New HTWK library – first impressions
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.
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.