The National Student Survey and the teaching excellence framework are placing growing emphasis on the learning environment and student experience. But discussions have moved on from thinking about physical spaces. Instead, libraries are putting digital innovation at the top of their lists.
Any revamped digital approach to libraries needs to begin by considering how student expectations vary. While hard copies of core texts will likely have a place on the library shelves for years to come, the way students consume and digest information is changing.
Many learners are grouped into the disputed âdigital nativesâ category. They may appear to be at ease in the digital world, but libraries need to respond with services that complement these skills as well as helping them develop the new ones needed in an ever-changing educational environment.
There is a lot of innovation going on in libraries, but itâs often only possible if funding is put into the right budget streams. Libraries are no longer archaic rooms of dusty books, but part of a global network thatâs championing open access. One excellent example is the Independent Voices collection from Reveal Digital, which gives students and researchers a crowdfunded platform to explore previously un-digitised texts.
There is also much debate in the library community about how to integrate into the digital campus of the future, and an appetite to do so. Widening participation for those who canât always study in office hours is a key consideration, as is allowing students to access texts in all formats.
At the University of Cambridge, many libraries offer 24/7 access and self-service loan facilities. Users can access information at times that best suit their needs. These kinds of options are backed up with live chat support and other remote services for those on campus or studying at a distance.
The university library experience doesnât yet include having robots on hand. But with teaching aids like Pepper around, it could become a possibility.
Seamless digital access to content is also an essential part of the digital library. But libraries have to prioritise and are sometimes constricted by the systems within which they operate. Easy access can be further complicated by the often baffling array of user experiences within online educational platforms.
Luckily, thereâs a host of digital resources emerging that mean students can access those all-important core texts whenever they need them. Last week Jisc launched their partnership with Bibliotech, a startup led by students that aims to meet demand on key course textbooks through a monthly subscription to a digital catalogue. Libraries can also provide this service university-wide.
Technology can overcome many barriers, if institutions are willing to invest in a less-visible infrastructure, while also maintaining flexibility for all. The library is integral to delivering a first-class student experience. By embracing digital solutions, libraries can equip students with skills for work and beyond.
Georgina Cronin is a research support librarian at the University of Cambridge.
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