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New HTWK library – first impressions

October 23, 2009

Today is phänoMEDIA09 at the HTWK Leipzig (University of Applied Sciences). This is a special edition of the annual Tag der Medien (Media Day), made very special by the opening of the new library and the new media center which is part of the College of Media where I teach. Given that I had some fairly strong words about this new building in a recent newspaper interview, I wanted to get inside the building and check it out. As luck would have it, I hooked up with a tour given by the library’s director, Klaus-Steffen Dittrich.

I am impressed. Despite a somewhat awkward external shape, the interior architecture, which I had feared would be equally severe and austere, works well (this is a question of personal taste, of course). The lighting concept is particularly nice, given that the architect opted for direct lighting as opposed to wasteful ceiling lights. It means that work spaces are sufficiently bright without giving the rooms that overkill “surgical ward” lighting so often found in public buildings.

There are plenty of workspaces, all near windows or openings to other floors, so no one needs to feel like they are locked in a monk’s cell. The green carpeting (I do admire the German fearlessness regarding bold colors), perhaps not the world’s most delightful color, melds well with the plain concrete walls, and the touches of color elsewhere–red lights in one space, blue walls in another, etc.–also help break up the visual monotony and give the visitor a subtle sense of orientation.

The computer technology is brand new, and WLAN is available throughout. There are two rooms outfitted with superior computers designed for video and sound editing, and the library made the laudable choice not to restrict access to those rooms unless that proves absolutely necessary due to popularity.

All in all, it is a work of architecture that one cannot overlook. Love it or hate it, it will make and impression on anyone who sees it. Whether it wears well or not over the years we cannot know, but for now it adds a pronounced focal point to the HTWK’s main location here in Leipzig’s Südvorstadt.

But …

I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the less than successful elements. First and foremost, this lovely (and expensive) building will be open a grand total of 50 hours per week. It has custom designed lights, tables, desk lamps, and so forth, and will be open 50 hours per week, with no opening hours on the weekends, nor before 9:00 am nor after 8:00 pm. For a point of reference, even most cash-strapped public libraries in the US offer 60+ opening hours and at least some weekend hours, while academic libraries start  at about 90 hours per week and go up from there. In Germany, it is no different. There are 24/7 libraries here, and most academic libraries have gotten on board and bumped up their hours, sometimes using some very creative staffing models.

It is also, sadly, in one sense a rehash of an old architectural library trope, namely, a shell built around a framework of book shelves. Other than in the first floor entrance area, one cannot turn around without running into or having one’s sight line blocked by a bookshelf. On the one hand, I am grateful that the HTWK library uses open stacks, but given that this is a new building, and that we all know that a vast portion of any academic library’s collection never or at best rarely circulates, it would have been wiser to reduce the footprint of the shelving and use more space for collaborative study spaces, study carrels, instructional spaces for classes, media viewing, and the like. Many newer libraries, from the 1990s forward, do exactly this. My trained librarian eye constantly scanned the shelves as we walked around, and I saw myriad titles where I knew I could easily tuck a 20€ bill in the pages and come back in two years and find it untouched. When are libraries going to stop housing low use materials in the most expensive real estate possible? Low use merits low cost.

The irony of the tour I went on was that it was actually advertised as a lecture by Dr. Dittrich on access to new media. I was excited to have a chance to hear his thoughts on this topic, having excoriated the library in my interview and, as I learned through the grapevine, not exactly ingratiating myself to the HTWK administration. Alas, new media did not come up much, although Dr. Dittrich did mention that about 30-35% of the acquisitions budget goes for electronic materials. This reinforces my perception that the HTWK actually offers a decent amount of electronic content, not that many students are aware of this or have any idea how to take advantage of it. The library does not do much to facilitate that use (no link resolver, no clear and concise online help, no solid pantopical or catchall database, etc.), and as an instructor here, that frustrates me greatly.

Both in Germany and in the US, there are many librarians preaching the word that libraries today are about information technology and providing unmediated (and lightweight) online services to users. If there is a grain of truth to that–and a glance at the research and our own statistically supported usage patterns tells us clearly that there is–then a library in 2009 has to be more than a beautiful house for books.

