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How students are engaging with libraries on the brink of Web 3.0

By John Wheatcroft


It's worth beginning with an observation about the very question of student engagement with libraries: specifically, would the issue even have been raised a generation ago?

A typical freshers' week in the 1970s included brief guided tours of the library, outlining such issues as where the periodicals could be found, which floor housed the record library and how the classification system worked. And that would have been it.

Some institutions ran to a short film outlining their services – one at Hull University, UK, was narrated by its head librarian, the poet Philip Larkin.

Today, the face of higher education in the UK has changed almost beyond recognition; so have libraries and the way that students engage with them.

Publisher's note

The author would like to thank staff at the Universities of Huddersfield, York and York St John, UK, for their help with this article.

The student as consumer

Changing expectations

One of the most important ways in which things have changed is that libraries must offer more – both in terms of facilities and support – because students have become more demanding.

So does this mean that students want to be spoon-fed? Or do they see themselves more as "consumers" who expect good value for money?

Customer service

Helen Westmancoat, deputy librarian and teacher fellow at York St John University, UK, (YSJ), believes that students want better customer service for the higher fees they now pay.

Greater liaison between academic departments and library staff is helping. At YSJ, students learn about the library and its facilities through problem solving.

Helen says:

"From a librarian's point of view, information retrieval is a transferable skill, one which we would like to see embedded in the curriculum. Some academics are more receptive to this than others."

Space planning

Many issues of how students engage with libraries are linked to design and lay-out. At YSJ the library is in a stylish, modernist and purpose-built building and has plenty of open plan areas.

"With problem-based learning, space is important. Students tend not to like serried ranks and to prefer clusters and zoned areas where they can have more space, so two or three people can work together", says Helen.

However, some staff have suggested that this can create problems for Dewey Decimal. If books are widely separated by a more open plan design, students might be more inclined to browse (hoping to find books serendipitously) rather than use the catalogues correctly.

User-friendly spaces

Redesigning the library

YSJ has embarked on some remodelling of space to make the library more user-friendly, including consideration of the need for more quiet group study spaces – more clustered and zoned areas for study result in more noise. The quiet reading rooms are not hugely popular; one suggestion is the creation of pods for students who want to work alone, like the old carrels.

Elsewhere in the city, at the University of York, UK, extensive library refurbishment has increased significantly the number of places where students can work together in an IT-rich space, with PCs on desks and wireless throughout.

Integrating services

Elizabeth Harbord, assistant director of information (services), says that the library, IT services and archives have been integrated to make them easier for students to use.

"It's not just a library, it's a learning space with electronic and print resources, part of a package for people to graduate with the right skills for their future careers. Many departments are focused on problem-based learning, including law and medicine. Learning to use information resources and work as teams on projects will improve students' employability."

Case study: University of Huddersfield

At the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, UK, space has been the prime consideration in a major refurbishment, moving away from a quite traditional format. Features include spaces predominantly designed for silent study, with some areas designated as group study or quiet discussion with large, heavy tables.

Photo: The mixed study area in the University of Huddersfield library.

The new mixed study area in the University of Huddersfield library

Pre-refurbishment problems included:

  • Discussion areas often reached by moving through silent areas, problematic in terms of transit – students would just keep talking as they passed through the silent areas.
  • Combination of space restrictions and colour use led to areas being quite dark.
  • Subject teams were housed in offices that seemed to discourage enquiries – librarians were viewed as shut away, so students would often seek help from whoever they could find.

But with refurbishment, spaces opened up, creating:

  • A lighter and more appealing centre.
  • Areas with flexible learning opportunities to cater for a broader variety of student preferences.

There are still areas specifically for silent studying, with or without computers, but there are also areas for group work with special desks for students to share computers.

Comfy chairs and sofas are scattered liberally to provide social learning opportunities; most furniture is portable so students can move it around as they see fit, to work together or individually.

Colour schemes have been modified to include brighter shades, and lighting has been improved. Subject offices on each floor have been opened up to create an information point. There is also a large number of bookable rooms.

Despite its overall, huge success a few issues have arisen, such as:

  • Students using spaces as they had done before the refurbishment, even though the purpose has changed.
  • There have been complaints from students who want to access computers to type up assignments, but are unable to because of other people logging on for personal use such as accessing e-mail and Facebook, which is available on 40 per cent of the library's computers.

How libraries affect performance

The ultimate test of positive student involvement in libraries is better examination results. That is precisely what a six-month JISC-funded study at the University of Huddersfield is looking into. It will be completed in July 2011.

The genesis of the study lies in recent in-house research by librarians to identify which people were not making the most use of facilities. This study took into account:

  • visits to the library
  • book issues
  • a count of logins to e-resources.

Graham Stone, electronic resources manager and project leader, says:

"From that you can trace it back to which courses students are on and do a count of the percentage use of resources."

It became clear that students in some subjects rarely came near the building, begging the question of whether this could be linked to the level of degree that students gain.

