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The Leading-Edge Library

Education institutions planning a new library face complex IT and facilities design challenges as they try to address current and future information technology requirements for instruction and research. IT managers must identify leading-edge IT infrastructure and systems that can provide flexibility for future innovation, and have already proven to be cost-effective, functional and reliable.

At the same time, architects and engineers must design the building to provide an environment that is conducive to learning and research; cost-effective to build, operate and maintain; and supportive of IT systems, collections, and user and staff needs. Moreover, the designs must provide maximum flexibility in the structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to enable the institution to change the configuration and functions of the building in the future.

“Future-proofing” IT infrastructure

As IT managers know, it is impossible to future-proof an IT system. The IT infrastructure must be designed to respond to anticipated increases in the speed of data transfer and the migration of services to local area network (LAN) technology. An institution should design and install an infrastructure to meet the data-transfer-speed requirements of library staff and users for at least 10 to 15 years.

This goal is best accomplished by flood wiring the entire building with the latest unshielded twisted pair (UTP) Category 6 (Cat6) cables; providing a minimum of 100 megabits (MB) per second switched Ethernet to the desktop with multi-gigabit fiber links to the campus backbone; a 100-MB link from the backbone to the Internet; and roof-mounted cable dishes providing satellite links. Institutions may not use all the functionality right away, but it will be there when needed.

It is essential to install cables using flexible service routes and to provide additional capacity under raised floors or vertical risers, in wiring closets or communications rooms, and in conduit trays. The building's telecommunications system will be able to accommodate faster cables (perhaps fiber-optic) cost-effectively in the future.

Many institutions use structured cable systems to provide voice, data and multimedia applications to desktops. In turn, there are links to the campus LAN for transmission of data, a distributed private automatic branch exchange (PABX) architecture for voice services, and a distributed network for television and video service. The structured cable service also is used commonly for security cameras, card-access door entry, public-address systems, fire alarms, building management, and other control and monitoring systems used in “smart” buildings. In the future, many of these systems will transmit data over the LAN. Therefore, IT planners should provide additional access points for these systems.

For maximum flexibility, most of the service outlets should be provided in floor boxes, with perhaps four power and four data outlets per box. If possible, floor boxes should be capable of moving to different positions on the floor. This solution provides maximum flexibility, and avoids health and safety issues associated with long, trailing cables. Additional flexibility is provided if power can be run on a track system, which can be unplugged and moved.

Most institutions also are using or planning for wireless service to provide users with voice and data transmission for their cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and laptops. They also need to consider requirements for transmission of text, graphics and video. Telephone carriers typically run fiber through the risers to transmission points on each floor to reinforce antenna radio signals and ensure that cell phones work inside the building. On the horizon are even newer technologies, including third-generation, fully digital, high-bandwidth wireless technology and high-bandwidth wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) systems.

The infrastructure described above has the capacity and capability to support a range of IT services to staff and users, including networked desktop facilities with Internet access; wireless Internet access; electronic payment systems for photocopying and printing; self-service book checkout; and a range of AV capabilities in reader carrels and in meeting, training and conference areas.

Hardware and software components may include PCs, basic applications software (i.e., word processing, spreadsheet, etc.), specialty software (e.g., tutoring software), flatscreen or plasma-screen TVs, self-service book- checkout equipment, a telephone switching system, videoconferencing facilities and cable TV connections.

Institutions and their IT, library and security directors have many concerns about building and data security. Planners should consider the following systems and features to enhance security: closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring; controlled access to the building; internal door access control; a book-security system; anti-tampering devices on CPUs; network password protection; and controlled wireless access.

Building flexibility

Just as the IT infrastructure must be flexible to accommodate future growth and change, so must the building and interior spaces. In 10 or 15 years, the size of the standard collections may shrink as reliance on IT continues to grow. The number of in-house staff and users might change as well. In fact, portions of the library may be converted to other uses entirely, such as instructional space.

To prepare for these possibilities, and other unforeseeable changes, architects and engineers must build in flexibility. The planning team should consider a number of strategies:

  • A universal space-planning grid rather than distinct planning grids for collections and office areas.

  • High-load floor slabs throughout the library, not only in collections areas.

  • Raised floors and an under-floor air-distribution system throughout the library.

Partners in planning

In order to ensure that the new library meets the needs of the institution, library staff and users, the planning team should have representatives from key areas: the institution's managers of network projects, AV projects, library IT, facility planning, engineering and management, and security; and the architect, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, AV and IT consultants, and construction manager. To coordinate the team, the institution needs someone who has an overview of the total requirements, and can challenge each element and its connectivity.

This team should be assembled as planning begins and meet regularly. Ideally, the project should be approached using a formal partnering contract, which ensures that all involved are working together for a common goal.

It also is advantageous to invite representatives of potential vendors to discuss various concepts — for example, if the institution is interested in running all services over one structured cable system. If this is not yet possible (some systems are still proprietary), the planning team needs to factor in future developments and other technological advances. Many proprietary systems have monitoring and management software that can be run over the LAN, which also must be considered early in the planning.

Providing for maximum flexibility within budget constraints on both sides of the equation — IT and facilities — is essential to success. A team of experienced, committed partners representing key disciplines and working together should achieve the functionality and flexibility that dynamic educational organizations desire.

Willars is an associate with Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, London. Thomas is network project manager, and Hunt is library manager (new building), with The Open University, Milton Keynes, Great Britain.


Education institutions and their IT, library and security directors have a number of concerns about building and data security. Planners should consider the following systems and features to enhance security:


Interactive and open

Providing effective support of academic and research endeavors, both now and in the future, was the impetus for the design of a new library at The Open University (OU) in Milton Keynes, Great Britain. The Open University is Britain's largest university; more than 200,000 students are enrolled in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. OU courses are designed for people studying in their homes or workplaces, on their own time, throughout the UK, Ireland and continental Europe, and often beyond. More than 150 courses use IT to enhance learning, including virtual tutorials and discussion groups, electronic submission and grading of assignments, multimedia teaching materials, and computer-mediated conferencing.

Previous library facilities were cramped with inadequate ventilation. Part of the collection had to be stored off campus, and staff were scattered throughout various buildings on campus. There was no training or meeting accommodation.

The three-story building creates 70,000 square feet, with 40,000 square feet for collections (59,055 feet of shelving), staff areas, reader spaces and an interactive, open learning facility. The library has two wings on either side of an atrium to provide natural light into the heart of the building.

To maximize flexibility to interchange collections and study areas, the building was planned using universal space standards for both the collections and office areas, enhanced floor loadings throughout, and raised flooring with an underfloor air-distribution system. Security is enhanced with a single entrance, CCTV in key locations, building access control, CPU anti-tampering devices, password protection and wireless network access control.

The IT infrastructure was planned to meet user needs for at least 10 years:

  • Building-wide UTP Cat6 cabling providing a minimum of 100 MB per second switched Ethernet to the desktop.

  • Multi-gigabit fiber links to the campus backbone.

  • A 100-MB link beyond the campus via the National University's network, with a 10-MB diverse backup link.

  • Roof-mounted cable dishes for satellite access.

The library provides a wide range of information services for staff and users:

  • Networked desktop facilities.

  • Internet access for staff and user networks.

  • Wireless Internet access.

  • Selective access to university systems (e.g., collections catalogs).

  • Smart-card system for photocopying and printing.

  • Self-service book checkout system.

  • AV capabilities, including ability to broadcast and play VHS tapes, DVDs and CDs at individual carrels.

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