‘Tell us what you think’: engaging with students in library space planning


Library Services at Liverpool John Moores University is split across three separate sites. The two largest libraries, the Aldham Robarts and Avril Robarts libraries are based in the city centre with a third smaller library located at the remote I.M Marsh campus. The three libraries currently have subject specific focuses, based upon their physical location and the faculties that they support. Students are currently able to use whichever library they choose, although most students show a preference for using their ‘subject base’ library. Use of the physical library spaces is only part of the service offer with electronic library resources and services being offered by our virtual and electronic library services via the Library Services website and Blackboard.

Current library learning space

In addition to its digital and electronic collections, the LJMU libraries currently offer a blend of learning spaces, facilities and services, such as:

  • Social learning space
  • Group study space
  • Individual study spaces
  • Silent zones
  • Access to books and networked PCs
  • PC Booking system
  • Printers and photocopiers
  • Specialist software
  • Bookable meeting and group study rooms

The future

Liverpool John Moores University is about to enter an exciting new phase of development as it makes plans to build an iconic state of the art campus in Liverpool City Centre. The new campus will contain the new University library, which will mean consolidating the three existing libraries into a single facility supporting the demands of staff and students from all academic disciplines and faculties.

This new library development is currently being planned and in order to make sure that it meets student needs, it is important to understand how students currently use the libraries currently.

Project definition and method

In order to try to answer some of these broad questions, a small scale study entitled the ‘Student Learning Spaces Experience’ was commissioned and took place during March 2014. The project was carried out by Library Services, in which 16 LJMU students completed a reflective log of their use of learning spaces over a three week period. One of the aims of this activity was to establish how much the library, along with other learning spaces, is used as a study environment. The 16 students who responded to the study cannot be regarded as a critical mass, but they do come from a broad range of academic disciplines and levels, and therefore provide a typical cross section of LJMU students.

The participants were briefed and given guidelines as to how to go about completing their reflective logs. All logs were submitted at the end of the reflection period and all were considered suitable for analysis. The narrative of the reflective logs was entered into the concept mapping software, Leximancer which was used to identify themes and concepts, which could be discussed in more detail.

Leximancer themes

The text from the 16 reflective logs was entered into Leximancer in order to assist the qualitative analysis of the logs themselves. Leximancer identified the following five key themes to come from the text, based on what the students had written:

  • Space
  • Students
  • Library
  • Books
  • Home and work

020Theme – Space

Scholarly Environment – For several of the students, studying in a designated study environment promoted more concentrated study, stimulated ideas and promoted scholarship. All the students engaged in this project made use of one or more of the study areas offered by the library during the reflective log period. One student in a two week period visited the physical library 11 times for individual study and to use the environment. For some, the library provided an opportunity to get away from distractions/difficult situations at home.

There are many examples within the reflective logs of students regarding the library first and foremost as a scholarly space and a space in which to study and concentrate. There is evidence from the reflections that there is a demand for ‘reading room’ type space, which can potentially be technology free and that students like to have space adjacent to their subject areas in which to study. Similarly, students see the benefits of having a blend of spaces within the library, particularly when students need space to collaborate and work together on group work.

There is a space in Aldham that I’ve used a lot over my time as a student. It is a series of tables, each one accommodates four students, without computers. These tables run the length of the English Literature section of the library. It’s a perfect place for collecting several books, then taking them to a table and examining them for relevant information. I value this space very much and I believe I’m not the only student that sees the merit of having space where there are no computers.” (BA English student)

Group Study Rooms – several of the students reflected on the use of the group study rooms. As would be expected, these were used to facilitate work on group projects. Of interest, the group rooms were also used in order to create informal ‘silent study’ areas, either individually, or for a group of friends wishing to pursue individual study, in a friendly atmosphere.

I booked the same room again to use for my group to complete our group assessment which is due next week. It was a great resource once again, I just wish I had been more aware of how easy it was too book rooms. It would have been helpful for all three of my years at uni but only discovered it at the end of my degree.(BSc Mechanical Engineering student)

Silent Study Areas – A significant number of the students preferred to work in the silent study areas, believing them to be conducive to concentration and scholarship. As can be imagined, containing noise in these areas was a significant priority for these students. 12 out of 16 students made explicit reference to noise in the libraries, both positively and negatively. One of the main trends identified in the reflective logs is the demand for silent study and how important this is for students studying across all levels and disciplines.

Chose the silent zone on the top floor in order to focus best.” (BSc Pharmacy student)

I cannot stress how much it means to me that there is a place of silence, enabling students to concentrate on their work.” (BA English student)

014Social Learning Space – Some students commented on the effectiveness of the social learning spaces and compared those at Avril and Aldham, suggesting that the ground floor Social Learning Space at Aldham provided greater variation of space and more seclusion (where desired) and is regarded as preferable where students have made use of both libraries. However, comments about the use of social learning space are far fewer than the comments and reflections made about the value and expectation of collaborative space and silent space for concentration.

Theme – Students

The theme of ‘Students’ focused on student behaviours and how other students engage with library space. The library environment is an important concept within this theme and many of participants reflect their frustrations about the noise levels generated in the library and how the library can become messy and untidy very quickly due to heavy usage of students and some of their particular behaviours.

