The University of Abertay Dundee's new library building is situated in the heart of the city centre. Recently voted Scotland's Best New Building in the Scottish Design Awards 1998, the four story structure of sandstone, steel and glass opened its doors to its users in February this year, and was formally opened by HM Queen on 30th of June. During the 18-month construction period, on billboards, and in the national press during the opening, the University proclaimed its ambition to be a Higher Education Institution 'for the Digital Age', with the library as physical manifestation of this ambition. Alison Kilgour travelled to Dundee to see the award-winning design for herself and to investigate whether the building is the flagship that the University envisioned. There can be no doubt that it is an impressive edifice and, rising four floors above Dundee's Bell Street, a spectacular addition to the City Centre. A visually arresting curved steel and glass energy wall fronts the building, providing a vast window into a world of learning for the passing public and a controlled environment for the users within. The energy wall sweeps elegantly round to meet an impressive stone tower, an architectural feature reminiscent of a Stone Age broch. Old and new also sit comfortably inside, with leather bound law reports nestling beside IT clusters. The spine of the building on which the glass belly hangs is a stone built rectangular block, the nerve centre for the IT and Library facilities as well as housing the staff work areas.
Figure 1: Abertay Dundee's New Library
Helen Foord, Assistant Head (User Support) of Information Services, explained the origins of the building. The old library, had not been purpose built, but "cobbled together" over the years from teaching and laboratory space, "We burrowed up and down within the building to create accommodation, but it was clear to all that it was not a satisfactory long term solution." Pressure became particularly acute as the former Dundee Institute of Technology strove for University title, awarded in 1994. A library barely able to cope with a student community of 2000 now found itself having to cater for over 4,000! The unique position of Abertay was recognised by SHEFC who awarded the highest share of government funding given to any of the Scottish universities, half of the £8m required to build the only new purpose built University Library in the country.
If the new building were to be judged on study facilities alone then it would be an undoubted success - the quality of the environment has been immeasurably improved and usage of the library is up by 50%. The new premises are almost three times as big as the previous accommodation and provide 300 more study spaces. Also on offer are two fully equipped seminar rooms for teaching information and IT skills, six group study rooms, the Centre for language Learning and Self Study and a European funded IT training suite. In addition, a specialist law library, developed in co-operation with the city's Faculty of Procurators and Solicitors, was recently opened by Lord Hardie, Scotland's Lord Advocate. But what is the evidence for a digital future?
The University's commitment to communications and information technology to support teaching and learning is certainly evident in the attention to networked IT. Abertay's network infrastructure was completely upgraded in 1996, with over 50 miles of new cable being installed to create a robust, reliable high speed network/server configuration. Partly funded by the SHEFC use of MANs initiative (UMI), broadband high-speed fibre-optic technology now links all the major campus buildings, including more remote sites such as Dundee Graduate Business School at historic Dudhope Castle, and connects them to a new backbone with ten times the capacity of its predecessor. These facilities are already allowing users to share documents and programs more effectively, while a link to the Fife and Tayside Metropolitan Area Network (FatMan) can provide extremely high quality simultaneous video-conferencing, audio, data and still image transmissions to and from other institutions.
On a tour of the building Jim Huntingford, Information Manager, showed me the PC facilities which the infrastructure supports. 170 new Pentium 166 MMX PCs are distributed between four open-plan IT clusters and two seminar rooms. As it stands, this represents the largest single IT resource in the University with over 1,000 PCs, but there are already plans to increase this still further. In fact, the building was specifically designed to allow all 700 study spaces to be developed into IT workstations and the cabling and network points are already in place.
All the PCs in the University operate with a common desktop , currently consisting of the Windows NT operating system and Office 97 Professional application software. As Huntingford explained "Using IT at University will be the first step towards a lifetime habit. It is therefore important that we provide an opportunity for our students to work with industry standard facilities, a PC environment that students can expect to meet in the workplace."
But with all this emphasis on IT facilities isn't the name library a misnomer? Why call it a library at all? Foord answered, "People's concept of a library is changing and the students still call it a library, while recognising the enhanced facilities. "Also, as Huntingford elaborated, "It would be a mistake to think that the central importance of information delivery had been forgotten." Instead, the building was planned to take into consideration the fact that traditional methods of delivering information are being increasingly superseded by digital technologies. A far smaller percentage of floor space is given over to shelving than in more traditional libraries. All PCs have access to the Internet and locally networked resources, including over 40 CD-ROM databases. As evidence of a very real paradigm shift towards access rather than holdings, Huntingford cited the recent cancellation of approximately £9000 of paper journals and the subscription to their electronic equivalents on full text electronic databases such as Emerald and IEEE Computer Society Digital Library.
Figure 2: A view of the inside
But how had all of this been achieved? What is the single most important factor? Huntingford replied, "The library development is the central component of the implementation of the University's Information Strategy." Published in 1995 and produced by a Working Group drawn from across the University, it was one of the first university information strategies to be produced in the UK. The vision of the Information Strategy was of a cost-effective, centrally managed set of information services to support the academic and administrative needs of the University. Information Services, the combined Library and Computer Centre, was created in 1996 with the Media Centre integrated a little later. This new corporate service already has its own strong identity within the University and the Information Strategy remains at the heart of policy making and planning within Information Services. A fundamental aim is to ensure that technology is employed in an educationally sound manner, which will enhance the quality of and access to teaching and learning.
Finally, what of the future? What are the most important issues for Information Services to deal with? Key IT priorities are currently the development of the University's Intranet, and the training of users in baseline IT skills. Within the Academic Support Division of Information Services three key IT training posts have been created. This IT training team now delivers skills training to the vast majority of first year students in a course specifically designed for this purpose. A major programme of training in the standard desktop for all staff will soon be underway. The Academic Librarians are also heavily involved in delivering Library and Information Skills to students, again within integrated modules. The University has announced its intention to implement a policy of the 'Use of Communications and Information Technologies in Internal Communications', with the aim of facilitating use of the Intranet, shared network drives and e-mail rather than paper, in all non-verbal communications. Again, responsibility for ensuring that all staff possess and develop the skills and confidence to implement such a policy rests with the Information Services.
Information Services recognise, however, that there is no room for complacency. A systematic approach to determining user perceptions of the services and facilities has been adopted, with a survey of staff perceptions of service standards already completed and a survey of all students planned for early next semester. These surveys are one of the ways in which the Service hopes to enhance user involvement in the provision and development of services that they are responsive to users' needs and views. To this end, Service Level Agreements are also being developed across all areas, in IT, Library and Media, so that user expectations can be mapped onto quality, but realistic, deliverables.
The new library at the University of Abertay is certainly an architectural triumph, and the IT and library facilities are undoubtedly impressive, but I left Dundee with a sense that the real story has only just begun. The completion of the new library project at Abertay is an achievement of which the University can be justifiably proud, but the interest now lies in how the technology will be used in innovative ways to support teaching and learning, on campus and beyond.
Helen Foord is Assistant Head (User Support)