Peter Jones

Shelf hatred

On Newcastle University library’s horrible ‘makeover’

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On Newcastle University library’s horrible ‘makeover’

Though I retired early from Newcastle University in 1997, I have access to the university library as an associate member and use it fairly regularly. The staff and porters are excellent, and the classical section still serves my humble purposes well enough. But for how much longer?

It was over Christmas 2007 that the culture began to change, and the library to go the way of the rest of the university. Management ‘rebranded’ it, and in January 2008 one walked in to find something called ‘YourSpace’, which offered students places where they could (i) work in comfort, (ii) work with friends, or (iii) chat.

I was not aware that the purpose of a university library was to act as a social networking area, but this move fitted into a wider trend. Government pressure to take more and more students was relentless. Staff-student ratios plummeted. It was now becoming impossible to give the weaker students the help they needed to bring them up to scratch. It was more a case of the university adapting its standards to theirs. The student, not the university, was now the master. Academic staff, naturally, had no say in the matter: the administration made it quite clear what was required. So students want the library (of all places) to be a social space? It shall be done.

A few years later, TV screens sprang up throughout the building. They informed us of the weather, how to contact victim support, where we could get help if we were in financial difficulties, that all the computers were working and we must carry our smartcard at all times — all quite irrelevant to the work of a library. Then management put up a notice informing users that the library strove constantly to ‘deliver excellent customer service’, ‘embrace teamwork’, ‘celebrate success and share praise’ (I am not joking). When management tries to ingratiate itself, you know you are in trouble. Occasionally I asked staff and porters what praise they had shared that day. They fell about laughing.

Soon after that, signs were put up announcing that we would no longer take books out and return them, but visit ‘CHECK-IN’ and ‘CHECK-OUT’, apparently because foreign students did not understand ‘take out’ and ‘return’. Staff told me they understood check-in and check-out even less. And last year came what I assumed was the nadir. At the start of the academic year, a table was placed at the entrance to the library covered with notepads, pens, sweets and ‘gonks’. I enquired what they were for. ‘To show the friendly face of the library’ was the answer.

The place, when busy, now often feels like a cross between an airport, Disney World, a social services drop-in centre and a primary school. Management no longer sees it as a centre of learning, a place set apart to provide the student with resources for study and research, but rather as a transient, exploitable ‘space’, an extension of the full-on uni experience, with added books, to be moulded to whatever ‘lifestyle’ the management thinks students find attractive or will demand. But the worst was yet to come.

This summer, management started removing books. The reasoning was explained in a loop heralding ‘Phase 1 of the great transformation’ that played endlessly on a TV at the library exit: ‘Welcome back to your refurbished Robinson Library. You asked, we listened... We have moved loads of shelving to make room for more study spaces. We’ve shifted crate-loads of the less-used stock to provide more light, more room and a more comfortable space to study in. And created a greater variety of study areas. Choose the one that best suits your work-style!’ And the final picture — empty chairs with the words ‘Now that Phase 1 is all done, we are just waiting for you to fill the empty spaces!’ Phase 2, it promises for 2012, will continue this noble mission.

If we thought gonk-world was a one-off, this nauseating hymn of self-praise removed all doubt. Forget, if you can, the paradox that a library should create more space by removing books. Instead, ask ‘which books?’ The answer laid bare the full extent of the management’s trahison des clercs: it was celebrating its triumph in removing, from arts and sciences alike, the complete runs of virtually all the academic journals, the central research tool for academics in the humanities and the goal of all committed students. And management was actually boasting about it! They should be grovelling in shame.

Management’s reasoning tells you everything you need to know about its understanding of academic work: the journals, it claims, are all on computer. That is simply false, but it would not matter were it true. As any fule kno, computers are useful only if you need brief, self-contained, unconnected snippets of information. If you want to do serious academic work, consulting lengthy, properly argued and referenced literature, having a page at a time up on screen is completely useless; even more so when it comes to pursuing what will be the extensive references to other people’s work which it is bound to contain. You would go mad pursuing all those on a single screen. You need the journals open on the desk. Journals, in fact, far from being ‘less used’, are constantly used. They are just not taken out. Further, browsing shelves of journals and articles in journals at speed is an essential academic requirement. You cannot do that on screen. And what was that about research being a top university priority these days?

Ironically, the library has just won the Times Higher Leadership and Management Award for the Outstanding Library Team, largely because it has made 100,000 ebooks available to students. We now know what will happen in Phase 2 of the ‘great vandalisation’. If using a journal on screen is bad enough, just try using a book.

You may imagine the fury of academic staff to discover what had been done, in their absence and over their heads, during the long vacation. But they count for nothing. Even as I was discussing the matter with an ex-colleague, he suddenly remembered he had yet to complete his ‘Transparency Review Diary Exercise’, i.e. fill in an hour-by-hour electronic record of what he had been doing that week. Such is the trust administration now has in its academics. Autocratic, top-down management, as contemptuous of academics as it is ingratiating to students, is almost universal.

If library management demonstrated half the care and thought that its staff did about what a library should be doing for its users, none of this would have happened. As it is, I have no doubt that in a few years’ time students will demand ‘music’ in the library, and management, striving constantly to ‘deliver excellent customer service’, will provide it, ‘to suit your work-style’. And doubtless ‘share the praise’. Even very good students — and there are plenty of those — will find it impossible to get £27,000 worth of anything resembling serious education out of such a ‘uni experience’.