As followers of this blog are aware, librarians from Cambridge – supported by the design consultancy Modern Human – are attempting to imagine new services and solutions for members of the University. The aim is to innovate based on opportunities and needs identified by research and through the expertise of the librarians working on the FutureLib team.

After the initial rounds of ethnographic research into various Cambridge University stakeholders, Modern Human identified various needs and gaps in library services experienced by members of the University.

Space… the final frontier

One need that was identified in the research stage has to do with work spaces around Cambridge. The way in which Cambridge students find places to work is rather ad hoc at the moment, with students expressing frustration at the difficulty they have in finding the right sorts of spaces for their needs. While the crowded desks in many libraries suggests that there is still a call for traditional reading rooms, many students are interested in working in groups and with amenities like whiteboards and screens available, not to mention somewhere to get caffeinated nearby. (“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”) Meanwhile, there are library and University spaces that remain underutilised and a range of other spaces, such as cafes, common rooms and seminar rooms, that users may not think to exploit. Could libraries facilitate productivity by connecting their users to the right spaces, whether those are within the libraries or outside of them?

The SpaceFinder concept, currently in an early prototyping stage, addresses the problem of finding the right type of space in which to work by connecting people with places based on bespoke criteria. Students who use it would be able read reviews of various spaces written by their peers and filter by the criteria that is important to them. With this app, library users will be able to try out new work spaces and new facilities and to boldly go where they’ve not been before. Every space its student, and every student their space.

Sounds interesting… tell me more!

Many library users are unaware of the rich variety of working environments available to them in Cambridge. SpaceFinder has been conceived of as a web app that would help users navigate this untapped landscape and intuitively find the perfect space to work as well as potentially acting as a booking system, allowing users to reserve seminar rooms or other bookable work spaces. It may integrate with a catalogue searching platform in future, or it may be diffuse, providing service to users of social media on their preferred platform. It may follow the University’s branding or it may blend seamlessly into users’ existing digital environments. The design stage will explore these and other issues.


An early prototype of SpaceFinder.

While users would generate reviews and potentially add non-University spaces such as cafes to the database, librarians would be at the heart of this service. It’s a chance for librarians to promote our spaces, to connect our users with their ideal work areas and to better understand how our own spaces are used. Librarians would be able to monitor the reviews of their space and therefore have ongoing feedback from users. This could be used to improve the space or it could enable librarians to point users to spaces that might be better suited their needs.

The plan is to launch a pilot version of SpaceFinder in Michaelmas Term this year. This would be a “minimum viable product”  (a version containing only the core features necessary for the product to be deployed) that would allow us to assess usage and flag up any problems that need solving. Owing to the need to keep the pilot product relatively simple, it will feature only spaces which are accessible to all members of the University. This includes Faculty and Department library spaces with no access restrictions, but will not include College Libraries for the initial pilot stage. This is because there was some debate over whether users should be logged in so that the app would know which college they belonged to, for example, to tailor search results based on access rules. This complex question will be left until after a basic product has been piloted and a decision has been made as to whether to develop it further.

What can I do to help this enterprise?

Aw, that’s sweet of you to ask! The next steps for Team SpaceFinder are collaborative design with students and librarians working out what the app could look like (currently underway), followed by the design and data gathering stages.

During the data gathering stage the SpaceFinder team will be in touch with Cambridge libraries asking for information to populate the database underpinning the app. Providing us with this information will be a huge help to the project so we’d appreciate if you could start thinking about the spaces in your library. You’ll be hearing from us by the end of June with a list of information that will form the app’s search filters and will allow users to find exactly the right space for their needs. Will it your space or a whole new undiscovered country? Who knows!

Meanwhile, keep up to date with the FutureLib Twitter account, stay tuned to the blog, and (*puts on best Patrick Stewart impression*) engage!

Kirsten Lamb
Trinity College Library