Adapt and Thrive

Since its inception in 1824 as the library of the Manchester Mechanics' institute, the University of Manchester Library and its buildings have adapted to reflect the changing landscape within the University, the broader information sector and the limitless knowledge economy. Academic libraries face continuous demands to evolve, the rate of which was never anticipated by the architects of early library buildings. These demands are driven by factors such as:

  • Technology and digital development
  • Changing user behaviour
  • Financial pressure
  • Knowledge structures
  • Ways of working

'Far from disappearing, libraries are going through a transformation that puts them in a central role within the much-vaunted knowledge economy and moves them into areas as conceptually challenging as they are exciting.' (Jeffrey Schnapp, Faculty Director at metaLAB, Harvard).


At a time when there is mounting pressure for more, better quality and accessible services, research areas and study spaces across universities, libraries are rising to this challenge. However, many 'traditional' library buildings are struggling to cope with such pressure due to issues including:

  • Large physical collections and limited storage space
  • Inadequate infrastructure to provide ample power for users
  • Poor ambient environments (particularly a lack of natural light and ineffective artificial light)
  • Increasing maintenance requirements

These challenges may be related to the fact that we didn't follow Michael Brawne's advice back in 1970, found in his book 'Libraries; Architecture and Equipment' (Pall Mall Press, 1970, London):

'The more a library is planned around the notion of an individual study place, the more flexible it is likely to be in the future; it will be more capable of absorbing the technological changes which must inevitably relate to its prime function, the communication of an individual with the information source'

Library spaces are being reinvented to support changing knowledge structures, research methods, learning styles, social interaction and ways of accessing information. Academic libraries are merging traditional approaches to accessing information and curating knowledge with existing and emerging technologies and, along with it, attempting to create the best possible environment where this can be done (Bennet, 2005. Council on Library and Information Services, Washington). We are seeing huge shifts in library design from structured linear passages and uniform settings of the past to a selection of environments to suit the people using them and the activities they undertake. 

'[academic] Libraries have moved from being a storehouse for printed materials to providing access to a vast network of information resources, workspaces and services that facilitate the creation of content' (Macallaster College, date unknown).


How might we see some of the points outlined in Dan Holden's recent blog post on future Library designs materialise? The future evolution of library spaces could be driven by a triangulated interaction between users, their experience and converged support services. Physical and digital boundaries are being removed; the points at which the library services stop and users experiences start are becoming blurred. Physical spaces in our buildings must be designed with dynamism and fluidity in mind – no longer is there one prescriptive manner in which academic library buildings serve their users. Communication, information flow, access and movement within the realms of academic libraries must be intuitive, effective, tailored and easy.

'University libraries have been faced with a great challenge of meeting those expectations and anticipating future changes, and often in the confines of buildings that were constructed with a particular view of the library in mind – that is a space for the quiet study of books and print journals.' (SCONUL report Analysis evolving spaces and practice 2015)

So what could we see emerging within library design within the next five years? I predict a shift towards libraries offering more personalised spaces within wider communal settings, which will be driven by four key trends.


People will soon expect a space to be easily locatable and configurable to meet their preferences, by way of e.g. retractable walls and personal light and heat settings (see how this personalisation has been achieved with incredible sustainability performance at The Edge development in Amsterdam)


Growing concern for our environment, couple with growing demand for study spaces, will lead to more solutions based on solar powered wireless charging points being provided on all worktops

Informal learning

Libraries will have to offer a range of spaces that support ad hoc collaboration and informal learning and that are technologically enriched for all devices (for groups of varying sizes)


Growing awareness of digital well-being will force libraries to provide technology free, nature enriched spaces for users

In many respects, academic library buildings shouldn't be judged on their aesthetic finishes, number of desks or footfall. Instead they should be measured on how they support the needs of each individual and how this adds value to their personal wellbeing, achievements and overall experience. They should be understood in terms of how enable the delivery of seamless, useful and innovative services. Spaces must deliver their core functions excellently but be prepared for future adaptation – to achieve this in some settings will require radical thinking. I believe that when these goals are met, the academic library – as a place – moves into an evolutionary period of being judged on how people-centred and performance driven they are.

'The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.' (Seth Godin, 2011, http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/05/the-future-of-the-library.html)

Thanks for reading!

Mike Kelly

Library Space Development Manager, The University of Manchester Library

Connect with Mike on LinkedIn, Twitter and his Library Spaces Blog