Protolib: Physical environment design for Cambridge University Library

Reimagine library environments

Cambridge University Library asked Modern Human to create a set of design principles to guide the development of new libraries, and the redesign of existing library environments across the University. Modern Human prototyped physical spaces in order to uncover real needs, and then created a pattern language for the design of library environments.

There are over a hundred libraries at Cambridge University. They range from the historic Old Library at Trinity Hall, built in c1590, to the brand new Engineering Library that was recently redesigned as part of the construction of the James Dyson building.

Each of these libraries is unique. They were built in different decades, often in different centuries, for different purposes and by different architects. Despite their many differences, patterns in the design and architecture of the libraries begin to emerge as you visit each of them. Many of these patterns are a direct result of ideas that have persisted not just through the last few decades, but through 425 years of design history. However, just because an idea has endured throughout the centuries, it does not mean that it meets the needs of users now, or that it will do so in the future. Our previous research on Futurelib made it clear to us that the needs of researchers and students are changing more rapidly than ever before. We set out to explore how these changing needs could be applied to the design of library environments now and into the future.

Diary studies from previous Cambridge University projects provided us with valuable geospatial data on how students move around the city and University. The studies revealed that each student has a unique geographic triangle formed of the three locations that they most regularly visit - the college in which they live and take supervisions, the department building in which they take lectures, and their preferred supermarket. It is upon this triangle that each student’s perception of distance is predicated. Any location outside of their own triangle requires a special journey, and therefore feels inconvenient to them.

In addition to identifying the student triangle, data from this previous research also gave us valuable insights into the effect that the location of University buildings has on student behaviour and preferences. The libraries, department buildings and colleges of the University of Cambridge are distributed throughout the city. By observing how students and researchers move between them, it became evident that these locations form 3 key hubs. Each hub contains a dense concentration of University faculties and other buildings. Around each hub is a halo that also contains University facilities, but at a lower concentration.

With this information in mind, we began to explore the needs, attitudes, behaviour and values of students and researchers at the university. The University Library had asked us to help them create library environments that would be beneficial to users now and into the future - in order to do so, we needed to find out how they were using the spaces they had already. We employed a mixed-method protocol to find out who was using the libraries, what they were using different environments for, and how long they were spending there.

We conducted two codesign workshops. We also participated in a massive Lego Serious Play workshop along with 80 students that was conceived of and facilitated by Andy Priestner and a team of Cambridge librarians. These codesign activities explored users’ needs, attitudes and behaviours, as well as their values and preferences regarding work spaces. They also helped us to examine broader themes around space, environment and service touchpoints.

From there, we entered into a period of iterative prototyping. This phase involved creating prototypes of library spaces, observing and eliciting user responses, and then refining each prototype in line with our findings. 4 prototypes, in a mixture of library and faculty contexts, were established and refined over a number of iterations. Library environment prototypes started as scamps - low-fidelity sketches used early in the design process to explore options or specific features. Sketches quickly progressed to higher-fidelity scale drawings. To begin physical prototyping we moved temporarily into 4 library spaces and took delivery of flat-packed furniture.

Our prototypes tested which factors influenced the behaviour of people within our environments. Early on, we noticed a pattern emerging from the comments users had left about the spaces that highlighted the importance of intensity when understanding which environments people were choosing to use, and what work they were doing. We realised that each library space exhibits an intensity. A low intensity space is relaxed, people still accomplish serious work there but the environment is relaxing. In contrast, there are lots of people working very hard and very quietly in a high intensity space; the environment itself provides a little extrinsic pressure that some people find helps them to stay focused. We adopted this intensity framework and assessed the ‘intensity’ exhibited by various library spaces, rating each space as high, medium or low intensity.

This intensity framework is a powerful tool when designing library environments. Different intensity spaces had, for the most part, emerged inadvertently through choices of furnishing, architecture and occupancy. Our observation and prototyping gave us an understanding not only of how to consciously create environments of various intensities, but also of the behaviours that each environment would support and the work they would facilitate.

The intensity framework also changed how we understood the relationship between spaces and the movement of people around a library. For example, we now knew that where we created a high intensity space for focused work we should also provide a low intensity space that people could move to complete secondary or tertiary activities. 3-5 iterations were made to each physical prototype using the temporary furniture to make sure it successfully addressed the needs of library users.

