The graduate trainees at my workplace have a programme of visits to various other libraries within the local area. Other members of staff can usually tag along, and so I found myself at UEA in Norwich for a day with a few colleagues and our one remaining graduate trainee (the other two having decided that they don’t want to become librarians after all).
UEA is in the 1994 group, same as my workplace, so architecture is brutalist and the library building is listed, which, as we heard, makes it difficult to adapt to the needs of 21st century students. Nevertheless, I think UEA are doing a fantastic job with what they have, and there are one or two pages that I wouldn’t mind people taking out of their book.
The library at UEA is divided into various zones: Phone zones, Silent Study, Quiet Study, Group Area. Each of these has a colour assigned to it, so if you see a blue sign, you know it’s okay to use your phone; if you see red, you want to switch off and get down to silent study, etc. I think that’s a nice and effective way of demonstrating to people what they can and can’t do where. There is an area at the front of the building, before you go into the actual library through the security gates, which is designated for eating and drinking. Given the amount of times that library staff need to tell people to take their food outside, I think having a designated area for eating and drinking inside the library building helps a great deal: People can come “into the library” and have a snack yet no negative interaction with staff, and then proceed through the security gates to do actual study in the library.
And, very importantly, they have signs that tell you where the toilets are.
The library has security gates that can only be operated with the student IDs. Because these IDs have all the students’ information on it, it is possible for the libary manager to compile detailed statistics on library use and to see whether any groups are underrepresented, which would mean that their access needs are not met.
It struck me how much care UEA takes to ensure ease of access. Given that the campus is a concrete labyrinth of stairs and narrow passageways, I’m sure students with mobility difficulties appreciate the wide security gates, the lifts, low security and help desks, and low and adjustable desks within the workspace. MY workplace, by contrast, has a revolving door (so students with mobility issues have to ring a bell to be let in through a sliding door), security gates that are just wide enough, and a paternoster lift – also one proper lift, which is for use of staff and disabled students only, but students have to get an authorisation card to be able to use it. Oh, and we have one place on the circulation desk which is the right height for wheelchair users. I wasn’t really aware of how many hurdles to access there are in a libary, but it would appear that what UEA are doing is a way forward.
The library liaises heavily with student support and the various departments. And, more importantly, they listen to what people have to say. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “you said—we did” displays, but they have their uses. I think a key point is to listen to what customers have to say, to react to a suggestion and make a change if it’s doable and makes sense to you, and if you don’t react, to explain why you didn’t.
That said, I really like this display.
UEA employs “floor runners”, which by and large are “rovers”. I think roving, as a concept, can definitely help support users in large libraries. Because helping users at the point at which there is a problem and not making them go somewhere else that deals with problems is generally a good idea. Roving is only one way of doing this—the library of my uni in Berlin, for example, has helpdesks on every floor so help is never too far away.
The library is integrated into student support, which is unusual if not unique, but given the need to ensure ease of access and supporting a diverse student community, it definitely makes sense. There is an IT team that works on the site as well, so you wouldn’t necessarily think they weren’t integrated. What really struck me is the level of co-operation that seems to exist between the library and the rest of the university. I know from my own experience and from that of several friends and acquaintances working in the sector that working in academic libraries can sometimes feel very disconnected, so seeing a library that is integrated and working together with the rest of the university to achieve certain goals was nice.
I really liked the visit, and the overall impression of the UEA library was very positive. One thing that the library manager said really stuck with me, and that was her take on the tripling of tuition fees: “If, in a 9k world, a student decides to drop out, that’s one place you’re not going to fill again.” This will become an important issues for universities and university libraries in the very near future, and while I dislike the increase in tuition fees as much as the next person, I think it’s more important than ever to give students what they want and need. So, yes, things like 24-hour libaries, all-over-campus wifi access (because if you have large ebook and e-journal collections yet the wifi connection inside the library is unreliable to nonexistent then what’s the point?), easy access for all kinds of users, well-trained staff that can deliver excellent customer service… these things are not a luxury, they are absolute necessities because if students who pay £9,000 a year for their education feel they are not getting their money’s worth will take themselves and their money somewhere else.
There are always things that are negative or that could do with improving. UEA uses RFID and has a book-sorting machine for returns. They also have terminals for checkout and machines for fines payments. However, the fines payment machines don’t give change, and RFID tags can be temperamental—but then that’s the case everywhere that uses it, and there is a backup checkout system in place. The book sorting machine can sometimes get overfilled and you’ll still need staff to do the actual sorting onto trolleys and shelving, so like every technology, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. I’m not sure how I feel about ordering books shelf-ready—I always think of it as something that libraries have to do when times get tough because it’s not like you’re freeing staff up, like with RFID and fines payment machines, it’s actually replacing in-house cataloguers. Which basically redefines the whole role of the library. I’m going to have to do some thinking about that.
Also, I thought that the holds system was unnecessarily complicated. Open-access hold shelves are fine by me and data protection is important, but there are better ways of managing this kind of holds system than giving the holds hideously complicated numbers with nine digits and making the hold shelf near impossible to search through for staff. Other libraries I’ve seen that have open-access hold shelves simply wrap the books up in opaque paper and put the patron’s name on the spine.
And while we’re talking of wrapping things up in paper, I thought the DVD collection was a bit OTT. They’re all wrapped in plain paper with only the classmark visible on the spine, so the only way to find a DVD is to go through the library catalogue. The argument for it, of course, is that it’s to ensure DVDs are used for academic purposes only. But then again, the CD collection is all open in plain sight, so I don’t necessarily see the need.
Overall, I think it was great to see how things are done somewhere else, and I took away some very positive impressions.