Library design by demand (1999)

Having done research at libraries in three countries, R.J. Preece concludes that some serve their users better than others. Please don’t forget the drop-off bins!

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - design | 8 October 2011
This article was previously published in FRAME, 8, pp. 38-41 with the title "Library on demand".

In a world of fast food, 24-hour supermarkets, ATM bank machines and Internet shopping, some libraries are as speedy as McDonalds and others need to catch up. Ideally, when a subject brief comes to mind, all relevant and contextual material reveals itself at the click of a button— just like that. While students need to learn research-turned-life skills for gathering sources, information technology is increasingly bringing us closer to this possibility. So, how can libraries help their users to become globally competitive within an environment that creates excitement and leads to efficient accomplishment? Having done research at libraries in three countries— England, China’s Hong Kong, and the United States— I feel experienced enough to say that some serve their users better than others.

As a researcher, one of my concerns is participating in an efficient information-gathering process that ultimately results in a comprehensive product. Technology is crucial, as is a library catalogue on-line. Why should I have to go into a library, a visit limited to opening hours, and use its computers when I can do this at home— be it 1 p.m. or 1 a.m.— with my PC and a simple Internet connection? Schools like the University of Pennsylvania have put not only their library catalogue on-line, but also several databases— such as the Art Index— for their ID holders.

Within a library itself, facilities for downloading searches onto a disk and printing them out are essential. Yet, shockingly, some libraries haven’t allocated their printers for this usage— leaving users little choice but to write down titles by hand. The furniture in public computer areas should be designed with an eye to function. It shouldn’t be necessary to place research notes on another chair, on one’s lap or directly on the keyboard.

The designed interface of the on-line catalogue can become an issue as well. While most libraries with different sites facilitate a search that lists the location of holdings, the British Library’s system— undergoing transition— is fundamentally in reverse. For interdisciplinary research in the field of design, users have no choice but to go into four separate catalogues and search up to four times, making research potentially 75 per cent less efficient time-wise. When working in the UK, I have to add the amount that British Telecommunications charges for local calls: a 30-minute Internet connection can cost as much as £1.25— four times that amount is £5. Ironically, it can be much cheaper to search British library holdings outside rather than within the country.

From a research viewpoint, the choice for open or closed stacks— the latter being stacks inaccessible to the public— presents mixed advantages. Closed stacks can be a blessing: virtually everything catalogued is available upon request. Yet the system is restricted to the catalogue’s accuracy, user-friendliness, detail and delivery waiting times. According to two staff members at the British Library, certain inaccurately posted periodical holdings in their catalogue cannot be corrected, since "the catalogue can only suggest"(!) This dilemma results in frustration and wasted time for both users— who wait an hour or so in anticipation, only to be disappointed— and staff, who are then forced to explain the catalogue’s shortcomings. Nor do closed stacks accommodate a desire to meander through the aisles, browsing.

Open stacks have disadvantages as well. While it facilitates unexpected discoveries, a stroll down the stacks at UCE’s Birmingham Institute of Art and Design can be a question-raiser. Books are sometimes scrambled in chaotic disarray— as appropriate provision for reorganising stacks seems lost— wasting users’ time, as well as that of staff, who sometimes sympathetically join in the hunt. In addition, ripped-out articles and stolen periodicals— posted as available in the catalogue— are a chronic concern. Writings on Philippe Starck are particularly popular; over 30 percent of the more than 100 sources listed in the catalogue are missing and now reside, no doubt, in "private collections". This can result in the expense and delay of interlibrary loan requests, which can vary from lightning-quick efficiency— as I’ve experienced in Hong Kong— to tediously long waits and even to multiple requests never answered.

This occasional slash-and-steal approach to research affects many libraries— some more than others. Both the National Art Library (NAL) at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library (BL) have security guards who understandably searched through research notes upon my departure— book bags must be checked prior to arrival. Leaving BL’s Humanities I reading room, I encountered two security guards at a table with, on one side, a collection of confiscated highlighters, whiteout and scissors. "We’ve even found razor blades", one guard told me. His eyes were fixed on the security monitor at the other side of the table. "You see this— we can zoom onto every table. We can even see what you’re reading."

As I need to refer to articles in different ways in my research process, photocopies (taken according to copyright law restrictions, of course) are essential. Key concerns are the area’s layout, number of photocopiers, cost and the standard operating procedure. Sometimes libraries forget that photocopiers should have adjoining tables for stacking material, and queuing times can often be a complete turnoff, as can prices. While most major libraries offer self-service copying facilities, the NAL does not; users requiring copies must first complete a detailed form, in quadruplicate. Since the total procedure may take up to an hour "or longer"— and is unavailable from 12 to 2— you could be in for a long wait. Fortunately, the library will mail photocopies to users for the cost of postage. Despite these charges, entry into the NAL is free, unlike the British Architecture Library at RIBA, which requires £10 entry fee for "occasional visitors", with the exception of students, who pay half price.

And lastly, don’t forget the drop-off bins, placed both outside the building and at the library counter to accommodate the busy lives of users and to increase the efficiency of library employees. These bins seem so small and insignificant that they are sometimes forgotten. Yet I’ve witnessed hours of wasted time as users queue and library workers neglect other duties to process countless numbers of returned books.

Designed to facilitate the research process? While some libraries have more money than others do, some are also systematically more user-friendly than others. Creating an efficient, security-conscious, reasonably priced educational environment can mean a world of difference to learning and working. The knowledge that such an environment awaits you represents a striking contrast to the dread of poorly organised and costly facilities. A good library can be the key to opening up new windows and generating more thoughtful discussions.