Twenty years of the Jerwood Library

Jerwood Library

The Jerwood Library quietly opened its doors to its first readers 20 years ago. The building was completed in September 1998 and was officially opened by the Right Honourable Lord Howe of Aberavon in May 1999.

Built as an extension to the Thornton Building, the Jerwood Library occupies what was a small gardener’s area by the river. The building’s striking architecture quickly made it an attraction for those using Garrett Hostel Lane. The new library provided Trinity Hall with much needed study space for students, with places for over 100 readers.

If today’s students went back to 1998 they would be amazed at how the scholarly and technological landscape has changed in a relatively short time. Back then, libraries were all about providing printed books and journals. It was still early days for the internet, and e-journals and other online materials were in their infancy. Research was a laborious and often serendipitous process of visiting the library, tracking down articles in printed indexes (or using terribly user-unfriendly databases) and then queuing for the photocopier. The latest high tech resources included clunky computers, dial-up internet, video tapes and cassettes, and CD-ROMs. There were no laptops, social media or smartphones.

Fast forward to today, and the needs and expectations of library users are startlingly different to what they were 20, or even five years ago. While the Jerwood still has plenty of books, students expect to be able to access the majority of resources for their courses or research online. Some students may even manage the entire duration of their degree without ever setting foot in the library. And many of these developments have called into question what the role of physical libraries is (or should be) in the 21st century.

While librarians could not fail to notice the impact of these changes, the prediction of the death of the physical library has not come to pass. While it’s true that many academic libraries have seen a fall in book borrowing, there has been an increase in footfall, suggesting that students still value the existence of library spaces – though not for the traditional reasons one used a library for in the past. In the Jerwood you are as likely to see students working on laptops as using books. Libraries are no longer the sole place for accessing information, but more for finding a space to work and to engage in social learning. There is an increasing demand for study space in the College.

In our library questionnaire, students often say that they appreciate that the Jerwood is open for 24 hours a day. Modern library services need to be available when the user needs them and for students this is frequently outside normal office hours. This is not so unusual in colleges and in a lot of other university libraries, even though students could access resources at home in their pyjamas whenever they wish. Perhaps because of this, the library space plays a crucial role in fostering a separation between work and play. Students are more productive when studying and happier when they can relax away from their work. Having a library is therefore vital to the wellbeing of many students.

We now also spend more time engaging with our users, attempting to understand their behaviour and their motivations. We apply user experience techniques to see how people use the library, rather than providing what we think people might want. We have introduced a feedback wall where students could comment on any aspect of the library. We have also done some observations into how students use library spaces. This has led to a deeper understanding of our students and helped us to develop our services to meet their needs.

Over the last decade, libraries have become some of the most active users of social media. The Jerwood is on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and has a blog. These keep students in touch with the library and are a tool for them to easily communicate with us.

Today, more than ever before, the role of the librarian involves assisting students to find, manage and evaluate information. With Google searches resulting in thousands of pages for any topic, being able to select the best articles from thousands of mediocre ones is a key research skill.

Despite all these changes, the Jerwood Library has remained a well-loved and appreciated space for students at Trinity Hall. The views of the river make it an enviable place to work, even though the peace is sometimes shattered by over-enthusiastic tourists outside. This is the one of the downsides of having an iconic building!

It is impossible to know what challenges the future will bring for libraries, but if the Jerwood is to remain relevant in the coming years, the space must flexibly accommodate new ways of teaching and learning. By embracing these changes, the Library can enhance the academic experience, foster a sense of community, and move the College into the future.

Jenni Lecky-Thompson, Head of Library Services

This article was first published in the autumn 2018 issue of Front Court.