Library Crawl Redux: What makes the perfect library?

Sam Rhodes 2 April 2015

The following is correspondence between English Faculty librarian Libby Tilley and The Cambridge Student writer Yema Stowell, after last month's white-knuckle ride through the libraries of the Sidgwick Site.


Dear Yema,

What a great article about comparing experiences at libraries on the Sidgwick site. My eye was immediately drawn to it for two reasons. Yes, I'm the Librarian at the English Faculty and so naturally there was firstly an immediate query in my mind – 'what did they think of us?'. But secondly, and more importantly, was the timing of this. Most students almost certainly don't know that this week (of all weeks) Cambridge University Librarians have been hosting a full three-day international conference all about user experiences in libraries (see #UXLibs on twitter). Not only is the 'user experience' something we are thinking about, but we're also considering research, design and implementation of library services from an ethnographic perspective. 

So what makes your article pure unadulterated music to our (librarianly) ears is the information that you have unwittingly given us – ie what you chose to use in your comparison of libraries gives us an indication of what aspects of libraries YOU are interested in. And our conference has been all about that. So, although we've all checked your article to see what you thought of our own specific libraries, it's more useful knowing what you care enough about to compare; and what that tells us about why you will, or won't, come back to our spaces.

The elephant in the room, of course, is what made you use the three things you did – emptiness, warmth, looks? Was it a back-of-the-envelope job in the pub the previous night, did you do a straw poll, was there some more scientific method about how you made those choices? You've intrigued me….and I'd like to know more. So……??

Best wishes


Dear Libby,

First of all I would like to start by saying that I wish all of my articles began on the back of an envelope in the pub the previous night. That is the kind of State of Play journalist I would like to be. Instead I’m stuck in the midst of a rush-hour train, having somehow bagged myself a front-facing table seat, thinking back to a Saturday in early Lent term when essay deadlines loomed.

In all honesty, I didn’t cross the Sidgwick Site that day with a plan for an article or any ideas about what I was looking for in each library. With most Sidgwick libraries open for fewer hours – or not at all – on a weekend, our focus soon became less about quantity and more about the quality of our experience.

So what is quality? I’m going to start first with ‘warmth’ because it’s this, more than anything else, which will persuade me to stay or escape from a library. This factor mainly comes from my every experience of the Seeley library. Its vast space means that in summer, it’s light, warm and pleasant to work in. But in winter a visit to the Seeley is the equivalent of a night out in February i.e. you want to look cool so you ditch the winter coat, but you end up lugging half of your wardrobe with you in an effort to somehow survive the ordeal. It might be quite fitting, but it’s really not practical when you’re clutching a book on Germany’s 1946 harsh winter while wearing a pair of gloves and maybe two scarves for good measure.

Still, my tolerance for cold is exceptionally poor, but what unites almost all library-goers is the desire to work somewhere aesthetically pleasing. I think this is particularly so in Cambridge where everything is so serene and architecturally impressive. The Squire library is the only one which really stands out on Sidgwick, but the importance of a well-lit, clear working-environment cannot be understated.

Lastly, I turn to emptiness and to the greatest enemy of the library: the talker. The occasional word is fine, maybe even a sentence if I’m feeling in a good mood, but during one Sidgwick visit I experienced two girls watching a YouTube video and laughing at a volume that would have shocked even the loudest of football fans. Needless to say I escaped that particular library as soon as possible. In terms of library space, however, an empty library can be so much less intimidating. After all, it saves you from the awkward walk when you’re trying to find a good space, there’s a nice table over there, and – oh wait, someone’s left their stuff there. What an ordeal.

Perhaps I’m taking this whole library survey a little too seriously (but when else can one do so if not shortly after #ULLibWeek?). Oh well. Yolo (You Only Library-crawl Once).

Best wishes,