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The Protolib Project at the University of Cambridge, Part 1

Cambridge University Library has released a wonderful report about the Protolib Project, an effort, its title states, at “researching and reimagining library environments at the University of Cambridge.”[1] Protolib is one of several projects by an initiative called Futurelib,[2] which has also released a report on Spacefinder, an app that enables students to find just the right place to work in Cambridge’s rich and sometimes confusing array of libraries and other formal and informal study spaces.[3] Led by Sue Mehrer, Deputy Librarian, Futurelib’s objective is to use the methods of ethnography and user-centered design to understand library-related practices and develop and test innovative environments, services, and technologies. Andy Priestner is the Futurelib project manager.

The Protolib report is a comprehensive document that reviews the methods and findings of the six-month project, situates the findings within the Cambridge context, and makes recommendations for library space design. The report combines the particulars of the Protolib project with broader reflection on libraries as institutions and on the process of seeing libraries with fresh eyes and imagining their futures.

Early in the project, the team identified four principal activities related to the use of libraries and similar spaces: reading, writing, group work, and analysis. In the Protolib project, they set out to “create the ‘perfect reading’ and ‘perfect writing’ concepts” and then observe and assess how students made use of their creations (p. 5). Project leaders hope to be able to design and test “perfect group work” and “perfect analysis” spaces in the future.

A hallmark of this project—and one that will make many readers envious—was the ability to purchase furnishings and use them in various configurations to iterate and test design concepts. The report’s many color images provide readers with a good picture of how the reading and writing spaces were planned and what they looked like in real life.

The project employed several methods. The first was the establishment of a baseline through careful observation of existing spaces before they were reconfigured. After reconfiguration, the spaces were observed twice a day for almost three months. Team members collected feedback on graffiti walls, comment cards, surveys, and brief exit interviews with people who had just been working in the altered spaces. The team also conducted interviews with librarians and library staff.

Careful analysis of the data from these various information-gathering activities pointed to three major factors driving students to select just the right space in which to work: activity, expected duration of the work session, and mental state or the need for “wellbeing” (p. 10). The combination of these factors played into variations in the way spaces were set up to produce three major types of environment. The low intensity environment was characterized by a relaxed atmosphere and low-level working noise (p. 11). The medium intensity environment worked best at a capacity of around 40 people and allowed individuals to spread out their work and devices (p. 11). The high intensity environment was far less transient than the other two, was silent or nearly silent, allotted less space per person, and was more formal and traditional (p. 12).

The report posits a relationship between the intensity of a chosen environment and a hierarchy of activities that includes primary activities (such as writing and reviewing course material), secondary activities (including reading and discussing work with peers), tertiary activities (such as planning and communicating), and a fourth category of breaks and periods of reflection. The more the activities are “primary,” the higher the intensity. In other words, the more the activities skew towards writing and intense engagement with course material, the more the individual will seek the quietest, most traditional environment (p. 15).

These typologies, based on observed behaviors, form the basis for the many cogent recommendations in the report. Chief among them is the need for a variety of low, medium, and high intensity environments. Design suggestions for each of these environments are detailed and reflect the project’s hallmark iterative prototyping (pp. 43–54).

While the report is closely bound to the location and institution within which the work was conducted, many of the findings have much broader application. Readers will be rewarded with design concepts that may be useful in their own settings not least for providing guidance on what to observe, questions to ask, and ideas to try.

The report also raises questions and provides useful insights into the whole enterprise of envisaging future academic libraries. I will write about these issues in my next blog post. For now, I encourage anyone who is interested in library design to read the Protolib report.

[1] Andy Priestner, David Marshall, and Modern Human, “The Protolib Project: Researching and Reimagining Library Environments at the University of Cambridge,” April 2016,

[2] More information about Futurelib and its other projects, North Star, and WhoHas? can be found at

[3] Andy Priestner, David Marshall, and Modern Human. “Spacefinder: Illuminating Study Spaces at the University of Cambridge and Matching Them to User Need and Activity,” June 2016,

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