I recently wrote about how libraries are adapting to the digital age. The traditional library is viewed by many as a place for stacks of books to gather dust, and where stern librarians in tweed jackets tell you to keep quiet. Libraries are shaking off this image, and embracing new technologies and approaches to support learning in the 21st Century.

In Library 2.0 I outlined some of the changes that are taking place in libraries as they align their services toward technological developments such as the digitisation of content, social media and the widespread use of mobile devices. To extend this discussion, I recently sat down for a conversation with some of my colleagues in Plymouth University's library and resources centre to ascertain their views on how libraries are changing in the digital age.

I firstly wanted to find out what the contemporary library had to offer today's 'tech savvy students'. The answer was four-fold - libraries provide content, services, spaces and skills. My library colleagues then proceeded to elaborate on these four key areas of provision.


Content has been the mainstay of libraries throughout the ages, whether in paper form or in the form of other media. However, the nature of this content is changing radically. One of the first questions I asked our library staff related to some news that had broken the previous day, when Encyclopedia Britanica announced that after 224 years in print it was finally going exclusively digital. This came on the back of reports late in 2011 that the online store Amazon was now selling more Kindle and e-book versions than paper based. Was this a trend that was a threat to the library? The library staff told me they actually welcomed these developments, pointing out that digital content could more easily be updated when errors were discovered. It is better, I was told, to have up to date digital Britanica, than out of date text books on the shelves. Britannica has admitted that it has more content in its database than would comfortably fit into a print set, so digitisation is a prudent step forward. The conversation around online encyclopedias inevitably led us to discuss Wikipedia and its relevance in academic study. Wikipedia is good as a starting point, but students need to be aware that there is more in-depth knowledge available elsewhere in journals and books.


Many libraries are now exploiting the power of social media to expand their reach, beyond the traditional walls of the institution. Although still in its infancy, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking tools can be strategically employed to issue alerts and news updates, whilst SMS text can be sent to individual users to remind them that their loans are about to become overdue, or that a new service has been introduced. Students want personalised SMS alerts, direct to their mobile devices - 'push' for personalised content, 'pull' for everything else as and when they require it. However, this can be expensive for the average campus library to implement. Libraries now need to make services available at any time and any place, because students and academics are increasingly mobile.

Many libraries are also offering services which reach out to the local community, providing them with opportunities they would not be able to access anywhere else.


Users of libraries need to be aware that the model of management of the physical space is changing. Learning is now much more social, and students tend to gravitate to areas that are conducive to study in groups. The on campus library is in a strategic place to offer such social spaces and specialist services.

As a study space, the Plymouth University library is a busier physical space than it has ever been, despite the reduction of physical content on shelves. The library encourages flexible learning spaces where furniture and other items can be moved around to suit the needs of students. Many of the traditional constraints are being relaxed, and the library space is becoming more agile. It is clear that Plymouth University students are looking for spaces where there are few (or no) distractions, and the library is able to offer these environments. Whether it is quiet study space or group space for collaborative project work, today's academic libraries have to respond in a flexible manner. As is the case with most university libraries in the UK, every part of the Plymouth University library is wireless enabled and students can bring their own devices to support their learning. The library space is a haven in the midst of a bustling campus that supports over 30,000 students. It is a dedicated space for independent study, and students will not be ejected to make way for a lecture, but can stay as long as they wish.


One of the key development areas of learning in the 21st Century is the ability to use technology to support study in a variety of modes. Often referred to as digital literacies, the ability to harness the power of new technology to enhance, extend and enrich learning is becoming a key graduate attribute. Libraries are in a unique position to offer students training in digital literacy, whether it be searching for academic content, systematic retrieval of library resources, or simple making the very best use of what is available.

The web is 'the wild west' of learning, I was told, and students need to have savvy to survive it. Students need to know the provenance of content - who wrote it and in what context. What students need to discover is how to drill deeper and triangulate content in a wider knowledge context. Sourcing content for reference purposes is more involved than Google searching.

Consumption of content on the web is not the only area for skills development. Students need to be aware that they leave a digital footprint wherever they go in online space. This digital trail What they say, do and search, may do them out of an interview in later life. Another skill is media literacy - the ability to creatively use a wide variety of formats of content, including gaming, video, text and images - is a new literacy students and researchers need to learn. Learners have to be confident in how they collaborate with others and how they collate and apply content in academic contexts.

The future

What will the future hold for the library? Libraries will become increasingly disaggregated from the publishing world, and will become highly specialised in serving their academic community. They will continue to extend services beyond their walls to serve students everywhere, ragardless of geographical location. It is also clear that libraries will continue to develop their digital collections, and increase their connections to share this content. The future of the academic library will be to act as the intermediary and enabler that connects learners and knowledge.

Image by Steve Wheeler

Creative Commons License
Libraries without walls by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at steve-wheeler.blogspot.com.

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