The gateway to information

Portsmouth University Library (UK)

Originally established in the nineteenth century to train the workforce employed within the local shipping industry, today Portsmouth University has a student population of over 20,000 and offers a wide range of courses. Its library is at the heart of its academic offering.

The library building, the work of ABK architects, dates back to the 1970s, when the institution was a polytechnic, part of the expansion of higher education that began a decade previously. This provides a neat tie in with the specification of the USM Haller modular furniture system, which was also developed in the 1960s. “The choice of USM Haller was a way of restoring the building’s original spirit,” says designer Laure Debout, who worked on the refurbishment of the 2000 sq m ground floor of the library (overseen by Penoyre and Prasad architects). “This provided an opportunity to revisit the entire concept of the space using USM Haller to provide library storage. USM’s tubular metal frame is wholly in keeping with the raw elements such as the concrete ceiling and exposed ducts.” 

The layout was reconfigured to encourage the professional behaviour the university is seeking from its students. Ken Dick, Associate University Librarian, explains, “Usually a library is traditionally arranged on lines of shelving parallel to each other, which can be quite intimidating as it creates a dark, closed space.”

Instead, now there are five clusters framing desks with PCs, which the USM borders. Laure Debout explains, “The shelving acts as a space definition tool, changing the overall  landscape and creating zones and lounges at a more human scale. This also enhances the acoustics and sense of wellbeing.” There are sofas within these clusters and other seating options, including armchairs and new window benches around the periphery of the space to give a variety of  work settings, typical of third space environments.  

The height of the shelving is lower than the previous units, with the mid-sections open, allowing light to pass through them. The chrome surfaces are also reflective, meaning what daylight there is, particularly in winter, can be maximised.  

The central zone, which is where further desking is arranged and where the main information point can be found, is kept free of shelving so that students can work in large groups in an open area.

The overall aim was to create a social, learning environment where collaboration could be encouraged and students felt welcome. This is also the rationale behind blurring the boundaries between the cafe area and where the periodicals and magazines are displayed. Students can simply sit down and read or share information with their peers over a coffee. “How we display and arrange stock was quite challenging but key to achieving what we wanted,” Ken Dick adds. The client’s choice of furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) is more important than usual for a project of this kind. It enables the university to highlight the library as part of a drive to recruit the best new students from around the world. Open days are one of the busiest times of the year for the university and the library serves as a showcase for potential students and, crucially, their parents. “We put the business case for a university library that would have that wow factor and it costs to get that right,” adds Ken Dick. After the project had been completed, the university executive board took a tour of the facilities and was impressed by what they saw. The success of the scheme can also be measured in footfall for the library, which has increased year on year as it attracts and supports students.

The decision was made to focus on the quality of space with a finish more akin to a commercial office to drive greater respect for the space and more professional behaviour by the students. As Laure Debout points out, “It enables  them to gather and communicate in an environment which is mature and adult looking, as well as one which is flexible.”

The reaction from students has been overwhelmingly positive: they like and are respectful of the new furniture and the transition to the new configuration of space has been an entirely natural one.  

The timeless and hardwearing qualities of USM give the library interior a real longevity. The modularity of the range means it is a great investment for a public institution such as a university as the units can be lowered and extended with ease, either within the library itself or reconfigured and moved to other parts of the campus if need be. 

“The library functions well as a gateway to information,” says Ken Dick, “You can really see the library’s relevance to the educational process.”

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