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The Library’s New Clothes

Scarlett Parker18 February 2015

Image from Hans Andersen’s fairy tales (1913) London: Constable; by W. Heath Robinson; obtained from https://archive.org/details/hansandersensfai00ande

THIS FRIDAY I’ll be visiting the Museum of Brands in West London. It began as Robert Opie’s personal collection, growing from a single Nestlé Munchies’ wrapper to over 12,000 items documenting the development of consumer culture from the 1800s to the present day. It’s bound to be a nostalgia trip, but it will also be a chance to cast a critical eye over the aesthetic mutations endured and celebrated by that community of objects which populates our cupboards, adorns our walls, and steps over the thresholds of our collective subconscious like a vampire we don’t remember inviting.

UCL IS CHANGING and with it the Library. Or maybe I should say Library Services. We’re a loose collective unified by a core strategy and set of regulations, but with each site tailoring its service and environment to very different groups of users. This is a good and necessary thing. In the context of branding, however, this provides some challenges. The same issue exists at an institutional level: UCL’s Creative Media Services & Communications teams have constructed a corporate style guide (or ‘visual identity toolkit’ if you prefer) that governs the way a multitude of departments are supposed to be presented. Many of these departments strive to retain identities that differentiate them from the rest, and so a permanent balancing act is played out between UCLness and Department Xness.

THE PUBLICITY & SHELVING TEAM, hastily rechristened after photocopying services became centrally controlled by ISD (ably supported by assistance desk staff and service assistants), has been wrestling with this identity conundrum for many months now. Situated within the Main Library, it’s perhaps unsurprising that initial forays beyond the realm of signage and into the more attention-seeking world of publicity have happened within a half mile radius around the bloated auto-icon. What began as slightly frenzied bouts of research and improvisation using obsolete software iterations inside an infinite regression of desktop environments has reached a sort of coming of age. Members of the team have worked hard to develop a certain level of competence – expertise, even – in creating visual media for the Library, and when you couple this with the recent acquisition of appropriate digital tools, the end result is a tangible improvement in output: faster, more sophisticated, and more effective.

BUT THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING. As the Library strives to enhance and refine the services it offers to users, it must also improve the way it communicates these things to the relevant target audiences. I’m as cynical as the next person about branding. Probably more cynical. But I don’t want to see the labour, diligence, experience, and inspirational initiatives of my colleagues being overlooked, ignored, or simply lost in the noise of all those other products and services that clamour for attention in the hyperconnected age. So how are we going to do it? What does the UCL Library Services brand look like? What will it look like next year?

DEFINING THE LIBRARY BRAND is sure to be a collective endeavour. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a static thing, and I’ve got a feeling the unique selling point is the staff. I’m certain it will involve more ongoing aesthetic variation than I’ll see for any single product at the museum on Friday, but then, academic libraries are more complicated than bars of chocolate. Maybe libraries will never be as appealing either, but what they can be is a more satisfying experience. We just need to grab people’s attention and convince them that’s the case.