In my last blog post I wrote about the final report on the Protolib Project, which the Cambridge University Library released in April.[1] The Protolib Project, part of the Futurelib initiative at the University of Cambridge, was led by Sue Mehrer, Deputy Librarian, and included extensive participation by librarians and library staff as well as Modern Human, a design consultancy in Cambridge, England. David Marshall, Jenny Willatt, Paul-Jervis Heath, Chloe Heath, and Pete Hotchkin took the lead on analysis, findings, and design patterns along with Andy Priestner, who also serves as the overall Futurelib project manager.

The Protolib Project gathered and analyzed data by conducting observations and asking questions related to the use of existing and reconfigured spaces. The project then generated a model of work practices and environments and a set of design concepts to guide library design.

In addition to reviewing the purpose, methods, findings, and design recommendation of the Protolib Project, the report shares important insights into the nature of user-centered design and planning for library futures. Here are some of them.

“More chairs do not mean a higher level of occupancy”

Adding chairs does nothing to increase the number of people using a library space; in fact, it may even reduce that number. Experimenting with four seating configurations with different numbers of chairs, the Protolib team found that a configuration with only 20 chairs (the lowest number they tried in the space) resulted in the use of as many as all 20 of them. Other configurations resulted in less use: the 31-chair configuration achieved a high of 11 and a 24-seat configuration achieved a high of 15. As the report’s authors state, “…by removing more than a third of the chairs we had doubled the average occupancy of the space” (p. 23). They believe that expanding the surface area allotted to each seat while also creating enough separation to enable people to sit comfortably in adjacent areas caused this dramatic increase.

Elsewhere, the authors talk about the desirability of a “’personal bubble’ (an uninterrupted space to call their own)” and cite the inverse relationship between this bubble and the intensity of the environment. They also note that the more intense the environment, the less people will require the bubble.

Library redesign requires policy decisions

The Protolib team prototyped reading and writing spaces, saving group work and analysis spaces for a future project. Although they could not do the extensive study of group work environments that they would have wished, they uncovered one of the most important questions related to providing spaces for collaborative work. In their words, this question is “whether it is in the remit of libraries to provide group work spaces” (p. 30). Indeed, as academic work changes, and as information resources are increasingly available in digital formats and accessible from remote locations, the library’s remit should not be taken for granted but should be objectively reconsidered in light of changing practices, changing environments, and changes in the communities the library serves.

What people say is not necessarily what people do

The report’s authors acknowledge that there is a difference between what people say they need and how they actually behave (p. 31). This, indeed, is one reason that observational and ethnographic work can be so powerful and such an improvement on simple polling in the design context. The authors support this contention when they suggest that, “If signage is required it should be positive, and encourage rather than prohibit behavior” (p. 31). The emphasis in design research must accordingly be on identifying desirable behaviors and then providing the environments that afford them.

Think globally, do user studies locally

The University of Cambridge has an unusual organizational form that is extremely decentralized. Colleges and departments are scattered throughout the city of Cambridge, many with their own independent libraries and study spaces. Students may live and do much of their work in their college but go elsewhere for classes or labs or to use specialized collections or resources. The administrative structure of the university, its geographical particularities, and other features make it an unusual research environment and the authors of the report caution that their work is closely tied to the local context. However, their report will have great value to many readers, even in very different institutions. Across colleges and universities of many sizes and kinds, students engage in the activities identified in the report, at the various levels of intensity the report describes. And the details of the Cambridge situation are sometimes analogous to conditions in less exotic institutions. For example, the effects of how near or far a student’s residence is from their department—what the authors refer to as the “influence of hubs and halos”—lines up with some of the concerns in U.S. institutions related to residential vs. commuter campuses.

Beyond this, the Cambridge case highlights the importance to visioning and planning of considering the broad context of a library and its place in the institution and the locality. As in the case of group study spaces, there are policy issues to be decided. What is within the library’s remit? Do library spaces and other college or university spaces taken together meet needs or are important activities under-supported? What are the opportunity costs of using library spaces for activities that can also be done elsewhere? And so on.

The Protolib report brings these questions to our attention while providing an interesting case study, an introduction to a valuable user-centered design process, and many useful design recommendations. It is a report well worth reading and discussing.

[1] Andy Priestner, David Marshall, and Modern Human, “The Protolib Project: Researching and Reimagining Library Environments at the University of Cambridge, April 2016,