PROTOLIB: a Cambridge University project exploring user experience of library spaces through a process of prototyping and ethnographic research. Protolib’s findings will directly inform our choices and priorities when building new library environments or modifying existing spaces to better fulfil the needs of 21st Century students and researchers.

We all know that use of academic library spaces has changed and is still changing all around us. The wider availability of electronic materials has led to increased remote use of our services and an understanding that libraries have embraced digital. Elsewhere the perception that we are only about books and silent disciplined study persists and sets the tone for our interactions with students and researchers, as does the idea that information is free and that librarians are simply relics of a bygone era when it was all under lock and key. However widespread and inaccurate these beliefs may be the reality is that footfall and printed book loans are now falling in many libraries and have been for some time. However, in other libraries, footfall is steady or increasing as we see users choosing to visit the library for reasons other than printed collections, to: seek staff advice and assistance; work alongside their friends; access computers; or work in a particular type of study space. What are the reason why some of today’s students, researchers and academics choose to visit libraries while others do not? Protolib hopes to find some answers to these questions.

Beyond discovering these reasons and what our users actually do in our libraries, we also really do not know enough about how they feel about our library spaces, and crucially whether these environments and the library staff who work in them are as effective as they could be in helping them with their study and research goals. Our WhoHas? project revealed a reluctance in students to approach library staff for assistance, but not necessarily because librarians had failed to communicate the value they can add. Many students appear to appreciate and understand this proposition but social conventions, anxiety and other issues prevent them from seizing this opportunity.

The overall picture of library experience is incredibly complex and ambiguous and it is hugely difficult to divine trends and patterns of use, especially within the multi-faceted and endlessly complicated world of Cambridge University. And yet senior librarians are being tasked to do exactly that. With new library spaces on the horizon in both West Cambridge and on the New Museums site, we will shortly need to have a very clear idea of what these libraries should look like and what their users will require in them. While we collect plenty of quantitative data – footfall, circulation, websites, databases – we don’t currently have enough supplementary qualitative data to robustly inform decision making. It is a gap that Protolib will seek to fill.

Protolib will initially involve conducting research with students, researchers, academics and librarians into needs, preferences and behaviours through a series of collaborative design workshops. The data we collect from these workshops will feed into a term-long process of prototyping new library spaces (hence ‘Protolib’) both within libraries and in at least one non-library building. These temporary prototype spaces will be closely monitored and modified at intervals and user behaviour and reactions recorded. Several librarians have also volunteered that analysis of the use of recently refurbished spaces in their libraries may be folded into our research. Parallel to all of this prototyping and observation, many members of the project team will be engaged in ethnographic studies into use of library space at their home libraries. A few example projects include: asking users to photograph their study spaces and post them on social media; discovering what users bring with them to the library; and encouraging users to write love (or break-up) letters to libraries. We also plan to facilitate a large workshop in December which will explore library space through the popular and revealing medium of LEGO Serious Play.

While we will be asking many detailed questions about use (or not) of library spaces, we have also devised a set of high-level questions that the overall project will seek to answer:

  • What do library spaces need to provide to support changing research and learning practices?
  • What is a library without books?
  • Where do libraries and library staff add the most value?
  • What high-value services already exist and what spaces do they require?
  • What expertise is needed in new types of library space?
  • How can we promote high-value library services intuitively?

Around 20 library staff in different subject disciplines and roles versed in User Experience (UX) research methods, or keen to learn them, will be conducting much of this research, while consultancy Modern Human will be running the design workshops and the prototyping process. By mid-March we expect to have collated a huge amount of detailed information on current user behaviour which will be analysed and presented in a findings report in April. This report should offer us a set of guiding principles and preferences which will inform the planning of both new and modified library spaces within the University.

Protolib was formally launched this week. As with all Futurelib projects we intend to detail our approach and interim findings throughout so check back here regularly for updates. Discussion and decisions made in the first meeting in which we discussed the users we would target and the various ethnographic projects in preparation will be detailed in a follow-up post soon. Although we do not underestimate the complexity of the issues we face with this project we are hopeful that Protolib will offer us a clearer picture of the user experience of Cambridge’s library spaces.

Andy Priestner
Futurelib Programme

[Image credit: University Life 145 by Francisco Osorio]