Reimagining the Library


By Jon Roylance

Jon Roylance explores new ways of thinking about university libraries

Libraries can be so much more. At universities across the country, libraries are now a place where people meet, learn, exchange information, and be together. They are a place where the life of the campus unfolds. By understanding current and future student and visitor needs, and listening to a diversity of voices on a campus and beyond, ADP has been able to reimagine what a contemporary library space can be.

A place to connect

Rather than the ‘collection’, a 21st century university library focuses on connections, offering students a place to be together, to share, and to learn collaboratively. The most successful university libraries are ‘place making’ and encourage external connectivity to the wider campus, to promote a greater freedom to change form and function within.

In essence, libraries now offer a more agile, evolving, and balanced range of spaces for meeting, learning and creating. Students have a home, they have work, and libraries can offer something in the middle – a neutral space where they can study, hang out with friends, and feel part of a larger community. University libraries are moving beyond the traditional, and are becoming a dynamic hub of zonal meeting and co-working spaces open to everyone.

The Laidlaw library at the University of Leeds makes an elegant contribution to the public realm, and provides a range of study spaces for quiet study, social learning and collaboration.

The Laidlaw library at the University of Leeds makes an elegant contribution to the public realm, and provides a range of study spaces for quiet study, social learning and collaboration.

Making more spaces for people

There is a continued trend in current design towards freeing space by removing books. While this may seem counterintuitive for a library, offsite robotic delivery systems can process millions of books in a climate controlled archive, which can be quickly ordered and delivered on demand. In addition to this, there is a constant drive within the library to create a robust, core collection of literature on the shelves, often by weeding out books deemed surplus to requirements. This is also supplemented by providing access to online and electronic materials. The result is space to create an open, welcoming ground floor and a public ‘urban rooms’ to meet and connect. Shelf space can also be used to highlight ‘live’ creative and intellectual work, celebrating the university’s achievements.

The open and welcoming Learning Commons at Heriot Watt University

The open and welcoming Learning Commons at Heriot Watt University.

Learning through activity

Libraries now deliver a range of study spaces that encourage active, blended, and flipped learning. These spaces can encourage vocational and ‘360 degree’ activity based learning, such as digital skills and hands-on creative and practical ‘making’ workshops. With increasing numbers of students, and consequently noisier activities, there will always remain a strong demand from students for more traditional reading and study rooms.

Relaxation space in the James Watt Building, Heriot Watt University

Relaxation space in the James Watt Building, Heriot Watt University.

Visibility and connectivity through a seamless connection of spaces

By reconfiguring the university library to be as open as possible,  students and visitors are able to navigate much more freely through the spaces. The goal is for them to feel at home, to create a sense of belonging, and create the impression that ‘this place was built for me.’ Developing a welcoming entrance is essential to this approach, as it becomes the start of a seamless user path for students to orientate themselves when they enter.

There is now a trend towards a more retail approach to the configuration of space. By placing the ‘hold’ book stock at the back of the building, it is possible to create the desired user experience as they pass through to access the texts. Treating the building as a department store is one approach to providing a smooth customer experience as you pass through each zone.

Augustine House, Canterbury Christ Church University

Augustine House, Canterbury Christ Church University

Accessibility, inclusiveness, and flexibility

Recognising a wider demographic of students and visitors (age, nationality, culture) and their interests from reading, to active-based learning, to business meetings, to social activities, the library should offer a wider choice of settings and zones through arrangements that enable students and visitors to easily navigate their way around the space and engage and communicate with each other. The layout should facilitate greater collaboration, improving accessibility, lift and stair access, wayfinding and signage, introducing atria and voids with general circulation allows students of visitors to see across all floors encouraging more open plan layouts that facilitate flexible programming of multigenerational events and varied activities, creating collaborative spaces and spill-over.

Augustine House, Canterbury Christ Church University

Shared academic and library facilities at The Forum, Southend on Sea

Introducing user-flexibility through demountable walls and easily re-arranged furniture supports spaces that can be re-configured over time. Shrinking ‘back of house’ areas encourages staff to participate with students and visitors on each floor and provides multiple contact points for information and support and a sense of security. Introducing mobile furniture so that students and visitors can create their own spaces is increasingly important, as it introducing low bookshelves for greater openness and visibility.

ADP is committed to building award-winning learning spaces designed to provide students with the best possible experience. Recent projects include the RIBA Award winning Laidlaw Library at the University of Leeds, and The Forum: a multi-use regeneration project including learning spaces and a public library for Southend Borough Council, which has been shortlisted for awards by RICS, the Civic Trust Award, and the AMX Innovation Awards, among others.

By incorporating new ways of thinking into our designs, ADP has been able to reimagine what a library can be for communities the who use them.


Jon Roylance

Jon Roylance

Jon joined our practice in 1996, opening our Manchester studio in 2007 with
director Joe Morgan. Jon
leads our higher education
sector team.