Pete Williams is the Assistant Director for User Support, Academic Liaison and Collections across the Malet Street and Stratford Campuses of Birkbeck. Here, Pete explains some of the challenges faced to support students across the libraries:
‘Birkbeck Library provides three main things: collections (print and online); a space to study; and practical support to our users.
My advice to new students would be go to your library introductory talk but if you miss that, or need more help, you can always make an appointment with your Subject Librarian – the purpose of their job is to support you!
Our Subject Librarians meet with academic staff all the time but we’d really like to improve our communication with our students, either through the Student Union or through other channels including social media.
There is a Library Advisory Group, consisting of staff from each department, which meets twice a year usually in March and November. Its remit is to offer advice on library policy and to monitor our performance.
Birkbeck students studying in Stratford have full access to UEL’s Stratford Campus Library. They can borrow any of the books housed in that library and their Birkbeck ID card automatically lets them in through the turnstiles. We have dedicated members of library staff based out there and they work both in the UEL Library and also in the USS Building, where there is a study area with PCs called the Weston Learning Centre. Stratford-based Birkbeck students can also use all the Malet Street facilities.
Compared to taught postgraduate students, research students need a greater range of library materials as there is no reading list for a PhD. To really succeed, they also need to understand the wider information landscape by which I mean a greater knowledge of the information resources available and the different ways scholarly work is published and disseminated.
There are plenty of challenges but perhaps the main one is limited space. We are constantly balancing the need to provide an adequate number of study spaces with the fact that our collections are crammed into a relatively small amount of space. We realise that the Library is still becoming completely full up in the afternoons, and that this is a highly unsatisfactory situation, and we are currently exploring options for creating significantly more study spaces in summer 2017.
We’re currently reorganising the way we staff the Library at evenings and weekends to make sure students coming in at these times get as good a service as possible. We have a ‘back to the floor’ policy and all library staff (including the Director) work on the helpdesk at least once a week. In October, the library opened a new group study area.
Like all Birkbeck departments, we receive an annual budget which covers everything we do, including all the information resources (books, journals) we purchase. However, for more substantial one-off refurbishment work, such as the creation of the new group study area and the Accessibility Centre that happened this summer, we have to make a business case to Birkbeck’s Estates Committee for additional funding.
We hope to develop better links with the SU, but we are also trying out other methods, including focus groups, greater engagement through Twitter and Facebook and making sure we attend any student/staff forums in individual departments.
In February we will be conducting some ‘ethnographic’ research into how students use the library. In September 2016 we received about £4,000 from the Birkbeck Alumni Fund to do this. We will be employing Birkbeck students to help us, so look out for people with clipboards observing you when you use the Library!
For other upcoming developments, please take a look at our annual Operational Plan which lists in full the various projects we are currently engaged in. Our mission is “to put students at the heart of everything we do”.
I think Birkbeck has a strong identity as London’s Evening University, which both its students and staff buy into.’
Images courtesy of Birkbeck Library and Wikimedia Commons