Modern Human trained members of library staff, from a variety of Cambridge’s libraries, in ethnographic observation techniques and data recording. Each physical prototype was then observed by the library staff. 50 volunteers recorded 317 hours of observations across 4 prototype environments. They also conducted exit interviews with people leaving the spaces. Topics concentrated on their use of the environment, their reaction to it and how it supported the needs of their work. Surveys and feedback mechanisms were also used in the prototype environments in order to elicit user feedback.

Our feedback demonstrated that there are 3 main factors that significantly and consistently influence an individual’s choice of working environment:

An individual will typically have a primary working activity that they aim to complete during their visit. While they may also have secondary and tertiary activities that they need to complete, it is the primary activity that informs the structure of their day and influences their choice of environment. For example, a researcher is likely to know that they will spend most of their day looking at primary source material and taking notes for a paper. Similarly, a student who has an essay due the following day will be aware that their primary activity for that day will be writing and editing their work on a laptop. The activity that a person aims to complete also informs their intended length of stay in a space, which influences their choice in environment.

Our feedback also demonstrated to us that the intensity framework is something that library users intuitively understand and apply to their decision making. We found that how people were feeling and their state of mental wellbeing at the time greatly influenced the intensity of the environment they chose to work in. In interviews people referred to choosing more relaxed spaces when they felt stressed, sick or tired, while people who felt that they needed isolation and focus were naturally more inclined to choose high intensity spaces. Many people also talked about changing their environment periodically through the day, in order to increase their endurance and concentration. If any of these three motivating factors change, the individual is likely to alter the environment in which they are working accordingly.

We also found that an individual’s use of working environments at the University is heavily influenced by their college and their department, and whether these two key locations fall within the same hub. Our research told us that a student whose college and department are in the same hub is more likely to choose a workspace based on the 3 factors identified above. They will move between department spaces and college spaces at will, but their tendency to move outside of the hub is lower. In comparison, a student whose college and department are in different hubs is less likely to be influenced by these factors. They will instead choose their working spaces based on what, or where, is convenient to their current location.

The observations from the physical prototypes also gave us deep insights into how people use the different types of environment. We found that people are more likely to choose high-intensity workspaces when they need their environment to give them a sense of extrinsic pressure, when they are naturally less productive, or when they’re doing activities like revising. High-intensity environments tend to be large, open, quiet spaces with very little movement of people. They have a high degree of exposure which engenders the sense of being watched or observed, even if only by your peers. Medium intensity spaces are always smaller and more humanised in the choice of furniture and accessories. Each individual has more space. People like the ability to spread their materials out around them so they tend to get used for working across resources and media, such as when people are writing papers or essays. Then there are low-intensity spaces, which are relaxed but still conducive to work. They are not break spaces but they do contain soft furnishings, such as armchairs and sofas. They are very comfortable but still generally quiet. People typically use them for extensive reading from the same resource and other secondary activities, or for tertiary activities such as responding to email or arranging supervisions.

Using the findings of our ethnographic research and prototype testing, we created a pattern language that can be applied to library environments now and into the future. Our pattern language provides architects and designers of library spaces with a set of guidelines, common terminology, and standard solutions, that will enable them to address the situations that designers of library environments are faced with. Each pattern describes a situation that occurs in library environments, and then describes the core of a design intervention. This is done in such a way that the solution can be reused a million times over, “without ever doing it the same way twice”, which in turn means that it can be applied over and over again, to library spaces that are hundreds of years old or yet to be built.

The pattern language has 3 components:

The pattern language features 30 patterns, each one with various potential layouts of furniture and specifications for capacity, occupancy and staffing. Each pattern includes a detailed description of the optimal degrees of personal space, lighting, seating, desks, plug sockets and the placement of humanising features such plants. Each pattern also features a minimum effective configuration, so that even libraries without the scope to make large scale changes can create better environments.

The pattern language also provides guidance on how to combine the patterns into multi-environment configurations. It specifies complementary space relationships and the necessary transition spaces between different types of environment. The pattern language is deliberately flexible to allow a wide range of applications. It is being used to brief the architects currently designing buildings for the New Museum site and West Cambridge, and we anticipate that it will be applied to existing library environments across the University.