular non-fiction, crime novels and literary prize-winners. After all, everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a relaxing read.

For staff involved with setting up the collection, it was a great opportunity to talk with students about the things they’re interested in beyond their studies, and to contribute to their educational experience by providing a resource that demands nothing of them but relaxation and enjoyment.

You can browse the titles and reviews on our website.

Are 24-hour libraries bad for you?

This month, Birkbeck Library will begin a period of 24-hour opening. We will remain open continuously between Monday 29 April and Sunday 16 June 2019.

We’re hardly breaking new ground here and it’s increasingly common for academic libraries to stay open all night, either during exam periods or the whole year round. Many nearby University of London libraries already do so and eight out of ten of the most highly-ranked UK universities offer such a service.

The main reason we haven’t done this until now has been cost. Keeping the Library open for an extra nine hours requires additional staffing which, over a period of several weeks, adds up to a lot of money. Fortunately, thanks to strong campaigning by Birkbeck Students’ Union, we have obtained funding for this pilot.

But there is, potentially, another cost: that of student wellbeing. There is a danger that by opening all night we risk sending a signal to students that they are expected to study around the clock.

Charlotte Williams, Head of Counselling Services, explains:

“Although many students manage and survive the stresses of the exam period, perfectionistic traits are increasingly common both within contemporary society and amongst students nationally.  Whilst the flexibility of extended opening hours might enhance some students’ wellbeing, it may tempt others to work incessantly and neglect important matters that are key to their health and the capacity to learn. The Counselling Service encourages students to remember that to study and learn effectively we need balance in our lives.  Alongside work and study, we need to take time to socialise and relax. Eating and sleeping well, and connecting with others, are crucial for good mental health.”

Increased stress levels are certainly a problem at exam time and often manifest themselves within the Library.  We will therefore be liaising closely with Charlotte and her team to promote a balanced approach to study during this period. We also intend to survey those students who do take advantage of our extended opening hours and will ask them directly about its impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

The picture is, of course, complex. Research by the University of Warwick Students’ Union has shown that many students already work late into the night at home. Providing a public space for them to study could be a healthier option. Our Library staff well know that throwing users out onto the street at a quarter to twelve can itself cause stress.

There are other advantages to overnight opening. Alex Holmes, Student Leader-elect at Birkbeck Students’ Union says:

“Moving to a 24-hour opening of the Library is widely supported by the student body here at Birkbeck, which is why we’ve been campaigning for it as a Students’ Union. The flexibility of being able to use our Library at night clearly suits a lot of our students, many of whom already study at night at home.

A high proportion of Birkbeck students have work and family commitments, and so have even more need for late opening than students at other institutions. Many of our postgraduate students previously studied at a university that had all-night opening and want that same service to be available here. A 24-hour Library is an important part of Birkbeck having a competitive offer for prospective students.”

Birkbeck’s mission remains the same as when it was founded in 1823: to provide high-quality university education in the evening for working Londoners and those who would not otherwise be able to study. As the city changes, we need to change too. While there are certainly risks associated with this pilot, on balance, we believe that it will be an initiative with positive benefits for many of our students.

Birkbeck’s image collections

Birkbeck Library has a number of image collections available for research use.

Birkbeck History is full of images of notable people and events in the college’s past.

Birkbeck was the only central London university to stay open during the Blitz. Even after the library was bombed, teaching and study carried on.

The college was one of the first to allow women to study.

The Album of Mrs Birkbeck is made up of poems, prose and images collected by Anna Birkbeck, George Birkbeck’s wife.

There are contributions from well-known society figures over a period of about 20 years from 1825. Entries from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Robert Owen show that George and Anna Birkbeck were mixing with important people in the fields of the arts and social reform. Compiling these albums was a popular activity at the time, but it is rare that one survives intact and with well documented provenance.

There are two collections, Garden History Online and London Architecture online that are made up of digitised slides from what was the university’s slide library. The slide library is now closed. These collections are extensive and varied. They contain beautiful, historical photographs, paintings, maps, plans and architectural drawings.

The collections grow and develop all the time. We are currently working on a new one that compliments London Architecture Online. It contains images of architectural, monumental, sculptural and ornamental uses of Coade Stone in the UK, bequeathed to Birkbeck College by Averill Alison Kelly.

Coade Stone is an artificial stone (in reality it is a ceramic material) developed by businesswoman, Eleanor Coade in the late 1700s. Coade worked with skilled craftsmen and artists and marketed her product to highly regarded architects of her day. It can be found across the UK and internationally. In London, noted examples can be seen at Buckingham Palace, Sir John Soane’s Museum (Lincoln’s Inn Fields), Old Royal Naval Palace (Greenwich) and Schomberg House (Pall Mall)

You can explore all our collections and find images, by subject, from other collections worldwide here.

Using coding to improve our digitisation service

Although people tend to think of the Library as a collection of physical books, a key part of our offer to students is the provision of digitised readings through Moodle. We work with module leaders to ensure that book chapters and journal articles are available online for students to read in advance of their lectures and seminars. Last year we received and processed 2,503 new requests for digitised readings and e-journal links, and a further 2,849 digitised readings which had been scanned in previous years were re-checked for compliance.

It is very important that the digitisation of material is carried out by the Library as detailed records of each scan must be kept and reported annually to the Copyright Licensing Agency. There are strict copyright rules pertaining to the sharing of published material online and we check compliance with our scanning licence before readings are produced. This includes ensuring that no more than one chapter of a book, or one article from a journal issue, is scanned per module.*

We also work to ensure that all readings are provided in an accessible format. All materials digitised by the Library for Moodle are formatted as readable PDFs. Text can be copied and pasted, read aloud with text-to-speech software, or annotated.

It is a huge operation with deadlines in place to enable us to meet the demand for the service at peak times and to ensure the material is made available to students when they need it. We are therefore continuously reviewing and refining our workflows. The ongoing work of a member of our E-Services team, Robert Williams, has driven these improvements over a number of years.

Robert has applied his coding skills and understanding of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to different stages of the digitisation process. In simple terms, APIs enable software systems to talk to each other. In this case, he has written programmes which have allowed us to automate the key tasks of checking ISBNs against the Copyright Licensing Agency’s database of works covered by their license, and to find out whether we hold the latest editions. Together, these programmes have increased the speed by which we are able to process requests, reduced the chance of error and freed up staff to carry out other tasks.

This is a great example of the way individual staff initiative can have a positive benefit on our services. At Birkbeck we have fewer staff than many academic libraries, and it is therefore vital that we support their development and foster a culture whereby they are able to apply any newly-learned skills. Using APIs is just one way that we have reduced the administrative burden of managing the digitised readings service.

If you’re interested, Robert has published a more in-depth account of his work in SCONUL Focus.

Further information about our digitisation service is also available.

*or 10% – whichever is the greater.