Introduction

The Robarts Library Project: What do libraries mean to students?

The Robarts Library Project: What do libraries mean to students?

By The Robarts Library Team (Philippa Gosine – Senior Research Assistant, Mac Morgan – Design Research Team Lead, Manaal Mirza – Data Analysis Researcher, and Anshika Seth – Data Analysis Researcher) & Betelehem Gulilat – Lead Editor and Writer

Icon of a book opening up, with a conversation bubble and ideas popping out of it.

As a keeper of knowledge and endless possibility, a library occupies a key place in a student’s campus experience. Robarts Library, the largest of the UofT libraries, brings in thousands of students each day to support the diverse student population at every stage of their academic careers. Since September 2020, the Innovation Hub has worked closely with Robarts Library in seeking to understand what students truly desire from a redesigned library space. We shared a call for participation to the broader UofT community and received an overwhelming amount of interest for our virtual feedback sessions – in which students had an opportunity to share their unique stories with library spaces.  

Our Robarts Library Team at the Innovation Hub designed and facilitated empathy-based discussions to ensure we understand how students experience library spaces and what students need when redesigning these spaces. After months of careful analysis, our team had uncovered that libraries evoke a sense of wonder and new possibilities for students, which we’ll discuss further in this post – but can be examined more deeply in our recent report: Evoking Wonder: Finding Inspiration Through the Library Robarts 4th Floor Re-design. 

A colourful illustration from above of how many different ways an individual can use a library space. There are couches, chairs, spots for napping and working ,and more.

The Value Library Spaces Bring to Students  

There is a sense of student community that exists at a campus library that is difficult to emulate anywhere else. The positive peer pressure and solidarity that existed by simply being in the presence of other peers was an important element that drew students to library spaces, something they were missing during the pandemic. From communicative spaces designed for collaboration to quiet group spaces designed for independent studying –such as the Gerstein Reading Room – students value access to a range of spaces designed for students’ ever-changing needs as learners. Students also value a multifunctional library space that supports the many sides of student development. Whether it be a place of solace between classes, a spot to relax with friends, or a quick escape from the cold winter weather, students value the functionality offered in current library spaces offered at UofT.  

A Space for Inspiration 

A book is opening up with thought bubbles and imagination flowing out of it.

Despite libraries having a different meaning for different individuals, it is ultimately a home away from home for many students. Finding an ideal library space can feel like you’re searching for a dream home, one that sparks joy but also meets your basic needs and makes you feel like you truly belong in the space. Students are seeking to find a dependable space meeting specific needs – which is hard to come by at first glance. This is explored further in our report, where we highlight themes such as: ‘The Home of Conversation: Finding Inspiration through Connection’, how ‘Libraries are Catalysts for Student Development’, and ‘The Library as a Place for Opportunity’. Some of the needs students have shared when looking for an ideal library space include:  

  • Clear communication of the purpose of library spaces, with distinct quiet and collaborative zones  
  • Co-working areas for collaborative work and communal solitary studying  
  • Assortments of accessible furniture choices for different studying styles  
  • Availability of affordable food options and places to eat 
  • Access to high-speed internet and technological devices that facilitate student work  
  • Provision of services and programming designed to alleviate stress 

With hundreds of different identities representing the UofT student population, there is an equally vast number of unique needs to be met for students. Yet a common theme emerging from our data is the need for a space that instills a sense of inspiration. Libraries not only serve as a space to access knowledge, but a place for creating your own. The feeling of being in a dependable space that cultivates growth and connection to themselves, their peers and the broader UofT community is what the overall student population is seeking to find in an ideal library space. 

What we’ve learned from this project is that library spaces have the potential to allow students to experience wonder by fostering accessibility and belonging. Addressing inequities when redesigning library spaces should be of top priority and can be done by consulting with various student groups’ needs. It is important to acknowledge students’ unique identities continually to ensure all students feel a sense of belonging and collectiveness in this re-design journey.  

You can learn more about the insights from this project by visiting the report below:

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