'I'm so excited about our new Learning Commons' - Library chief


The CHAT this month meets Heather Thrift, Director of Library Services, to talk about the digital future, pushing the boundaries of customer service and an exciting new ‘library’ in the SLB.


Post-NSS and post-COVID there’s a renewed vigour to put students at the heart of everything. How is the Library responding to that?

We’ve been putting students at the heart of what we do since I arrived eight years ago and well before that, I’m sure. Until this year, the NSS put us well above the sector average for learning resources and in particular for library services. We’ve achieved this by always having a really good working relationship with the Students’ Union; we meet regularly with the student officers and engage them in new projects.
For example, when we started the Library Enhancement Project - the Pavilion on Aldham Robarts and the refurbishment of Avril Robarts - we put students on the project board. They also helped with the design of the Student Life Building space. It’s important to have a strong student voice when you make plans as you can get feedback and know what they buy into and what they do not.
In terms of customer service, we’ve been very clear about what our service is and we report regularly on our standards and use Customer Service Excellence as the vehicle for that. We’ve been doing that for six years now and it’s hugely important to us. We always score really highly and currently hold 16 Compliance Plus points. This is a government quality mark that looks at 57 criteria of service standards and is reviewed annually.
The other way we maximise our service to students is by investing heavily in systems that support learning, such as reading list systems, which make it easier for academic staff to navigate what is becoming a very complex information world. Wikipedia is great but it will only take you so far.


So you can help people find the best information sources in this ‘data deluge’ we live amongst?

Yes, by making the search as simple as possible. We do a lot of hard work behind the scenes and make sure our catalogue systems for example are as intuitive as possible. Out of the box, these systems are not necessarily easy, and there are lots of issues around licensing and authentication. So, we’ve tried to make that as seamless as possible so that students don’t need to see how complex that can be. We also train students in information literacy, which is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use.
Remember too, you can access electronic resources from anywhere in the world 24-hours a day and we run a 24/7 chat service. 


How have you configured the different library services physically? 

We have a library that serves the City Campus and one that serves the Mount Pleasant Campus and then we’ve got what we’re calling the Learning Commons in the Student Life Building. This is a library without books and is open 24/7.
What we’ve learned and seen particularly over the pandemic is that students value libraries as places. So, the Library Enhancement Project aimed to provide places and spaces where they could concentrate, collaborate and get creative. Some are private, some open, some like the three Digital Studios, purely creative. 
Physical spaces are important for learning and for collaboration. It is about creating community, and places to belong.


What’s new for staff, especially academic staff?

Our academic services team works very closely with them to understand what learning resources they need and what support we can offer to boost students’ academic skills, like writing, referencing, statistics or English language use. 
In terms of research support, we can help with things like open access and data management plans when bidding for grants. We also host Research Cafés, which happen at Faculty level and are aimed at researchers who aren’t quite ready to share their work but are looking for feedback. We do run a public Research Café once a year too. We’re also involved in a number of events based on our Special Collections and Archives.


Are we still using real books?

Yes but we have a static number; it is not quite one-in-one-out but effectively we’re saying we’re not going to grow the size of the print collection. Several years ago, we rightly predicted that books would go the same way as journals - electronic. 
We’ve now been ‘digital first’ for six years which means we prioritise the e-book if it’s available over a physical book, although we might buy a couple of print copies as some students do prefer them.
As you’d expect, the digital capabilities of our 145 staff have evolved immensely. We have some extremely digitally skilled staff and I think that is reflected in the way we use resources like Teams. We do not just use it for video-conferencing or chat, we use it for everything – our discussions, our meetings, it is where we keep our files etc. We’ve tried to embed these systems into our processes and do things differently because of the new tools that we’ve got.


What is around the corner for the Library?

Well, the future is digital. We’ve invested in it and we want to ensure it pays dividends for as many people as possible. The digital studios, I mentioned, in the SLB, are not just for students on creative courses but for all students as they all must learn to operate in a digital future.
It is really important that academic staff know that we have podcasting rooms, video recording rooms, and that they don’t have to show them how everything works. Library Services could run coding workshops and help students with Adobe creative and other specialist software, for example.


Tell us something you’d like to shout about?

Again, it is the Learning Commons in the Student Life Building. I’m really excited about this and we want people to come in and see it, academic staff particularly. 
There’s a skills hub on the upper ground floor and the digital studios are on the first floor. It’s open 24/7 and library staff, including IT coordinators, are available during extended service hours seven days a week. We’ve augmented reality tech, we’ve 3D printers and scanners; we run skills workshops and drop-in sessions. Staff can talk to us about how we can help them help their students. That is the most important thing, isn’t it?


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