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Libraries at work: meeting, sharing, learning

June 20, 2018
Clare Brown

This is the second in a series of blog posts which will come out of the recent BIALL conference in Birmingham. There were a couple of sessions which demonstrated that law firms and libraries are on the same page when it comes to working agile. But with a twist...

Space as a library service

On the face of it Dr Gemma John’s Keynote talk ‘Libraries at work: meeting, sharing, learning’ was a fine example of library tourism, with seemingly little relevance to the disappearing physical corporate or legal information centre. There were perfect Instagram moments with architecturally pleasing staircases and beautifully shaped bookshelves. However it demonstrated that, where there is public will (and funds), library design has changed in line with people’s requirements.

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The ‘third space’, a typology in-between the office and the home, has become familiar territory. People have demanded diverse and flexible work spaces where they can concentrate and collaborate, whether online or face to face. As a result, public libraries have joined cafes and co-working spaces as a destination for agile workers. It is important that the physical location fits the activity of the visitor. Choices empower them, and user experience matters.

This philosophy has provoked a culture change within public libraries. For instance Tampines Library in Singapore has removed many access barriers to foster an adaptable, evolving, and flexible library space. We are moving away from the collection as repository; with thorough weeding and clever design, the core collection can enhance the space and be both attractive and inviting.

Office space costs money, so in the past 20 years commercial and legal library spaces have been gradually subsumed into meeting rooms or private offices. Professional service firms are also providing space for tech start-ups, making it a part of the corporate culture to foster innovation. Personally I see this as an opportunity for library services to expand their offerings to a new audience.

And just as you think that law firm libraries have all but disappeared and moved online, something curious is happening. The agile working case-studies in a later BIALL session demonstrated a need for quiet working space. The library is now the place to escape conference calls and other distractions, and thus is experiencing a renaissance.

Find out if agile methodology is right your library →

Agile library workers and services

So where should library staff be located? If not in the library, I hope it’s with those innovative people in the start-up spaces. You can find law librarians choosing to work within legal practice groups, from home, the meeting rooms - anywhere as long as they are contactable and available to their clients.

The public or university library experience is slightly different. The transfer of ownership to customers has an effect on staff interaction and breadth of services. There is little engagement with library workers, with more responsibility on the user to serve themselves - for example barcode scanner apps.

This new way of working requires public library staff to be spontaneous, and to think on their feet whilst understanding what individuals want and need. If the clients are taking the lead on programming events, the space and workers become more like facilitators - an entirely different role.

Technology means that the workspace will never be the same again. Organisations are having to think holistically, taking into account their workers’ work-life balance. If you provide an agile and virtual environment where people can contribute fully, you will retain and attract the top talent. If this means working in partnership with local libraries, start-ups, established companies, then all the better. The key is to prioritise simplicity, and always be innovative.

How are you working? Have you made any changes to your library space to accommodate flexible working?

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