Space to study?

Illustration: Flo McQuibban
Illustration: Flo McQuibban
Illustration: Flo McQuibban

With spring break behind us and exams looming on the horizon, we are once again reminded that study spaces are central in our lives as students. These places see us at our best and our worst. Here, we will mull over piles of books at ungodly hours whilst becoming dangerously caffeinated. However, these are also the spaces where we catch up with friends we have not seen in weeks, Skype relatives across the world and organize our society’s upcoming events on Facebook.

Ultimately, they form a key part of our lives here in St Andrews, and they are much more than buildings full of books or silent sections. Sitting comfortably? Then let’s take a look at our familiar friend: the study space.

The concrete monolith

No discussion on this topic can start without considering our beloved Main Library. Although it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing building in town, it is one of the most important University buildings by virtue of its name – it is the foremost study space. Just think of all the great ideas that have been formulated, debated and reworked within its walls. Catch-ups, the break-ups, the makeups – it all happens here.

No doubt, though, you will recognise the following complaint: “Why is the library so busy?” If I had a pound for every time I have heard someone grumble these words, then I would not be worrying about repaying my student loan. This perfectly summarises the issue of study spaces in a small place like St Andrews. The library is a victim of its own success; it is too popular.

We are not the only university facing these pressures. The University of Oxford recently reopened their Weston Library after spending an eye-watering £80 million on its refurbishment in response to ever-increasing demand from students and academics. The new additions will make you green with envy: specialist reading rooms, exhibition and breakout spaces and the introduction of new ergonomic chairs specially designed not to creak when you lean forwards to read a book. (How clever!)

Of course, we, at St Andrews, cannot expect something so grand anytime soon. However, some of the remodelling changes made at Weston Library resemble those made during our own library’s (modest) redevelopment in 2011. In a careful balancing act, the library overhaul designated several different types of study areas meant to suit a variety of individual tastes. Additionally, the café and comfy seating areas were provided for necessary study breaks.

But still, students want more to be done. Ondrej Hadja, the Director of Representation, has been a strong advocate of improved study space across the University, and he has kept this task at the forefront of his agenda. Already this has led to the extension of the library’s opening hours, from 8am to 2am every day of the week. Additionally, in response to increasing student demand, another redevelopment is in the works that could see up to 400 new seats in the library by September 2015.

Beyond the lib 

With a maximum capacity of 966 persons, the Main Library can only accommodate one eighth of the study body at any given time. If this is all a numbers game, then most students are surely losing. Fortunately, not everyone chooses to study in the Main Library at once. But where are the other 7,000+ students studying?

Anyone can say that the library isn’t big enough, but crucially it isn’t a space that suits everyone’s particular studying habits. Ondrej reminds us that the Main Library is only one study space of many. “We need to be creative with study space solutions and look to other places in town,” he says.

Recognising student demand for more study spaces, the University and the Students’ Association are working together to re-consolidate and improve existing spaces. This ‘kill two birds with one stone’ approach aims to alleviate pressure on the Main Library whilst increasing the variety and choice of spaces available to students.

For example, one goal is to develop targeted study spaces, including those reserved for specific schools. “We need to foster greater community within schools, and now we have the opportunity,” Ondrej says. Some more options and propositions for alternative study spaces are listed below.

Uni spaces

The University provides a variety of study spaces other than the Main Library. The trick is knowing where to look. Many schools have their own dedicated study spaces. For example, theologians have the King James Library in St Mary’s Quad at their disposal. Classicists have their own private library on the first floor of the Swallowgate building on Butts Wynd. And chemists have the Purdie Library on the North Haugh. My own subjects (Geography and Sustainable Development) have a 24/7 IT lab, primarily for Geography, SD and Geoscience students, but open to all. All of these spaces provide the opportunity to mingle with fellow classmates outside of the lecture theatre.

The distribution of study spaces goes beyond individual schools. Recently we’ve seen the addition of the Martyrs Kirk Research Library on North Street to the University’s library portfolio. This space is dedicated to postgraduate research students and staff.

Feeling left out? Then look to interdepartmental spaces, like St Mary’s Library on South Street. This library houses undergraduate collections for the Divinity, Medieval History and Psychology departments but is open to all students and staff. (However, do note that it is only open on weekdays from 9am to 5pm.) Despite student complaints, it is actually quite hard to turn a corner in this town without stumbling upon an available study space.

Beyond the town centre, improvements have been made in the North Haugh, too. Just a few weeks ago the Gateway Building introduced 88 new seats and 24 new PCs (in addition to those already available). The building is open to all students from 9am to 9:30pm, seven days a week. Similarly the JF Allen Library in the Physics and Astronomy building is open from 8am to 6pm on weekdays; based on student demand, there is scope to extend its opening hours in the near future.

Home sweet home 

According to the Student Study and Technology Survey undertaken last year, 79 per cent of students actually chose their own house as their most preferred place to study, followed by the Main Library. Library overcrowding remains an issue, but it is worth considering why most students prefer to stay at home.

There are many reasons students prefer to study at home besides just anti-social behaviour, the survey found. Power outlets, adequate desk space and a quiet environment rank as students’ top priorities when it comes to study space. However, our preferences have been noted by staff, and by September 2015 every study space in the Main Library will have its own plug sockets.

Day and night 

While some students might consider the Union and various local pubs as nighttime only venues, these spaces are also available during the day. The top floor of the Union is a recently redeveloped study space, and it now features comfy pod seating and society rooms that are ideal for group work. (These rooms are bookable at reception.) Similarly, the Beacon Bar is spacious and full of natural light (and power sockets!). It’s also very quiet in the daytime.

If you’re looking for more hubbub, then there’s always Rector’s, where you can justify that fourth coffee with the happy knowledge that any money you spend there goes straight towards student activities.

Last but not least are the cafés and pubs dotted about town. Taste makes for a pleasant study experience; coffee and free Wi-Fi are a winning combination if you can grab a seat. At Aikmans, on the other hand, you’re unlikely to have to fight for a table to yourself. Plus the bar offers great food and a friendly atmosphere during the day.

Going forward 

While there are surely even more study spaces in St Andrews, I think the point has been made: there is a huge variety and increasing choice of spaces available to students. For those in search of a viable alternative to the library, hopefully you’ve found what you’re looking for.

However, in addition to satisfying student demand for more space in general, it is also important that we cater to a diverse student population. For those who have particular studying needs, such as commuting students, it is crucial that they are able to access the study spaces that work best for them. Not all students have the option to pop home if the Library (or Taste, for that matter) is too busy.

Study space is a perennially hot topic. As student numbers increase and tuition fees rise, the debate is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon. It will be the task of future student representatives to work with University staff and school presidents to continue advocating for increased study space. In the meantime, we need to be creative in our choices, vocal in our preferences and proactive in our studying. As the saying goes, the early student gets the library caddy, right?


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