Thursday, 29 May 2014

Pop-up libraries...

The term "pop-up library" has been used to describe a multitude of different things in recent years. From the unstaffed book swaps which have cropped up in places like railway stations, pubs and phone boxes, to the more extensive and ambitious structures which have been built through the efforts of volunteers striving to campaign against library closures in areas like Brent.

Tree trunk used as a "pop-up library"/book swap as part of
In Other Words literary festival in Liverpool last year 
Pop-up libraries within an academic context were not something I had encountered prior to attending an M25 Consortium's event on the subject last week. Noreen Beecher from the University of Westminster explained that these are stalls set up as an "outreach project" by the library in response to dropping usage figures. Stalls were set up in areas like the Students' Union and in lecture theatre foyers. The stall itself consists of an easy-to-assemble, lightweight pod (which even lights-up!). The sessions were "themed" and gave users the opportunity to give feedback about various services, with topics including library search, 24/7 opening and Christmas Opening.

Noreen Beecher and Elaine Salter host the M25 Consortium event 
at the University of Westminster's Cavendish Campus
Two members of staff would "pop up" to do shifts of around 30 minutes at a time, although Noreen reported that in actual fact these slots would often extend far beyond that due to the number of questions these staff received. Staff members would typically be a mix of professional librarians and assistants equipped with iPads, giving them access to the library catalogue and to the library management system. Staff would also be armed with a range of freebies which were given out to students, including notebooks, markers, pens, screenwipes, post-it notes, sweets and easter eggs!

Noreen went on to report how this scheme had improved relations between staff and students. She cited anecdotal evidence about how the initiative encouraged those who had not ventured into the university's libraries previously to do so. Library staff also found this a good way to promote new services and felt the main benefit was the feedback collected from non-users of the library, as well as that gathered from regular users.

University of Westminster-branded goodies
were up for grabs at the event!
Elaine Salter (Library Services Manager at Westminster) then opened up the discussion to broader Customer Services topics, for instance talking about how University of Westminster Library Services is one of only a handful of university libraries in this country which does not charge fines. This apparently made for happier students (perhaps unsurprisingly) and NO CASH HANDLING! We also spoke briefly about a proposed Text-a-Librarian service and about the hidden costs of 24/7 opening.

Some of us then took in a tour of the University of Westminster's Law School Library site. The library was refurbished in 2012 and I was particularly impressed with some of the lively touches they had introduced, for instance help point rostrums decorated with piles of books (donated especially for this purpose) and mobile group study pods:

The University of Westminster School of Law Library

Mobile pods at the University of Westminster
This was a very well-hosted event which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did feel that it did muddy the waters slightly, though in terms of what exactly constitutes a pop-up library. With no books or other information resources available, it is debatable as to whether or not these stalls can be accurately described as libraries at all, in fact, yet they are definitely an extension of the University's library service. I also wondered whether this sort of outreach exercise would be as useful in institutions with a higher proportion of distance and part-time learners than Westminster has.

We finished the afternoon with drinks at Saint George's Hotel, overlooking the BBC Broadcasting House in London's schwanky Fitzrovia and offering some great views across the capital!

Dramatic skies captured from 'The Heights'
restaurant atop the Saint George's Hotel