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I was brought back from my reverie by the clatter of plates echoing out from the café’s noisy kitchen. Enthralled by the small group huddled close together on the nearby table, I had not realised how intently I had been staring until the clanging of cutlery shook me out of my self-induced trance. The low hum of conversation had lulled me as I sat wondering what the many small groups and all the singles were doing with their time. Along with eating, drinking, and conversing were any of them actually studying? Or had they all gathered here for the same reason I had, to kill time between my last class and my next one? You see I was not in a bustling food court or some other type of eatery. I was on level two of Curtin University’s TL Robertson Library, and I could not help but think how different it was from the last academic library I had been in more than thirty years before!

Image Credit: Curtin University

The first point of access on level two is a buzzing hub exuding life and, one would assume, learning. People are spread out across the diverse range of seating, chatting, and consuming because, yes, there is a busy café and in fact, it is the first thing that greets you as you walk in the doors. If you happen to be looking in the opposite direction, the aromas wafting out of the kitchen will soon get your attention. To someone who had not spent any significant time in a university library for what felt like eons, it took me some time to wrap my head around the ‘eating in the library’ scenario that was so taboo back in my earlier university days. 

Upon further exploration, I discovered that each level offers different study spaces, all arranged for individual use as well as small study groups—with computers available on all levels. The sense of silence became stronger each level I ascended, and it is on level four that I saw the first collection of books. Level five features more book collections and more varied study spaces for individuals and small group work. You can still hear a gentle hum of hushed voices, but with fewer people than the preceding floors. This level offers space and the opportunity to unleash your creative side in Makerspace. It provides workshops covering a diverse range of topics from Creative Thinking to Creating 3D Models and Understanding your Digital Footprint. This Makerspace also offers craft and other creative activities. 

I climb the final set of stairs that take me to the last level that students have access to, level six. Those in search of total silence and seclusion will feel very comfortable on this level, which is designed more for individual study but also offers soundproof rooms for small groups in need of a distraction-free space. Something that surprises me as I explore all five levels of the Robertson Library is that books don’t seem to be the sought-out commodity as one would automatically assume in a library. As I walk up and down the displayed collections running my hand along the old spines I am met not by any other student, but with a sense of nostalgia and the notion that these books are fading, and not only from these worn-out shelves. My suspicions are confirmed when I attempt to pull a book off the shelf and have to pry it out from where it has rested for many years. These books have not been touched in quite some time and, as I hold one in my hand, I feel like I am holding time itself. I leave the collections and once again walk around the common study area to see it is not books that lay in front of all the students, it is of course laptops and computers. My heart pangs for the neglected words that are silenced between their bindings, crammed so tightly on the shelves as if each book is keeping its secrets tightly concealed.

Image Credit: Curtin University

The question must now be asked, what are all these people doing in the library? The library’s purpose obviously seems to be shifting, so what does this mean for the books that are being held hostage to the shelves on levels four through six? Is a library without books still a library? Or is it just a meeting place to shelter yourself from the elements? I asked a post-grad student Isabelle Lewis what her views of the library are and if she uses it for study purposes.

“I think it is a great resource that is available to everyone, but no I do not use is as much as I would like to,” Isabelle admitted. Being able to source everything she needs online and avoiding parking fees are the main factors that deter Isabelle from making use of the Robertson Library. 

I spoke to mature-age student Kasha Rowles who only uses the library about three or four times a semester, “generally to access books for [her] history unit”. She added, “I like the choice of history books available for the unit I am studying, the library has a good collection”.

Caitlin Barrow, an under-graduate student divulged, “I do not really use the library. I feel more comfortable set up at home because I am in my own environment”. She explained that it is mostly due to scheduling and that she is not on campus enough to make use of the library. When she is at university her classes are far away from the library. “It is not worth going all the way up there, I have got little legs and then trying to find a spot is difficult as it is usually quite busy at the times I want to go,” she explained.

After more digging, I finally found a student who uses the library frequently. Freya is an undergraduate student studying teaching, and she uses the library a couple of times a week. 

“I use it to sit in and study,” Freya told me. When asked if she borrows physical books her eyes lit up a little and she said, “I have used it once to get a book out but that’s because the library website made me”, she chuckled and added, “cause it was not online”. A pattern is definitely forming and it is time I bring out the big guns and get to the bottom of where this library is headed—more importantly, what about the books?

It is mid-morning on a Monday and I am back in the library to meet with James Robinson, the Coordinator of Client Engagement. He is one of the library team responsible for inquiries over the front desk, looking after the students that occupy different spaces of the library, and for the emergency management throughout the building. As we walk through one of the most used buildings on campus it is alive with conversation and students moving around with purpose, James leads me to one of the quiet glass-walled rooms. As the door closes we are shut off from the low buzz of conversation and I am able to experience first-hand how silent these study rooms really are. 

James is quite passionate about his role at the library and this shines through in a vibrant way. He talks about the library and all that it offers which is quite extensive. “We find a lot of students use the library for one or two things but not everything we do,” he explained. “The main users of the physical library and collections are definitely undergrads, that is just who is mostly on campus.” James explained that over the last couple of years the library has taken on a couple of non-traditional areas which are set more in general academic range, things like how to read more critically, how to write more effectively and they do provide a small amount of IT support for students as well. 

“We can not cover everything for everybody, but we try”, James went on to explain that they are finding that the library is one of the biggest social generic spaces on campus which does not require you to be a member of a specific faculty in order to get access to the study areas. During the semester the library is open 24/7, and they have overnight facilities and security in the building to help keep the space safe. The library sends out a satisfaction survey regularly as they are very concerned with listening to and responding to the needs of its users. James notes that this is very helpful, and I must admit I was quite surprised by the most requested item. “The item we get the most feedback on is the provision of a microwave. Students are asking for this all the time.” James stressed that they do take all feedback seriously and although he is unable to make any promises regarding this most sought-after appliance, he did admit that they are trying to make it work. 

So what of this incredible space draws so many students, so many that the IT manager discovered that level two of the library was the most used WiFi point in WA for one semester. Where is it headed? And how will it continue to evolve to keep up with the fast-paced world of technology that is consuming so many aspects of our lives? James confirmed that the physical collection is the most declining resource in the library and the number of people in the space is down from previous years. He feels this is a direct result of COVID, particularly as the library was closed for several months. However, with numbers still peaking at 1200 visitors a day during the semester, this space is still highly relevant with or without physical books. In 2018 the library recorded nearly two million visitors, well over five million catalog searches, and only 74,000 loans and renewals. The move from physical books to online resources has been evident for quite a while and James tells me that the library will go forward by favouring student study spaces in various ways. “We won’t have as big a physical collection as we do now”, he explains. “Borrowing has been trickling downwards which is true of most libraries for the last couple of years.” This is evident with a quick search of the University of Western Australia which has undergone “improvements” that included adding power outlets to study desks for laptops and other devices, as well as new loan services for extension cords, charging cables, and headphones.

Looking forward the TL Robertson Library, built-in 1972, is now planning significant infrastructure works to modernise the building’s facilities. This is in the hopes to address the end-of-life services to ensure reliable and sustainable operations moving forward. This project will support the Library’s role as a key meeting place, as well as support its transition into a place for digital innovation and social collaboration. James describes the library as “a non-threatening generic space that people just like to hang out at”, and I have to agree with this. If you have not been to the library lately, do yourself a favour and go and visit this comfortable, accommodating, innovative space. Bring a friend, grab something to eat and, who knows, you might even be inspired to read a book or work on some of those looming assessments!