The university registry quickly approved the idea of further research, which led to the funding bid. The survey will also examine data provided by the universities of Teesside, Salford, Exeter, Lincoln, John Moores, De Montford and Bradford.

The students and departments which "score" high will be models of good practice and should help in the bid to get low or no-use students to engage more. They will also reveal how service improvements can be made, and provide insights into students' attainment in other years, not just their finals.

Better results would not harm the university's ability to market itself well and Graham adds:

"It could also help us in talking to schools and encouraging students to come here, if the university has a good reputation for the quality of its library service."

Social networking

Use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is beginning to make its presence felt, and is affecting the way that students engage with libraries, but it would be easy to exaggerate its current significance.

Graham Stone says that it "polarizes opinion" and the prevailing view at both York St John (where it isn't used) and the Universities of Huddersfield and York (where it is) seems to be that librarians are for it, while the institutions are more resistant.

At Huddersfield, Facebook is a way for the university to get information to students and also part of study requirements for some subjects. It's fairly low-key, with around 100 different users per month.

However, as academic librarian Andrew Walsh says:

"It's an additional source of information in an environment that students are used to."

Twitter appears to be making a bigger impact:

"The big advantage for Twitter over Facebook is that everything is fed automatically into all of the library's web pages, so even if the web pages have not been updated, then fresh information via Twitter is there. It's a good way to broadcast news", says Andrew.

Academic librarians do have concerns about social networking, several of which centre on the lack of quantitative data to support their effectiveness in reaching students.

Much discussion tends to be anecdotal, and can be interpreted in both negative and positive ways. The ability of the student to be involved simultaneously in social networking while having a book open could be seen as "multi-skilling". But it could equally be interpreted as doing two things inadequately at the same time.

Librarians might also need, together with their academic colleagues, to address the issue of study in the digital age. There is some evidence that the "Google generation" of students is not as comfortable with online research as it needs to be, as Wendy Wallace reported in The Guardian.

She cites a report by Dr Ian Rowlands and colleagues at the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER). They examined the information-seeking behaviour of the virtual scholar. This was combined with an analysis of use of British Library and JISC websites.

Results included:

  • users "power browsing" or skimming material
  • academic journals often examined briefly and only once.

"It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense," said the authors.

However, because this behaviour was not restricted to undergraduates, it also suggests a preference for more traditional forms of research. In the same way that many older people have missed out on the digital revolution, plenty of younger people shun it. Ian Rowlands calls them "digital dissidents".

The message would appear to be this: librarians cannot assume young students have learned to use the Internet properly for research just because of their youth.

Proficiency with Facebook, Wikipedia, etc., and information literacy are not the same thing.

Relationships with staff

Wallace quotes Sheila Webber of Sheffield University, who says:

"Students of all ages need to learn to make independent assessments of the quality of material by looking at authors' experience, funders, use of sources, and where published. They have to be taught these skills explicitly."

Library staff also need to promote their being "in the business of answering questions". Research by Catherine Robinson and Peter Reid (2007) points to several factors which can inhibit use of enquiry services:

  • Lack of awareness of services.
  • Embarrassment or shyness.
  • Anxiety caused by mechanical barriers.

These issues affect even apparently confident students. There might be an issue of "image" here, too with librarians seen by students as authority figures, or even as clerical workers rather than professionals.

Kilner (2010) describes the University of Northumbria's Zones4Learning, a wireless-enabled area for up to 90 people, created following comments from students, observation of the way they work and research into the facilities that both they and students need.

It is described as

"a flexible and dynamic space in the library which allows students and staff to create their own learning and teaching environments to suit their needs" (Kilner, 2010, p. 44).

Its use includes:

  • collaborative study
  • delivery of Northumbria's skills programme
  • open-day activities, such as inductions and school visits
  • conferences and exhibition space.

Annie Kilner, services manager of the university when it was created, said:

"Zones4Learning has pushed at the boundaries of multifunctional, flexible space ... it's another step in the fusion of physical and virtual space" (Kilner, 2010, p. 45).

Perhaps more profoundly than anything else, this has shaped the way that students engage with libraries. In the modern library the technology is there, and the professional expertise is there.

Librarians know the full range of students' research needs. Students need to fully appreciate this. It's just a case of bringing all sides together.


Dickson, A. and Holley, R.P. (2010), "Social networking in academic libraries: the possibilities and the concerns", New Library World, Vol. 111 Nos 11/12, pp. 468-479.

Kilner, A. (2010), "Getting into the learning zone! Northumbria University's Zone4Learning: a fusion of inspiration and practical nous", Sconul Focus, No. 48, Spring, pp. 44-45.

Mellon, C.A. (2006), "Library anxiety: a grounded theory and its development", College and Research Libraries, Vol. 47 No. 2, pp. 160-165.

Robinson, C.M. and Reid, P. (2007), "Do academic enquiry services scare students?", Reference Services Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 405-424.

Wallace, W. (n.d.), "Information alert", Education Guardian Online, available at:,,2274796,00… [accessed 27 May 2011].