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5 Comments
  1. Thomas Gerd tom Markotten permalink
    November 3, 2009 03:11

    Dear Dale,

    thank you for being outspoken concerning the new HTWK library building.

    At the moment we have a quite interesting situation in Leipzig as we have two new buildings for scientific libraries:
    a) main library of the university of applied sciences (HTWK Leipzig)
    b) branch library “Campusbibliothek” of the university

    I, as a student in Leipzig, who is quite interested in architecture have the following opinion concerning pros and cons of the two libraries:

    a) HTWK library:
    + comfortable chairs (You may laugh, but if you have to sit have many hours in your library studying, I think this is quite important. Although what is comfortable is quite subjective.)
    + quite good light for the desks/working spaces
    + working desks/reading desks (in total approx.. 200) are divided to different floors and different areas at one floor (you do not have the feeling of working in a “chicken farm”)
    + due to the interlaced, nested assembly of shelves and working spaces the noise level does not get too high
    + quiet air conditioning system
    +/- books for lending and which are not for lending are on separated floors (for the same topic!)
    +/- copying/xerox machines are not placed in separeted rooms, although they are (thanks!) not placed near the working desks (problem with noise, bad smell)
    – you have to leave your jacket outside the library in the locker
    – really poor opening hours

    b) “Campusbibliothek”
    + opening hours (24 hours/7 days). Great!
    + you can take your jacket into the library
    – uncomfortable, creaking chairs
    – poor light for the desks/reading desks (the desks are not well lighted, it is not possible to change the positioning of the lights on the desks)
    – chicken farm feeling at the reading desks (in total approx. 550), many, many reading desks grouped together
    – at some places not so quiet air conditioning system
    – due to the very open architecture, two floors combined by open spaces -> noise problem

    Concerning the building of the libraries, I think that clearly the library building of the HTWK is the better one. Also the (due to my opinion) negative points concerning the HTWK library are easier to change than the cons concerning the “Campusbibliothek”. Concerning the “Campusbibliothek” I especially do not like the big open spaces about two floors. This looks really nice, but it is not useful due to the connected noise level problems. At the HTWK library, they also have open spaces about two floors, but there, these spaces are much smaller and therefore I think a good compromise and better suited to a library. Concerning the opening hours of the HTWK library, I really hope that a change will happen! It is a beautiful building that invites students to learn, so open it to the students!

    Have you already visited the “Campusbibliothek”? What do you think about it?

    Best regards

    Tom

  2. Dale permalink*
    November 3, 2009 13:59

    Tom, thanks for interesting reviews. I have yet to make it to the Campusbibliothek, but it is on my to-do list.

    I would comment on a couple of things you mentioned. One, you are correct that it is hard to address architectural issues, but I am not sure it is much easier to fix service issues. In my experience, it is much easier for libraries to get money for building projects than it is for them to get the personnel funds necessary for longer hours or better services. But I like your optimism and share your hope that the HTWK library improves their opening hours and diversifies their service offerings, particularly with regard to using online resources.

    And, no, I am not laughing about your chair comments, not in the slightest. Seating is critical. I once read a report by Paul Schwenke, the director of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, from his 1913 visit to American libraries. He spent nearly a page extolling the virtues of the chairs in one library, even going so far as to measure the depth of the grooves cut into the seat to accomodate the human posterior. Very funny stuff, but it highlights the importance of such details.

    • Thomas Gerd tom Markotten permalink
      November 5, 2009 21:40

      Dear Dale,

      yes, I think you are right:
      I would like to bet on that it is easier to get one million euros more concerning a new building than the money for a new fulltime employee. Maybe also the building has been sponsored by the EU….so only one-time-money.

  3. October 26, 2010 17:26

    for ceiling lights, we always use compact fluorescent lamps because they are energy efficient compared to incandescent lamp;–

  4. October 27, 2010 20:26

    desk lamps that uses compact fluorescent bulbs are much better than those that still uses incandescent lamps,;-

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