The Library as the Heart of Learning

Even as the idea of a library as the main place to find information wanes, the library still serves an important role as a student learning space. To keep up with students’ use patterns, many academic libraries have undergone renovations and space reconfigurations to create group study spaces, cafes, and even classrooms within the library, yet libraries still struggle with managing both crowded and underutilized spaces. How can academic libraries maximize the space available to students, and plan for their needs with the greatest efficiency? To find out, Cha & Kim surveyed 252 diverse students about how they use library space, and how environmental attributes affect their choices—and rather than focusing on levels of student satisfaction with current arrangements, they directly examined the students’ preferences.

Usually, user satisfaction is closely related to indoor environmental quality and aesthetic appearance. Yet the students in this study weren’t terribly concerned about indoor air quality attributes, aesthetics, or even space attributes like the distance from entrance, a window view, and accessibility to facilities. The attributes that mattered most to students were amount of space, noise level, crowdedness, comfort of furnishing, and cleanliness. Essentially, students across the board look for a clean, quiet, uncrowded space with comfortable furniture that was big enough to suit their needs (whether individually or in study groups). Some student characteristics seemed to affect the strength of preference for some of the other attributes: frequent library visitors placed less importance on the distance to the entrance than students who occasionally used the library, women were more concerned with thermal conditions and sound privacy, and graduate students cared more about air quality than undergrads.

Another interesting finding reflects the importance of the library as a space for student activities. Only two percent of the surveyed students stayed in the library for less than an hour, while slightly over half stayed for more than three hours. The campus library is definitely a place where students are willing to spend a good part of their day, so it makes sense to try to create a space that will best help them succeed in their study efforts.

While providing a comfortable space for all students and all activities is probably impossible (or at least, very inefficient), especially in older buildings or urban campuses, understanding students’ spatial choices can help with efficient space design. If a library typically accommodates more of a particular type of student, it makes sense to focus on the attributes that matter more to those students. Though amount of space, noise level, crowdedness, comfort of furnishing, and cleanliness held as the most important attributes across the board in this study, it might be risky to generalize the findings to students in other institutions. Academic libraries with the ability to alter their physical space configurations would be wise to conduct their own surveys so they can design the best possible space for their students.

Cha, S. H., & Kim, T. W. (2015). What Matters for Students’ Use of Physical Library Space? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(3), 274-279.