Visit Five – Online chats and maybe-Shakespeare at the ARU library

After exploring the many Cambridge libraries which are – in one way or another – associated with the University, last Thursday brought us to the library of the other university in town, Anglia Ruskin. The first thing that dawned on me after walking into the large ground floor of the ARU library is just what a small radius of topic and activity the other libraries cover. Of course, Cambridge Uni has a university library too, but it also has dozens (if not hundreds) of other libraries, intended specifically for the students of one particular college, for students who study Classics, for students who take particular modules of the Natural Sciences Tripos, for students interested in the polar regions, and so on – all of them with sizeable collections. There is only one ARU library, and yet it seems to cover and provide for the bookish needs of its entire student body very well.

Kathi, the graduate trainee there, gave us all a fun yet concise tour of the library. There are 4 floors: the ground floor is the ‘noisy’ floor, where group study is encouraged, the next 2 are ‘quiet’ floors while the third is silent, meaning that even whispering is forbidden. There are many librarians working there – although, again, I am comparing this to our own little library and to my old college library, which had one full-time member of staff – divided into customer services, subject librarians, IT helpers, plus several part-time shelvers.

The ground floor is clearly designed so as to accommodate different types of studying. It has a number of laptops you can borrow, self-service machines (from Bibliotheca), cosy studying pods, large screens, small screens and rooms you can book. There were also a number of printed flags throughout the library, part of a virtual reality project they’re doing at the moment to encourage more people to come into the library – a fascinating idea and very fitting for how modern everything is. There are also shelves for books ordered from the other large ARU library, in Chelmsford, which the students here in Cambridge can request at any time.

The following two floors were mostly desks and books: many, many books. Classified by the Dewey Decimal system and very well signposted, they seemed to cover literally every topic one could think of. Unlike Cambridge Uni, ARU is particularly strong for vocational courses but their collection clearly includes much more than that.

Perhaps the most enlightening part of the visit was the opportunity to talk to many of the librarians who work there. The customer service side is very well-developed, with people ready to take calls and reply to emails, bookable IT appointments, but also an online chat service. This offers almost instant responses to any queries library users might have and just seemed like such an easy, efficient way to deal with questions. I did wonder whether more libraries – including our own – would benefit from implementing a similar system.

One of the trainees asked whether they have any special collections. The answer was no – they were bequeathed some ‘Shakespeare stuff‘ but do not know what to do with it since a special collection is not really something that concerns them. I found this confusing, considering a place like the UL would probably be happy to acquire new Shakespeare-related material and would organise an exhibition specifically for it. But then I realised that this actually proves ARU’s dedication to its readers and nothing else. It sounds like if they had a large number of students studying Renaissance literature they’d be happy to provide this material. However, as things stands, they seem to expend less energy on things like archiving, special collections and manuscripts, in favour of providing the suitable spaces, services and information for their readers.

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