A very brief bit about me:

I’m David Marshall, usually found working in Reader Services at the UL. I joined the Protolib project full time recently after being part of the initial project group, and have spent the last two weeks helping to prepare for the next stage of its implementation.

Where we are with the project:

The working routines of both researchers and students involve a wide range of different activities and preferences.  The Protolib project is exploring how we as libraries can best support these, in terms of the provision of physical library spaces.

So far in terms of the project a huge amount of work has gone into finding out what people want and need from library spaces.  Online surveys, co-design workshops and the ‘Lego: Serious Play’ sessions have resulted in us arriving at four different types of working environment based on the suggestions of our users; places for Reading, Writing, Group Work and a fourth (slightly less quantifiable) ‘Recreational’ or ‘Inspirational’ space.  The designs for our initial test ‘prototype’ spaces for each of these are based on information gathered from students and researchers in the first stage of the project. This information ranges from preferred furniture and materials needed for each task, to ideal lighting and background noise levels.

So what do we do next?

Q: How do we capture the information necessary to provide ideal working environments that meet the needs of our users?

A: We try out the suggestions mentioned above, also known as ‘the fun part’!  Over the coming months the project will be trialing different distinct library spaces, and recording information in every way possible to see whether these fulfill the needs of our users. We will find out how the spaces are used, and how people feel about and respond to them. This will all be done with the aim of providing the most suitable working environments possible.

In all of the prototype spaces we will be constantly trying new things, in order to arrive at the most functional and desirable environment for each activity.  This has now started in the main UL building, where we are creating (and will be constantly editing) the prototype Reading and Writing environments.  The test spaces will soon be in place in libraries across the University, and particularly excitingly in an as yet relatively unexplored area of the Law Faculty building!

The furniture for these new prototype spaces has now arrived so we are almost ready to start arranging them and recording activity in them.


The work so far…

… has been varied, challenging, fun and hugely eye opening.  Set up tasks have included making decisions as to equipment needed and layout of rooms, designing feedback boards, cards and forms, and getting massively excited about somebody’s choice of chair!  The last one may need a bit more explanation…

Capturing the data:

A large part of the data capture for the project will involve, and has already involved observing and recording the behaviour of people using the spaces under evaluation.  Personally I am very pleased that my changing from standing at the Reader Services Desk in the UL trying to encourage everyone who comes in to talk to me, to hiding in the corner of our reading rooms trying to be inconspicuous as I record activity, has not led to even the batting of eyelids from most of our regular readers!  The epitome of this was sitting opposite someone who I’ve seen almost daily in the UL for the last 3 years, making eye contact and smiling over a 3ft wide table, while writing down everything he was doing on a piece of paper!  I have since moved to using a laptop…

Why do all of this?

The important aspect of this observation is that we will find out exactly what people do in the spaces we provide, rather than what they think (or would like to think!) that they do. This information, combined with direct feedback from the users themselves, should provide an enviable overall picture of user needs that is often very difficult to establish.  I look forward to keeping you all updated over the coming months on what we learn, and how we have learnt it.

Practical outcomes:

The findings of the project will provide us with information that we can use when designing and creating library spaces across the University in the future.  If someone wants to create the perfect reading environment in their library, we will have hard evidence as to what their users are likely to require.  Throughout this term we need volunteers to help us carry out observations  in our prototype spaces, for which full instruction will be provided. Please email me if you think you can contribute some time to this very worthwhile project.



While I have been in the process of writing this post the first prototype (Reading) space has magically appeared in the UL South Reading Room!  The “magic” actually involved a huge amount of work from the project team today, with a lot of thanks due to the UL Building Services staff as well.

We plan on making sure that all the other prototype environments are equally distinctive and fit for purpose, and judging by today’s outcome we should be able to provide some fantastic trial settings for the diverse range of working activity happening in Cambridge.  Exciting times!

David Marshall
Protolib Project Team


Header image credit: Measuring Tape (Sean MacEntee), cropped.

Photos: Andy Priestner and Jenny Willatt