Challenging our concepts of library spaces: ERC tour August 2010

This week about 20 students and new graduates from Melbourne visited the new Eastern Learning Precinct at the University of Melbourne in Parkville. This was previously the Education Resource Centre (ERC), which included a library, a gymnasium and other learning spaces for students studying to be teachers. It was revamped two years ago with a view towards creating better student learning spaces on the campus. And the decision was not without its share of controversy at the time … Many scholars were very upset that so many books were moved off site to open up the Library.

For our tour guide, we were lucky enough to have Associate Professor Peter Jamieson, Policy Advisor to the Provost at the University of Melbourne, and the designer of the new learning spaces at the ERC. Library tours are always fascinating—one is shown proudly through the domain of the librarians feeling a bit like a spy, looking at shelving in one library and thinking ‘tut tut, we’d never do that!‘, and then staring dreamily at some amazing gadgets and thinking ‘if only we could …’. But to hear from the person who designed the new space is a different experience altogether.

We were privy to the rationale for (sometimes controversial) design decisions such as:

  • rather than squeezing too many students in at the cost of comfort, accepting that ERC spaces would never fit every Melbourne Uni student and instead providing unique facilities that are comfortable for a comparatively small number of students;
  • deliberately not equipping some areas with power points to encourage old-fashioned study methods and return the library to an erudite place of (book) learning;
  • celebrating the diversity of Melbourne students through awareness, with screens displaying details about countries from which students had come to study at the university, and the size of the local student population from each country;
  • the relocation of campus student services buildings to be closer to the Library and other buildings in the Precinct.

Perhaps my favourite part of the new design is the pavilion, which had previously been underutilised outdoor space in the centre of the campus. The designers copied the unusual wooden slat design on the new façade from the ERC library/student hub and reused it here in the middle of the campus, giving the illusion of extending the ERC space beyond the buildings. To me, it brought to life the concept of a library that couldn’t be constrained by physical walls—a concept that many of we new librarians find particularly exciting.

The next step? I’d like to hear from ERC librarians and University of Melbourne students about how it feels to live and work in the new space.

If you’d like to see some photos of the Precinct, there’s an excellent Flickr photostream here, (unfortunately not Creative Commons-licensed).

3 thoughts on “Challenging our concepts of library spaces: ERC tour August 2010

  1. I thought it was interesting that, whilst the design, in some cases, was to discourage students from camping on that spot for extended usage, I did notice on one occasion, that a student had still pulled up a chair and arranged her notes on the small bench space available next to the computer.

    The other thing that intrigued me was how clean and tidy the unsupervised 24-hour spaces were, especially considering the absence of “No Food, etc” signage. Whereas, in another staffed space, there are big “No Food” signs at the door, and the area looks like it required far more regular cleaning.

    I definitely liked the concept of building the resource hub *around* the library, and using architecture, like the pavillion, as a means of encouraging learning in an open and social environment.

  2. Wow, thanks Rebecca, I really wanted to go on the tour but couldn't get there from work. I used to study there! I want to go back and see the changes…

  3. The tour was fantastic. I was expecting some rather dull renovations but was really, really impressed by the insight and forethought Peter put into the design. The ERC has changed from a sort of dull dungeon place to a bright, contemporary space that feels so comfortable.

    It's almost enough to make me want to go study at Melbourne again… Well, not really.

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