Library as a New Space for Materials Learning and Discovery

What does it take to create and curate a tactile experience in a library? Jessie Tang shares with us on the Materials Collection in Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) Library.

How it began

Starting a new library is always exciting as you get to introduce, and experiment with, new ideas and concepts to complement learning. When SUTD Library was first conceptualised, we wanted to create a library like no other to complement SUTD’s unique learning pedagogy while adopting a “go-digital” strategy. We took the challenge as an opportunity to redefine academic libraries by introducing a variety of new experiences for our users. The Materials Collection @ SUTD is part of the new experience where we provide a tactile experience for materials learning and discovery, complementing our material science and architecture courses.

The whole idea of a materials collection started through our discussion with the pioneering students and faculty back in 2011 when we were still breaking down our traditional perception of libraries. We looked at precedents from other libraries and tried to test and prototype the concept out. Due to our small team, we outsourced the materials curation to Materials Connexion, who specialises in collecting material samples. It enabled us to build up an intimate collection with a digital database to provide additional information rapidly, achieving our goal for a touch-and-feel experience before SUTD received our first batch of students. Now, we have almost 700 different materials from Materials Connexion on display at the SUTD Library.

How it evolved

We found that the outsourced collection had not been as useful as we imagined it would be. Without a say in what materials we receive through our subscription plans with Materials Connexion, we received a lot of novel and specialised samples that were far too niche for our students. Through our focus group discussions with the faculty to understand what students actually need, we realised that we had to take over the curation of the materials in order to provide a much more meaningful experience. This led to the start of a long-term project of expanding our materials collection with the goal of becoming the region’s Materials Library, featuring not just widely used materials but also materials unique to the tropical region.

What is involved

To some extent, the process is like the acquisition of other library resources, but without an established relationship with vendors, without SOP or waiver of competition. We go through similar stages of sourcing, getting quotations, getting approvals, receiving the material, cataloging the material, tagging the material and displaying the material on the shelf.

At the LAS Conference 2019 Poster Presentation, I presented the ecosystem of our new Materials Collection:

Presenting at LAS Conference 2019
Poster presented at LAS Conference 2019

The project involves 4 key areas:

  1. collaborating with our faculty, research centres and vendors to get the relevant materials
  2. procure physical materials for discovery as well as material teaching kits for courses
  3. procure digital databases to support material learning
  4. showcase materials and prepare peripherals that go alongside the material itself

The Materials Collection aims to achieve these goals:

  1. provision of resources on theory of materials
  2. enabling users to experience materials through touch and feel
  3. facilitate learning of materials through activities
  4. allowing users to acquire practical knowledge through understanding material life cycles
Our progress so far

The in-house curation now features more than 200 unique fundamental materials including different metals, woods, polymers, composites and tiles. We have also developed four teaching kits to support our Material Science course. My favorite collection is definitely the Stones collection. We have included Diamonds (Industrial), Sapphires (Industrial) and even Obsidian!

To complement our physical collection, we managed to provide access to Granta CES Edupack, a materials database on our library terminal. In 2018, SUTD Library played host to the 3rd Asian Materials Education Symposium, showcasing our contribution as enablers of Materials Education.

Self-curated Materials Collection @ SUTD Library
Key challenges

As the SUTD library has a small team, there is no dedicated team developing this particular collection (there are only 2 of us trying to pull this together!) and the progress made for the collection fluctuates a lot depending on our other workload. For example during the Circuit Breaker, there is almost no progress as we are unable to process any materials in office.

We try as much as possible to find materials of equivalent sizes so that our users could compare them. However, this made procurement and cataloguing really problematic. We had to cut some pieces so that they are of the right length as there is a minimal length the material comes in (Yes, they don’t come in sample sizes!). Sometimes we end up with more than five extra pieces for a material, and we have to catalogue all of them since we purchased them.

Equal-sized materials after in-house packaging

As each unique material comes from a different supplier, we cannot depend on building up good relationships with one supplier in hopes that we can use their help again in the near future, as the next material we are looking for will most likely not come from them. We faced many roadblocks trying to find local vendors to provide us with samples. For instance, most of them do not entertain any requests that are too small. We found that consumer-fronting vendors, such as those who are selling tiles and flooring, are more open towards providing free samples.

Future plans

In the near future, we hope to grow our collection further. This includes dedicating more space for our in-house collection and compressing the selection from Materials Connexion. We are also planning to showcase the material life cycle through our collection – where you can see how a block polymer could become a product, how a fabric carbon fibre can become a hard chassis, or how bamboo is treated and processed to form an architectural structure.


This project was first presented as a poster at the 2019 LAS Conference.

Contributed by:
Jessie Tang
ASD Pillar Librarian/Research Librarian/Co-Lead for Materials Collection
SUTD Library