Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: University Libraries and Space in the Digital World

Hugh Murphy reviews a collection of essays which charts the development and impact of the physical library space and its use in our digital world.

Despite the economic adversity faced by many academic bodies and their libraries, there are still some institutions lucky enough to be in a position to refurbish, extend or commission a new building. University Libraries and Space in the Digital World is undoubtedly for the many people involved in such projects, but is quite clearly designed for a wider readership too. This is a good thing, as it would be hard to think of a library user or staff member who is not affected by the issue of library space.

This is a book which offers a broad array of views on what some might consider a comparatively narrow topic. However by soliciting such a variety of contributors and focussing on specific and distinct areas, it offers readers the option of selectivity - allowing them to look at a specific area (the chapter on staff accommodation was a particular personal favourite) or read it cover to cover, offering the broadest possible view and the option to consider the issue of library space in its entirety. In terms of structure, it is well conceived, with logical links from topic to topic. The editors have assembled a sizeable number of commentators, who come from both academia and professional librarianship, and all display considerable knowledge and expertise, both theoretical and practical - the latter being particularly important for a work such as this.

With 14 chapters and a considerable variety in subject, tone and style, the succinct preface proves useful, both in offering a snapshot, but also in stressing the importance of the first and last chapters.  This is sound advice, as, while every chapter is of merit, some may resonate with the reader more than others. But chapters 1 and 14 offer both a view of the issue of library space now, but also, critically, in the future.

While there is a refreshing acknowledgement in this work that issues of library space are multifaceted and deal not simply with the physical, it should be noted that its main focus is the question of physical space in the modern digital era. This question is addressed through the historical and general in the first three chapters, then from the perspective of technology and print.  Following this are a series of chapters looking at redevelopment of spaces, new builds, the sharing of space and the use of space to facilitate research and learning.  The inclusion of chapters on staff space, as well as one on ‘green’ issues and sustainability, ensures that this book is exceptionally comprehensive.

Understandably John Feather's chapter on the history of library spaces occurs early in the book and serves to offer a fascinating trip down memory lane, tracing the physical evolution of the library. While in some ways of less immediate relevance than later chapters, it does draw attention to one very salient point: issues of physical space are not new for libraries. 

Olaf Eigenbroadt's piece on current approaches to university library space builds on the previous chapter and offers a useful overview of the idea and paradoxes of our ‘knowledge society’ and the concomitant need of the library to respond to this.  It offers example and critique and prompts consideration of the all-important 'why' of library space which should inevitably accompany the architectural 'how'.

Robert P Holley focuses on issues of technology and, as with Chapter 2, offers some neat vignettes of bygone eras.  This chapter works well in synthesising a lot of issues of which librarians are undoubtedly aware, but depending on their professional background, to which they may not have given that much consideration recently. Interestingly, some ideas articulated in this chapter, do not chime with our local experience in NUI Maynooth, which is a useful reminder that every library's approach to space will inevitably be informed by its local situation.  Needless to say, this is a critical point and it is welcome to see so many diverse commentators make it throughout the book. 

The chapter focussing on technology is complemented nicely by Louise Jones’ chapter on library space and print, which looks at this critical issue mainly through the prism of the David Wilson Library, University of Leicester, UK.  The decisions taken and lessons learned as detailed here resonated strongly with me and are of inestimable value for anyone who is beginning the reorganisation of physical space or critically evaluating their print stock.

There are a number of chapters which serve as case studies, looking at issues of space in both new-build (Aberdeen) and redeveloped space (Edinburgh). Both are useful, rooted as they are in actual experience. As with almost every chapter, this ‘real-world’ experience is both informative and illustrative, dealing with both the large-scale issues, such as communications, consultation, liaison with architects, but also more ‘nuts and bolts’ issues such as where best to locate shelving and why.

Given the rising numbers of academic institutions electing to offer converged services, Leo Appleton’s chapter on sharing space proves very interesting, perhaps even more so if one has not experienced the good and the bad of shared services. It manages to offer a rationale for such moves, considering the merits, while also engaging in a very measured critique of the impact this tendency has on university libraries.  It also links deftly to the chapters on learning by Peter Jamieson and research space by Hill and Ramaswamy.  Jamieson’s chapter  looks at the rise of informal and student-centred  learning and considers them in the context of the author’s home institution, the  University of Melbourne, where the library design bucked the current trend of flexible space, readily amenable to a variety of uses.  Hill and Ramaswamy look at the capacity of the library to meet the demands of the modern postgraduate and researcher, choosing a number of examples from Canada, the USA, New Zealand and the UK to highlight how institutions have endeavoured to meet the needs of a multifaceted researcher community.

Arguably, it would be easy to consider Jon Purcell’s chapter on staff accommodation as less important and certainly staff accommodation in many libraries (both new and old)  might suggest that for many involved in the design of libraries, staff accommodation does not exactly rank highly on their agenda.   Thankfully, the author offers a strong counter- argument to this notion, and while focussing mainly on open-plan staff areas, illustrates the issues which can arise and why they are important.

Rounding out the book, the final three chapters give regard to evaluating space, consideration of sustainability in ‘green’ issues and finally a chapter looking at what the future holds for library space.  The chapter on evaluating space works well, offering both theory and practice, via a case study of Tampere University Library in Finland.  This is probably the most ‘practical’ chapter in the book as it provides solid and adaptable methods of evaluation.  Graham Matthews’ chapter on ‘green’ issues offers a series of examples, but it would have been preferable to see a fuller consideration of the issues to complement this.  That said, this is an area that is in its comparative infancy as far as libraries are concerned, and there is a paucity of information out there. The final chapter outlines the results of a project which attempts to suggest how the future library space will evolve, some of which chime with current thinking, but some which suggest that the community needs to continue to work assiduously to ensure that the physical library will remain at the heart of the campus. It would be interesting to consider these results further in conjunction with other forward-facing projects, which are mentioned, such as the ‘Libraries of the Future’ Project [1].


This is a timely and very useful work.  Through its breadth it manages to consider comprehensively the full spectrum of issues which we as librarians face when dealing with our beloved and occasionally beleaguered physical space.  It should prove of value to those who are involved in any aspect of the library’s space – from the person considering a new configuration for a print collection or teaching room, through to those who are embarking on a major new building programme. When one considers how the pace of change seems to be ever increasing, it seems logical to assume that its impact will continue to be felt in all aspects of our work. In terms of the physical library, this book can act as a valuable aid. 


  1. Libraries of the Future Web site http://www.futurelibraries.info/content/

Author Details

Hugh Murphy
Senior Librarian
National University of Ireland

Email: hugh.murphy@nuim.ie
Web site: http://library.nuim.ie

Hugh was appointed Senior Librarian, Collection Management Services in October 2010, having worked previously in University College Dublin Library and in the National Library of Ireland.   Since 2005 he has acted as an occasional lecturer in the School of Information and Library Studies in UCD, teaching resource description, organisation of information, and in the past, social networks and Web 2.0. He has been one of the key staff members involved in the delivery of a new €20 million extension to the library in NUI Maynooth.