I find that the library doesn’t have enough quiet study space, upstairs is meant to be quiet but never is” (BA Food and Technology student)The art books in the basement are not in such a scholarly environment. During lunch times – 11.30 until about 1.30 the floor becomes a picnic area with the sofas and low tables being taken over by large groups of undergraduates chatting and eating their lunch.” (PhD Art and Design student)

There are certain students who don’t seem to appreciate the concept of silence. I don’t like to use a term like “policing”, but I notice over the last two years, a real concerted effort by the library staff to maintain the integrity of this zone.” (BA English student)

Theme – Library

The concepts contained within this theme include convenience of the library, staff support, the library environment and some discussion about the variety of services and facilities contained within the physical library. Access to resources, both print and electronic is also considered in this theme.

Location – A few of the reflections made reference to the fact that the students used the library as a place to go between lectures, often to use the PCs. However, for several of the students there were learning spaces available within their teaching building which precluded the necessity to visit the library. Convenience of location of the library or learning space (even when outside of the library) is a major factor in students’ time planning of their ‘day on campus’. One student highlighted that they preferred to work in the physical library as its ‘one stop shop’ environment was particularly convenient (i.e. the student can study, produce assignments and submit the piece of work all within the same physical space)

Staff Support – The support provided by the library staff, particularly on the study floors was regarded very favourably in the reflective logs. It was clear from the students’ reflections that the professional and expert support which library staff offer to those using the library is valued and is integral to the provision of an effective library services.

“In my six years at LJMU I have found the librarians to be courteous, to have patience, to be extremely knowledgeable and above all to be the human face of this institution.” (BA English)

“I find the staff very helpful and always approachable. I asked one member of staff where a specific topic of book was and they showed me, then about half hour later, they came to me where I was working with another book which may have been useful. I found this very supportive and thoughtful.” (BA Food and Technology)

Environment – Students also make many comments about environmental issues occurring in the library; temperature, heating, lighting and untidiness were all mentioned several times in the logs.

“The air conditioning in the seminar rooms makes the rooms too cold which can become uncomfortable. Individual controls in each of the rooms would be really useful” (BA Business Management)

“Arrived for group work and went directly to the booked study room. I can’t help feeling so disappointed that I always inherit someone else’s rubbish.” (BSc Food and Nutrition)

“Used the post graduate area to study in. I really like using this space – conducive to study and light and airy” (PhD Art and Design)

Theme – Books

One of the surprises of the Leximancer analysis was that the theme of ‘books’ was very prolific throughout all the students’ reflective logs. Many of the respondents made particular reference to using the library in order to use or browse the print materials, including books, journals, reference materials and newspapers. Students on Arts or Social Science programmes were more likely to reflect upon their use of print materials than those studying within the Science and Engineering faculties.

I chose this space as there were minimal distractions at home and so I had access to all the resources (books) that I needed.” (BA Business Management)

“Whilst in the library I printed off several documents I needed to read for the coming week and also had a browsed the books, locating four which I took out, as they will be helpful for two of my end of year essays.” (BA English)

Printed books – lovely to browse and for the Art Historian will always be a superior resource as the illustrations are so important. I use the ILL loan service constantly for that reason and value the service highly.” (PhD Art and Design)

028Theme – Home / work

The concepts contained in this theme were concerned with use of computers, laptops, printers and photocopiers and also covered how and why students might decide to use the physical library to access such resources rather than other learning spaces or even their own homes.

IT Equipment – Almost all of the students in the study made specific reference to using the library for its printing facilities. A couple of the logs made reference to a desire to have more quick access PCs located closer to the printers for students who solely wished to use the library for printing. The scanners and poster printers were also highlighted as reasons for specific visits to the libraries as it was more unlikely that students would have access to these facilities off campus.

I think perhaps some PC’s should be just for printing off – I know there are PCs that can be used for a short amount of time but these are still pretty busy a lot of the time.” (BSc Mechanical Engineering)

I would like to add that almost every time I am at the library I use the printers to print my lecture notes for the week. I also use the scanners about once a month to copy pages from library books instead of having to take the book out.” (BSc Pharmacy)

I took some books out, made some prints and took a few photocopies. As I like to make notes and highlight I find it useful to photocopy the odd page in a book that I think is important.” (BA English)

I went to the library to print off a few things as I had completed work in my flat but needed a physical copy.” (BSc Mechanical Engineering)

Initial conclusions

  • The reflective logs have provided a very useful insight into how a cross section of LJMU students make use of the library facilities currently available to them. The narrative contained in the logs has been analysed and discussed above and there are some very general conclusions which can be drawn at this stage:
  • Students enjoy a variety of scholarly spaces in the library, with a real focus on silent space and group study.
  • Students still perceive printed books to be an integral learning resource and enjoy being able to access their study materials within their preferred study spaces.
  • Access to PCs and laptops is valued as an essential service and resource. There are suggestions that current usage of IT facilities can often be at capacity.
  • Students are affected by the physical library environment, particularly with regard to heating, lighting and noise. There is a preference for generous ‘airy’ reading room style space to create scholarly environments.
  • Students value the ‘on floor’ support offered by library staff
  • Students who lived a significant distance from the library are less likely to make a trip solely to study in the library.  They are more likely to visit the physical libraries when on site for other reasons (such as teaching), in order to acquire the resources needed to study off campus.
  • Several students made reference to specialist study areas being available within their Faculty/Department.  These included studio spaces for the design students, specialist computer labs for scientists or media rooms for journalism.
  • Several students disliked the need to move from their particular study spaces without being able to leave their belongings securely, e.g. for a short break.

leoLeo Appleton



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