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Learning Resource Centres: the British experience of the past decade

Howard Nicholson
University Librarian
University of Bath
United Kingdom

In Britain, in the 1980s, a man called James Thompson wrote a book with the title The end of libraries. His simple argument was that with electronic networked delivery there would be no need for library buildings in the future. A great debate started then and has run ever since. In the 1990s the case against buildings had shifted subtly; electronic delivery was seen as a powerful complement to buildings. We began to talk about "Libraries without walls" - the semi-mystical image in this phrase acknowledged that libraries as places would have a future.

The discussion about the future of university libraries was complicated by the commonly held belief that "Computer Aided Learning" (or "Computer Assisted Learning") would replace face-to-face teaching; CAL instead of "chalk and talk". It is important to recognise that in our naivety in the 1980s we believed that CAL would take over teaching of all students, including full-time campus-based students, rather than being a new method of delivery for distance learning students. It was widely imagined that students would spend most of their time sitting in front of a computer screens working through "courseware" packages of "programmed learning", rather than attending seminars or lectures. At the start of the 1990s this was the commonest vision of what we would now call "the e-university". 

Now, ten years later, it is clear that we mostly grossly underestimated the social function of the library and the impact that ICT would have on how students chose and prefer to work.

The early patterns of the LRS's

The main inspiration for "Learning Resource Centres" in Britain did not come from the higher education sector. It was the smaller colleges of further education that had, from the 1970s, put their audio-visual and teaching resources together with their libraries and called the integrated collections "Learning Resources", long before the arrival of networked access to PCs in the late 1980s. By the mid-1980s the first universities in the UK were introducing small clusters of PCs, IBMs or Apple Macs, for word processing. I was working at the London School of Economics at the time and remember with embarrassment the great arguments about whether word processing was "academic" and a proper use of library space; we had never asked ourselves before whether we should control what people were doing with pens and papers in our libraries. 

By 1990 the University of Bath had installed 70 networked IBM 286 microcomputers in its library; crammed into every corner possible. The library was then open from 9 o'clock in the morning until 12 o'clock at night. These PCs were immensely popular with the students and, although word processing was still the main use, the students' appetite for e-mail and the Internet was already also apparent. I should make it clear that our policy always was, and remains, that all services should be available from all public PCs, without booking. In fact, the student use of public PCs, in Bath's experience, has been fairly constant over the past decade: predominantly text or word processing, say 50%; roughly 20% each for e-mail and Internet/WWW access; and 10% for all the rest, including all the serious applications such as databases, spreadsheets and other networked software for academic use. At the start we had no Computer Services staff in the library building, yet already a third of the enquiries at the library enquiry desks were related to IT rather than printed materials. It was also plain to observe that the people queuing to come in the morning and the last to leave at night, were the ones using the computers, not the books. 

It was around this time that the University of Tilburg opened its new library and people began to envisage large integrated library and PC facilities. In Britain the earliest examples of large learning resource centres replacing libraries followed soon after, in 1992 and 1993 at Liverpool John Moores University's Aldham Robarts Learning Resources Centre (architect: Austin-Smith; Lord) and at Cranfield University (architect: Norman Foster). 

These early LRCs tended to follow the earlier makeshift pattern of interspersing the computer workstations amongst the bookstacks and quiet reading areas. The notion of "zoning" really only developed in response to the problem of noise. There is a joke in English (presumably from the American West) that you can always tell the pioneers by the arrows sticking out of their backs.

These were the kinds of LRCs that I was going to see in 1993/94 when we were planning to rebuild the University of Bath's Library, a rebuilding that took place in 1995/96. 

The great wave of LRC buildings

At the end of 1993 a national report on libraries in higher education (Joint Funding Council's Library Review Group Report), now generally known as the "Follett Report" after its chairman, Sir Brian Follett, recommended that the government should spend money on, amongst other things, supporting these new kind of library buildings. Grants were made available and building of the first "Follett libraries" began in 1996. Most, but not all, of the buildings supported by this programme were of the new LRC type, especially those built by the institutions that were converted into universities in 1990/91 from the former polytechnics. Amongst the major projects, Follett-supported LRCs were constructed at: Brighton University; De Montfort University; Derby University; Glasgow Caledonian University; Hertfordshire University; Manchester Metropolitan University; Sheffield Hallam University; Sunderland University; Teeside University; Thames Valley University; University of North London; University of Westminster. 

