If you ask any tourist what the first thing is to come to mind when they hear the word ‘Oxford’, there is a fairly good chance that they will picture the Radcliffe Camera. The RadCam is, by any standards, an awe-inspiring sight, and it is very easy to forget that the building is actually a library, filled almost literally to the rafters with grafting students from dawn to dusk.
During term time, that is. In the vacations, the library provision available across the University is somewhat less than ideal, and this is a matter that has caused uproar amongst the students at my college over the last few weeks; indeed, I’ve rarely seen members of the JCR so united over a common cause. Over the Easter break, our college library was open from nine till five, Monday to Friday, meaning that finalists were often left unable to access necessary books and without somewhere to study at weekends and in the evenings. Any Oxford student will tell you that weekends are no different to any other day of the week when it comes to work, and yet throughout the vacation not a single central library opened its doors on Sundays. Some college libraries have impressive opening hours, with Magdalen being particularly notable for never closing, but for those of us who aren’t so lucky it is incredibly frustrating. Surely one of the purposes of having onsite libraries is the convenience offered to the students of that particular college, giving them somewhere to work at any time – why do we suddenly lose that privilege over the vac?
Of course, any sort of liaison between the student body of any college and the college itself, the body who actually has the power to change things, is notoriously difficult, and this has been no different: the college has refused point-blank to compromise, claiming that having students in an unmanned library was out of the question, and this has culminated in the starting of an online petition. One student voiced what everyone else was thinking: what is the apparently crucial difference between an unstaffed library at evenings and weekends during term, and an unstaffed library at evenings and weekends out of term? For the last few years, the excuse routinely given for not opening over the holidays has been that the library was awaiting the installation of an electronic security system, but we now have one- so why are they still refusing to extend the opening hours?
I’ll hazard a guess: because, like so many Oxford colleges, mine is unwilling to compromise with their students in order to accommodate them. Being on a JCR Committee offers a vantage point like no other for seeing how difficult it is to wade through college bureaucracy when trying to get anything done, and I am convinced that what I have affectionately and rather unoriginally termed ‘librarygate’ is a consequence of that: New College is unwilling to extend its library opening hours because it simply cannot be bothered. From their point of view, eight hours of revision a day is perfectly fine, but it is surely up to the individual to decide their working timetable- and in the eyes of most Oxford students, eight hours is simply never going to be enough.
Even during term the library hours are not always sufficient. The RadCam, for example, closes at 10pm on weekdays, perhaps because this is supposedly a good time to stop working, I’d be prepared to bet my bottom dollar that most of the students who are in there until closing time go straight back to their rooms to continue working. It sometimes seems as if the university is in denial about the number of hours of library access needed in order to complete a degree here. Additionally, no thought is given to night owls whose peak period of productivity occurs in the small hours- why should they not also be able to access one of the university’s central libraries at a time that suits them?
And yet this is the same university whose colleges compete in the Norrington Table and expect their students to perform exceptionally well. For these expectations to be met, surely it is in the interest of every college to do everything in its power to help the students to excel academically; offering them somewhere to study for long hours throughout the year, including the vacations, when many finalists stay in Oxford purely to revise, seems like an obvious place to start. Why make what is already an incredibly stressful time any more traumatic than is absolutely necessary?
The University’s reputation as a rigorously academic institution is well-deserved, and yet, despite being one of the best universities in the world, it is lagging behind its UK counterparts in terms of library opening hours: Durham, UCL, and Imperial College London all offer informal 24/7 library facilities to their students. Oxford needs to be more prepared to cater to the needs of its students in this respect by ditching the tradition of shutting the doors of its libraries at what it views as the ideal bedtime.