Libraries as a Place after Corona: Hybrid and Participatory?

During the corona pandemic, libraries and their diverse functions have been “on hold” as analogue spaces. Users find information, advice and seminars digitally. But an exchange of ideas, networking and cooperative learning can hardly take place. What should libraries, as places of learning and event venues, look like for our users in the future? Is hybrid the new solution? Nicole Clasen and Alena Behrens from the ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics are currently exploring these issues. The ZBW runs libraries in Kiel and Hamburg.

Interview with Nicole Clasen and Alena Behrens

The ZBW in Hamburg will be moving to a new building in a few years. For this reason, you have recently defined which spaces and room elements are needed for modern library operations in all their facets and which are not. What was important for you?

It’s important for us to create an attractive place that inspires discussions and a sense of cooperative working and learning. This includes an open and modern architecture that makes the library an enticing place to enter.

New building for the ZBW – Hamburg (exterior view) on the university campus. Photo credit: Andreas Heller Architects & Designers

There will also be areas where the furnishings can be arranged flexibly. This can be done with chairs and tables on castors, or by selecting light furniture. The users can thereby design the working areas according to their needs at that time: Smaller or larger furniture sets can be created – group tables or arranged in a circle – depending on how one wants to work at that time.

New building for the ZBW – Hamburg on the university campus. Photo credit: Andreas Heller Architects & Designers

Good technical facilities are also fundamentally important. There will, naturally, be wall-to-wall WLAN and sufficient plugs at all workstations, to allow visitors to work with their own devices. We will also be offering various large computer screens to enable and to support collaborative working.

New building for the ZBW – Hamburg on the university campus. Photo credit: Andreas Heller Architects & Designers

How did you know what was important for the users of the ZBW?

Since 2016, we have been carrying out studies annually with the User Experience (UX) methods. We introduced four best practice examples in this article. UX focuses above all on the actual behaviour of the users, and the results differ significantly from those of the classic questionnaire. Through this, we have a good idea of the working methods and desires of our users. Observation methods also examine the unconscious behaviour of users. These are things that could and should never be entered in a questionnaire in this form. In the post “User Experience for Libraries: The Best Tools and Methods for Beginners” we explain how libraries can start using User Experience. Our users are also participating in the further development of the library.

User Journey Map, a method of user experience in which the feelings of users during certain tasks are visualised. (UX Libs Conference 2018)

This is joined by the daily contact with users – whether at the service desk, the central contact point in the library, or via our digital advice services such as Chat or training sessions.

Were there elements of the classic library that were no longer needed for the new building?

One thing traditionally associated with libraries is the seemingly endless rows of shelves with books. We have not used open-access shelving for a long time for various reasons, and there will be no freely accessible shelves in the new building either. This means that we have more space for workspaces. All books are initially stored in the stack-room and are inaccessible to users. If someone orders a book, it is available within an hour. Moreover, during their research in EconBiz our users use analogue and digital inventories to the same extent.

We will also be offering fewer computers. Users prefer to use their own devices and we will supplement these with computer screens only. Remote access gives users the ability to view licensed literature.

We will also offer more group rooms instead of only group workplaces. In the rooms, users can meet up to work together. Having a closed area means that other groups are not disturbed and every group can have discussions and work in the way they want. This means that it is possible to work together using video tools from the library, without being disturbed by noise or by people walking around in the background.

There will no longer be an extra consultation space at the service desk. We will of course continue to be available there if users have any questions and problems. More complex consultations regarding research will then take place digitally.

Corona has taught us that it’s possible to do many things digitally. So do we even need libraries on site? For what? For whom? And who will be using libraries only digitally in the future?

Libraries will still continue to be important places. They are one of the few places that you can visit without having to pay any money. What’s more, using libraries on-site gives them a decisive added value as a place of learning and an event venue.

As a place of learning, libraries offer a meeting place where people can work together. It’s not always practical for people to meet at home, if there isn’t enough room in their apartment for several people to work together, or if they do not have equipment such as computer screens to make working more relaxed, for example. Students who live in flat shares or with their parents don’t always find the peace & quiet they need for concentrated individual work. The library offers space for all these different working needs.

The library will continue to play a role as an event venue, as well as to exchange know-how and network.

Library tours will take place more digitally in future. At the moment, we are offering these purely virtually via video tools. We intend to combine and extend this in the future. Even before corona we had started to develop a guided tour of the library with the help of augmented reality, which will extend the physical library through digital services. Other similar projects are feasible in the future. The participation of users is important for digital services like this. After all, they are supposed to take some knowledge away with them and learn something. Ideally, they should exchange ideas with each other.

What were your positive examples for libraries as places? Which other (library) locations have inspired you? And why?

We have been very inspired by the Scandinavian and Dutch libraries (German). Impressive new buildings have been built there in recent years that do not always correspond to the classic idea of a library as we imagine it in Germany. These countries have a conception of libraries that is more unconventional and modern. We wanted to incorporate elements of that here.

The Dokk1 in Aarhus (Denmark) was a positive example. The uncomplicated interaction really impressed us. The students sit near the event space when studying; a few metres further you can find the kids’ space where the little ones can run around. Yet no group is disturbed by the others – the acoustics are controlled very effectively. The design of the library is very playful. Posters and other presentations illustrate the projects that the library is involved in and the topics that are currently being worked on.

Utrecht University Library (Netherlands) is another inspiring library. It is an academic library and the university has an Open Science focus, meaning that it is comparable to the ZBW library in the requirements it must fulfil.

At re:publica 2021 you recently organised a session on “Libraries as a place of learning – hybrid and participatory?” (German). What were your three most interesting insights? What are the concerns of the library community at the moment?

  • Library employees are very interested in getting to know their own users.
  • They actively wish to reshape the spaces and adapt them to the users’ needs.
  • We are all aware that changes will occur and that after corona we are not going to be able to continue exactly where we left off in March 2020.

We have noticed that it’s important to discuss this topic. That’s why we will start a round-table discussion group on UX in libraries. Interested users will be able to exchange ideas and brainstorm on user research projects in order to disseminate these ideas more widely and accommodate the needs of the users better. Those who are interested in an exchange of ideas can get in touch with us via userservice@zbw.eu.

Why will media technology in libraries play an important role in the future in this context?

Media technology is a criterion that adds value to libraries. If users can find media in libraries that they cannot access at home, it makes their visit even more appealing. This could be large computer screens for working together on presentations and projects. But also the makerspaces in many public libraries. These offer many things that people don’t have at home and therefore become attractive for new target groups.

Good hardware and software are also important for library employees, to be able to implement digital services appropriately. A digital Coffee Lecture (German) should be able to take place with good sound, image and without the screen freezing due to poor internet quality. And even allegedly small details, such as image stabilising aids for cameras, help to improve video quality.

The importance of media technology in libraries can be seen in the fact that it is now included in the (practical) training curriculum. Apprentices training to be specialists for media and information services and university students are thereby prepared better for their everyday working lives.

Will hybrid become the new normality in libraries? What could that look like?

Libraries will have many hybrid elements in the future. They will be a physical space for getting together, learning together and exchanging ideas.

The literature, however, will primarily be available digitally. Similarly, services, training courses and workshops will increasingly be offered digitally.

Even before corona, we were considering designing these services more digitally. But at that time, there were still many uncertainties and doubts as to how this would function and should be implemented. Nicole Clasen talks about this in the podcast “Experiencing a digital library” (German). The past few months, during which there were few other opportunities and so we simply gave it a try, have shown that it is possible. The pandemic has brought new dynamics and possibilities to the field.

We spoke with Nicole Clasen and Alena Behrens.

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