This great wave of building brought new thinking and greater diversity to the functionality of the LRC concept, according to the needs of the institution. For example, the University of North London included a major language learning facility in their building, with 120 workstations for interactive conversational practice. ( ) Sheffield Hallam University devoted a whole floor to offices and workshops for the development of computer packages for teaching (CAL), with its "Teaching and Learning Institute" within the Library. ( ) The Harrow Campus centre at the University of Westminster included major resources for video and TV production practice. ( )

An article in an architectural journal of 1995 (Building, 20 October) listed the growing number of functions that LRCs were developing, including: combined library and computing centre; reprographics; printing; language training; group work rooms and facilities; lecture theatres, seminar rooms and IT training rooms; drama facilities; audio-visual and media production centres; TV studios; video conferencing; coffee bars and social space. 

The cliché of this exciting time was the notion of the "one stop shop"; a centre where everything that was needed to support learning was brought together, as in a supermarket or hyper-market. The analogy with supermarkets was full of meaning: universities began to call students "customers", took customer care and marketing seriously, and turned to the retail sector for many of its ideas. Amongst those ideas were the notion of "zoning" areas for customer choice and the provision of 24 hour service. 

These ideas have been very powerful amongst library planners in general; in Britain now the notion of public libraries is being completely re-conceptualised in light of retail ideas: for example the London Borough of Hackney is currently demolishing its old-fashioned public libraries and rebuilding them in shopping centres as "Ideas Stores". Also influential have been developments in the retail world of bookselling, where increasingly the largest shops, such as the American chain Borders, have been trying to maximise the social and cultural function of bookshops, by the provision of creches and by allowing customers to inspect books in coffee lounges and restaurants, for instance.

Experiences of large integrated IT and library facilities

As experience of these larger integrated IT and library facilities grew, so the special requirements and nature of IT use became more apparent. I can illustrate this with our experience at Bath. ( ) As I have said, we pre-dated the Follett libraries and were quite early in this development. In 1995/96 we opened an 8,000 square metre building on five floors, which was basically a traditional university research library combined with a large student IT facility with 380 networked PCs in it, for approximately 6,000 FTE students. We were late enough to know not to mix PC and library areas too closely, so we had some concept of zoning, but we were too soon to anticipate the explosion of student group working and the many problems that come with exchanging a traditional library environment for one more like a large modern office. I mean of course the problems of noise, mobile phones, food and drink. We designed books and traditional library areas to the back of the building and IT areas to the front. 

Before the rebuilding we had about 4,000 students a day come through our doors. We expected that to increase to about 6,000 visits a day, with the extra space and the PC workstations. In fact it immediately shot up to 8,000 visits a day in 1996/97, and has risen steadily ever since, with current entrances running at 9 - 10,000 visits a day. 

We estimate that at least 2,000 of these daily visits are purely for quick IT use, to check e-mail or quickly search the Web. You can see great waves of students doing this, flooding in and out just before and after lectures end. This kind of "drop-in" use seems significantly different from the traditional library study visit which would involve a literature search, browsing the shelves and possibly reading and studying. 

Social functions of the learning resource centres

We estimate that a significant proportion of the extra visits are purely "social", students meeting students. This obviously relates to the growth of group work: "let's discuss it in the library". When we planned the 380 PC workstations we were clear about policy: no formal teaching at the PCs (i.e. teachers instructing students in the public areas), but informal group working was to be encouraged. We had observed how naturally students worked together in small groups at facilities like the large computer floor at Staffordshire University's Octagon building and we read that the educational researchers believed that this was good for students, especially the disadvantaged ones. Now at least one in eight of our visitors are coming in to meet other students and discuss their work and this seems to snowball beyond the informal two or three students working together at a PC into large round table discussions of six to eight students each, often getting quite excited and noisy. This atmosphere has now split over into the rest of the library and has become a real problem; the researchers complain that there is no where left where we can guarantee a silent study environment, with some justification. Like many other LRC-type facilities, we are struggling to manage this shift and to preserve some areas of our building as silent study areas. Certainly, if I was given the chance to re-plan our building, I would create a silent floor. 

