Title: Building on the Past: Creating a Medical Research Library for the 21st Century
Author: Ian Snowley – Director of Information Services, Royal Society of Medicine, London.
This paper describes The Royal Society of Medicine’s (RSM) project to redevelop the
physical environment of its Library. The paper reviews the project and the process of
working with architects, engineers and builders to redesign the Library and complete the
project on time and budget (c£2.5-£3 Million). Some of the lessons learnt will be discussed.
The Royal Society of Medicine is a membership organisation providing a full range of
academic and social facilities for its membership of around 17,000 Doctors, Dentists, and
Veterinary Surgeons principally in the UK but also worldwide.
In order to address changing requirements for access to health information, Health Libraries
must evolve – even where physical limitations make this difficult. The RSM Library has
occupied the same building since 1912. Despite the addition of a second reading room in the
mid-1950’s and an additional office and Mezzanine stack in the mid-1980’s by the Year 2000
it was clear that further work would be required to ensure that the library was able to meet the
current and future needs of users and staff.
Luckily this opinion coincided with a recognition that the RSM building itself needed
significant redevelopment to meet changing demands in relation to educational and social
activity. Therefore in the year 2000 a project was begun to appoint architects and to plan for
the redevelopment of the RSM building.
Aims of the Project
Overall the Society decided that its Lecture Theatre needed enlarging (from 200 to 300 seats)
and along with this that improved ‘social’ facilities should be provided for members. In the
library, there was firstly a recognition that the Reading Room floors needed strengthening
(given that both floors were only considered capable of meeting modern day domestic
loading standards), and that additional space and the flexibility to organise the stock was
required. Furthermore working in a building which was nearly 100 years old had raised the
question of how to provide high quality IT access. In addition whilst it was apparent that
members liked many aspects of the Library it was clear that the lighting, decoration and
general ambiance could and should be improved.
Timetable of work
Inevitably with a project of this magnitude a lot of planning took place – though possibly not
enough. This ran from early in the year 2000 until Summer 2003 when the main build began.
The Society invited a number of architects to ‘compete’ for the job, by submitting ideas to a
brief, and after a number of discussions with groups within the Society, MJS Architects, a
London based practice was engaged to develop the final plans.
During 2002 some ‘enabling’ works took place, these introduced a new library entrance and
also allowed the redirection of a number of service routes, thereby paving the way for work
to take place later on. The building work itself began in May 2003 and was substantially
completed by the end of August 2004 – just about on schedule.
The Society took a decision at the outset that the building would remain occupied throughout
the project and that as far as possible all services would be provided as usual, this inevitably
had an impact on the length of the project and the costs incurred, as well as on users and staff.
Management of the Project
As a membership organisation it was inevitable that the Society would form a number of
Committees to oversee the work, most notably: the Bicentenary Project Committee, the
Works Committee, the Bicentenary Project Strategy Committee, the Library Refurbishment
Committee and the Logistics Committee. Luckily, though not so for my workload, I was a
full member of all of these committees for the duration of their existence (not all survived to
the end of the project), and managed to play at least some part in all of the decisions that
affected the library.
Extent of work in the Library
The library is spread over two floors of Reading Rooms, with a Mezzanine floor between,
mainly consisting of compact shelving and an extensive basement covering most of the
footprint of the building below ground.
With the exception of the basement (which did come under sustained attack from services
work) all three library floors were strengthened, all lights were replaced, all wall and
freestanding shelving was refurbished, mainly re-polished in the case of wooden units. All
windows were fitted with secondary glazing units, and a system of interconnected fan coil
units providing heating and cooling was deployed throughout. IT network points were
installed on a ‘flood’ basis throughout the reading rooms and office spaces.
In addition a number of structural interventions were made to create new staff offices at the
end of each floor, and a new IT Training Room within the 1st floor Reading Room. A more
major structural intervention saw the creation of a lightweight extension onto an existing flat
roof to create a new Rare Books Reading Room on the 2nd floor, and the installation of a new
Staircase providing a much clearer link between the 1st and 2nd floor Reading Rooms, via the
gallery. The library entrance also gained a new purpose designed counter as did the Rare
Books Reading Room. In addition all floors were decorated and recarpeted throughout.
Inevitably the hardest lesson to learn was that of the extent of the pressure on the staff and
users caused by builders noise, dust and general disruption. No matter what we did to
segregate areas of activity, the noise and dust got through. I must pay tribute to the tolerance
of both staff and users throughout the period of the work. As the library remained open and
provided a full service throughout, the work was phased from area to area, which inevitably
meant a lot of stock moves and many confused users (and staff too) as the project progressed.
Whilst this may be obvious to us, libraries are not like offices, and it is necessary to ensure
that the builders appreciate this. There were a number of occasions when the builders tried to
carry out disruptive work after 5.30pm, because they had failed to appreciate that the library
remained open into the evening – information I thought that they had! Furthermore, builders
and especially services engineers view basements as areas for plant, and inevitably planned
for a lot of pipe work to pass through the library storage areas. As our basement is open to
users this caused a lot of disruption which perhaps could have been avoided if we had made
this use of the basement clearer at the outset of the project. In fact I would argue that we
should have introduced the concept of ‘protected areas’ which were outside the main project
area, where no building work could be planned or carried out without agreement. The
basement would certainly have been included in this.
What also became clear as the project progressed is that no matter how much you prepare, it
is always likely that something will be found in the buildings structure which will require a
change of plans. This happened on a number of occasions and required us to rethink our
plans. I am certain that this had less impact on the successful outcome of the project than it
might have, because I was closely involved throughout the project. And that has to be a
fundamental consideration – if the Librarian is fully involved in the project, can challenge the
architects and help to decide the final plan and response to any problems then the final
outcome must be much more likely to meet the needs of library users and staff.
I’ve already mentioned that the RSM set up an extensive network of committees, and whilst
this can result in a big time overhead, it did help to ensure that users and staff were involved
both in the planning and the monitoring of progress. This process carried on with many
formal and informal meetings between myself and the architects which helped to develop the
plan, as well as deal with problems as they arose. One positive side effect of these meetings
was that they provided an opportunity to raise questions about the work, and on a number of
occasions they allowed issues to come to light, which might not otherwise have been the
You will need to argue your ‘corner’ and be prepared to defend just why you don’t think a
particular proposal or design will meet the needs of your users. But to do this you do need to
develop your own skills. I found that it was vital to be able to read the plans, which proved to
be a skill lacking amongst some of the members of the committees. This skill, coupled with a
scale ruler (given to me by one of the architects) meant that I was able to relate the plans
much more closely to the physical space of the library, and raise a number of questions which
resulted in changes to the plans.
I also discovered that the builders can be your allies, and thanks to the close relationship we
developed – essential to schedule the stock moves necessary to support the phasing of the
work - there was at least one occasion when the builder ‘tipped me off’ about something I
was then able to raise with the architect.
I have already said that it is important to ‘stand your ground’ and argue your case, but to do
this you do need to know that what you are arguing for is possible and reasonable. I had to
accept that some things just couldn’t be provided, and that in some cases it was better to back
down on one aspect in order to ensure that another decision was changed.
I believe that the RSM Library is now fit for the Twenty-first century, despite being in a
building nearly 100 years old.
We have a bright welcoming library, which is comfortable, designed for quiet and reflective
study, but equipped to allow use of IT and electronic information resources. The library space
itself is much easier to navigate and we can provide for secure access to historic materials. In
addition library staff have gained new offices providing better working spaces, again with
much improved IT access.
Its been a gruelling project but I am convinced that the benefits are clear to all who come into
the library, or contact its staff.