One of the interesting things I was looking forward to whilst being a trainee was getting to visit different kinds of libraries. On a sunny day in December (no really), four library staff from the Colchester campus headed to Southend to visit our colleagues at The Forum.
The Forum is a partnership project, bringing together Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, the University of Essex and South Essex College. There are approximately 1000-1400 students from the university, within the departments of School of Health and Social Care, East 15 Acting School, the Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, and Essex Business School. Having worked in both in public and university libraries I was interested to find out how an academic and a public library could work together. Would students revising for end-of-term exams be faced with the lively sound of toddlers singing ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ during a weekly Rhymetime? Or would academic library staff be approached by members of the public wanting to know how to renew their bus passes online?
Luckily it has been set up with much forethought and imagination, and the physical integration of the library seems to work really well. All parties benefit from the partnership, and I was amazed to see books on gardening and international economics side by side. Well, not literally of course!
We were welcomed by Greg and Iona, who gave us a tour of the library. Nothing beats visting a place and talking directly to staff, to understand how it works. The building itself is spacious and airy and, like all good libraries, a welcoming environment. On the ground floor, a children’s library sits beside the library shop and a café. The next floor is where the print stock is held, and all of the University of Essex books were clearly marked as only for loan by Essex students. A simple thing, but just one of many adjustments to make the whole partnership work.
On the second floor, there were mainly study spaces for students, as well as being where the library staff are based. One of the things that immediately struck me is that the library staff and IT services are in the same office – the Helpdesk is right outside, so there is lots of opportunity for each team to help each other out. Another advantage is that being a fairly small campus means staff can communicate well with one another across departments, such as the library working with academic staff.
Employability is also just across the way, so students have everything they need readily available. Although at the Albert Sloman Library we can point students towards the Silberrad Student Centre next door to see IT services or another student service, we don’t necessarily know if the query has been resolved – and it can be a challenge to communicate with the different teams available.
Another thing I found impressive was that, being a relatively new building (only 4 years old), the learning spaces are modern and equipped with up to date technology such as interactive whiteboards. Clearly a lot of thought has been put in to creating rooms that are usable for different purposes, for example one room was partitioned, giving the option of having a larger learning area for conferences or events. In fact the variety of different spaces seems to reflect the changing nature of how libraries are used, and there being more of a focus on learning and teaching as part of a librarian’s career. According to Greg and Iona, when students talk about the ‘library’ they are mainly referring to the upstairs study spaces, not actually the area where the book stock is kept.
Both staff clearly appreciate the benefit of different areas to hold training such as information literacy sessions and library inductions. The spaces are of course used by other university staff too. However, with the study spaces being on just one floor it can be more of a challenge to provide different zones – for example a silent working area and areas for group work.
At Albert Sloman we have built in zones, with 6 floors being used for different study spaces – however this doesn’t always mean that sound doesn’t carry from one floor to another! I think in both cases staff have to work at creating an environment of mutual respect among students.
After our tour we had a chance to talk to both staff about the challenges and joys of working at The Forum, which was thought provoking but also good fun (if you’re someone who’s interested in different types of Library Management Systems – which sadly I am!). It was also good to visit our colleagues, put faces to names and learn about how some of the work we do here affects them – something to bear in mind in future.
I might also add that the biscuits were especially good, so many thanks to our hosts for the day.