The social function is very interesting; I fear that we have all underestimated its resilience and the latent demand. Something else that is often overlooked is the importance of "neutral" meeting space. Students inherently dislike going into a building for facilities when that building is associated with other subjects or departments; a large, central LRC offers space like a dining hall where students from all disciplines can meet and mix. This year our Computer Service has carried out a survey of IT equipment ownership amongst Bath's students. Some 900 students completed a questionnaire. 60% of them own their own PC, mostly desk tops. 25% of them have their own access to the Internet with that equipment. Yet they all use our LRC. Clearly the current levels of use are not simply about access to equipment. Certainly, as a result of our experience at Bath, the University is planning a completely new kind of facility; a student Cyber-café. The idea is that a relatively small area (400 square metres or so) will be built somewhere at the heart of the campus, on the main walkway area, with 50 or so stand-up PCs in an area where students can drink coffee, eat, use their mobile phones and meet informally. The PCs will be for short use only, e-mail and quick Web searches.

Long opening hours

Bath also started 24 hour opening of the whole building in 1996. This is very popular with the students and for us I guess there can be no going back. However, from our statistics, I would say that it is probably not worth doing this unless you have a large IT facility that is accessible. People can borrow books and they can photocopy chapters or articles; generally they seem to be able to organise their working lives around the average university library's opening hours. Within our 24 hour building at Bath we only offer a book lending service between 9 o'clock in the morning and 9 o'clock at night, and we have no self-issue service (it is planned). The use at night is predominantly PC use. At least four out of five night time users are using IT services. 

The use of printed and electronic resources

Typically of LRCs we found that the use of printed books and periodicals rose with the increased provision of IT facilities in the new building. Our book loans increased beyond the growth in student numbers in each of the years 1996/97, 97/98, and 98/99. These years seemed to bear out the truth of the retail principle behind the one-stop shop: mix the luxury goods with the things that everyone has to buy, like bread, and the sales of it all goes up. 
Only in this past year (1999/2000) has the level of increase fallen off. Perhaps significantly we have now also experienced large falls in the borrowing of printed materials in some science and engineering subjects, over the past several years. I think that the most likely explanation of this is that for these subjects the WWW is now the preferred source of first resort. Reports from university libraries in the United States also suggest a consistent pattern now of decline in book lending, which is generally attributed there to the growth of the Internet.

As an aside I could also comment that this past year, for the first time, our library has had access to more research periodicals as e-journals than in print. We now subscribe to 2,500 e-journals and only 2,000 print subscriptions. The culture change that will be necessary to ensure that our customers get value for money out of these will be quite challenging; the library will need to mount a massive programme of training in browsing and accessing e-journals. In the long term I would expect this vast increase in the available literature to lead to a decrease in demand for document delivery and inter-library loans; but at present there is no sign of this. 

E-University - the future needs

In conclusion I'd like to speculate a little about the next decade. The first thing that is apparent to me is that the "e-University" will come not from simply putting courses on the networks. Far more significant now seems to be the development of electronic administrative systems for universities (e.g. electronic student registry and services), and, the development of network systems for teachers and students to communicate. An interesting example of the latter in Britain is the virtual "Nathan Bodington Building" on the WWW at the University of Leeds. It is essentially a secretariat for organising students' work and for them to share work electronically with their fellow students and teachers. I can see LRCs fitting in well with this kind of e-university development, providing a physical space for the management and facilitation of the human side of the students' learning experience.

The trend towards multi-purpose buildings will continue, catering less for the lone scholar and silent study, but still fulfilling a crucial role in the preservation of the printed and written human record. Most space and emphasis in the buildings of the future will, I believe, be given over to organised and personal instruction sessions, and human interaction and the exchange of information in face-to-face meetings. 

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