Solitary, Silent, and Sombre: New ‘Old’ Libraries or Library Spaces for the 21st Century?

We asked Les Watson an expert consultant to the JISC on Technology Enhanced Learning Environments to write about the library space of the future. He explains that responding to greater student diversity demands is one of the drivers behind new space developments in many of our HE Libraries however we must be careful to avoid building new “old Libraries”. Further that we need to re-establish the Library as the intellectual focus of the University community.

As an undergraduate I rarely visited the University library, only going there if I had to, usually at the end of term to get those late essays finished. I don’t think I was alone in this relationship with the Library and on the visits that I did make, the Library as a place to work was at least as important as an information source. This was, the 1960’s, in a previous era of expansion in the university sector. Suddenly the undergraduate population had greater diversity than ever before. The University, and its Library were not significantly changed from what had existed before expansion existing in the same format despite the changes taking place around them – as many are doing currently. In those days scholarly work was deemed to be solitary, silent, and sombre, a paradigm that still has a place today for all learners some of the time. But widening participation inevitably brings greater diversity – and suddenly one size provision is less than a perfect fit. Responding to greater student diversity is one of the drivers behind new space developments in many of our HE libraries. Responding to teaching methods that focus on group work and problem based learning that demands student interaction, and is not solitary, sombre scholarship, is another. The common view of learning today recognises that “Human beings are social creatures – not occasionally or by accident but always. Sociability is one of our core capabilities, and it shows up in almost every aspect of our lives…” (Shirky ). In the learning domain this sociality takes the form of conversation – “…when people are in one another’s company, even virtually, they like to talk.” says Shirky.  Sociality and conversational group learning do not play well with the silent library. The majority of our libraries have responded to this but many have done this in a bolt-on way and there is more that we can do. The future Library Space