Futurelib: Innovation Lab and Experience Design for the University of Cambridge

Imagine an academic library for the 21st Century

Cambridge University Library asked Modern Human to imagine the academic library of the near future. Modern Human created 12 concepts for new library services, spaces and experiences by first understanding how the needs of students and academics were changing.

Libraries hold an interesting position in modern research institutions: digital scholarship, open access and the increasing availability of information online has resulted in a shift away from the traditional role of the library. There are over 8 million volumes in Cambridge University Library alone, and it is just one of 114 libraries at the University of Cambridge, but their focus is no longer on simply providing access to these scholarly tomes. Instead, they are now required to curate the right information, facilitate communities of practice and provide expertise in research methods, academic sources and scholarly communication.

Cambridge University Library worked with Modern Human to establish the Futurelib innovation programme, create a vision for the future of academic libraries and then to pilot a series of new services, spaces and experiences for students, academics and administrators.

The University Library had already conducted 12 months of ethnographic research into how different groups were using the libraries and their unmet needs. We applied our Inspire mode to their existing research and cross-analysed their findings in order to identify models of behaviour, common goals and clusters of needs. Understanding these patterns of behaviour in turn enabled us to identify opportunities for innovation.

“The changes that are occurring—in technology, in research, teaching and learning—have created a very different context for the missions of academic and research libraries. This evolving context can afford a moment of opportunity if libraries and librarians can respond to change in proactive and visionary ways.“

Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries, the Association of College & Research Libraries.

Working with a close-knit community of dedicated library staff, we imagined the services that would best address the changing needs of library users, and the shifting role of modern research libraries. We created 12 concepts, designed together to provide a holistic new library experience.

We sought to re-conceptualise the library’s role in relation to physical and printed resources. Modern technology enables us to connect the person who currently has a book to the person who needs it next; meaning that we can circulate the physical collection without books ever returning to the library. Conceptually this is no different to the sub-lending behaviour that had already been observed during the library’s research: students had set up their own Facebook groups within the first few weeks of their arrival at Cambridge. When they can’t find a book in libraries these Facebook groups are their next port of call.

Modern Human was able to develop the WhoHas concept based on this need. Many students need the same textbooks for a very short period of time (about a week). WhoHas leverages the sub-lending behaviour that already exists to meet this peak demand. In piloting the concept we uncovered a paradox: people who are looking for a book believe that the person who already has it, wouldn’t still have it if they didn’t need it. The person who has the book believes that no-one else needs it because they’ve not been asked to return it, and so they will keep the book until it is convenient for them to take it back (often many months after they finish using it). Migrating the existing student sub-lending behaviour into a library service solves this paradox and addresses the short periods of peak demand surrounding printed resources.

With 114 libraries and a wide variety of faculty, department and college locations, students and academics at the University of Cambridge have an abundance of different environments to work in. The research had revealed that many people were still finding it difficult to find the perfect conditions for concentrating on writing an essay or reading for their supervision. People prefer different conditions for different activities, and the atmosphere of a study space is not always apparent in advance. To match the myriad of user preferences to the hidden abundance of different work spaces around the University, Modern Human invented Spacefinder: a TripAdvisor-style service that helps members of the University find the perfect place to complete their essay, read the latest research papers or work together to analyse the findings of their latest experiment.

The way students study is changing, which means that the way upcoming researchers work is changing too. Modern secondary education places more emphasis on group work and coursework than historically was the case. Undergraduate study is still a solitary activity for most disciplines at Cambridge: students work on problems set by their supervisor individually, but sit with their supervision group while they do so. They will occasionally chat to confirm their answer or ask each other for help. We christened this behaviour ‘working alone, together’. Space for group work and working alone together is limited, and research showed us that students were using their Junior Combination Room, their own rooms and coffee shops. With this in mind, we designed patterns for new library environments: Collabspaces, Flexispaces and Wifi Free Zones all address the student and academic needs that were identified in the ethnographic design research. In these new spaces staff would move around freely rather than being anchored to an enquiry desk. Our designs created a very different feel to traditional library spaces, whilst providing users with a sense of being at the forefront of their field. Spacefinder helps students and postdocs find and use the new spaces that are most suited to their needs.

The number of touchpoints that libraries have with the research process has multiplied considerably. Libraries now actively support the creation of research materials, rather than simply facilitating their curation and consumption. Digital Scholarship Labs in universities support scholars and enable them to apply technology to their research. They are staffed by specialists in a wide range of areas including geospatial data, statistics, computer algorithms and data visualisation. Modern Human’s concepts included our take on a Digital Scholarship Lab: the Geek Team, a drop-in service not dissimilar to Apple’s Genius Bar, where scholars could get support with their research and establish projects that solve researchers’ technology needs. The Geek Team would be supported by a Cambridge App Store, curated by the Library, where students and researchers can find handpicked apps, web applications and web services to help with their studies or their research.

In addition to supporting research output, libraries need to become more involved with researcher profiling and the management of online reputation and expertise within universities. Our Research Archive concept supports this involvement and satisfies the requirement of Research Councils UK (RCUK): that author-accepted manuscripts be deposited in an institutional or subject repository for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment in 2020. Compliance with funder requirements for Open Access is essential, but is also insufficient. Our Institutional Repository concept was designed to raise the profile of Cambridge academics and their work by integrating with systems like ORCid and services like, Figshare and GitHub. It would enable academics to manage their academic profile in a single place.

Modern Human’s concept for the institutional repository was designed to become a shop window for the University’s research output. It would also support academics in real, tangible ways, and helps them to both meet the requirements of the Research Excellence Framework and to make their research available to the world.

Underpinning these 12 concepts, our work proposed a service discovery layer to help students, academics and administrators at the University to find the right service, expertise or resource. The research had already shown us that only a small number of the academic community really understood all of the ways their library can help them, so we proposed to tie it all together with excellent communication design, a single point of entry in universal search and a mobile/tablet app that puts the power of the Cambridge libraries in the palm of users’ hands.

Futurelib is an ongoing programme and we are continuing to drive it forward with our design capabilities and innovation expertise. You can follow its progress at the University project team’s blog.