Furious students face up to impact of Bodleian budget cuts

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A proposal by the Bodleian to merge the Oriental Institute Library with the Sackler Library has caused shock and concern among the Institute’s students and faculty.

In a consultation Friday with James Legg, Bodleian Head of Humanities, students said the move would undermine the prestige, identity, and community of the OI.

While some students have already dealt with the annoyances of libraries’ shorter hours and lower staffing, this proposal has brought Bodleian budget cuts closer to home for members of the OI, causing them to consider deeply both University policies and the significance of their library.

The Bodleian faces a nominal freeze in university funding for the 2015-2016 year, which amounts to a 5 per cent cut in real terms. Total university funding for the libraries is about £30 million.

With the cuts, administrators face tradeoffs between purchases, staffing, and building space, and closing the OI Library would bring them £120,000 closer to meeting budget goals. Alternative cost-saving measures considered are even less appealing. A 20 per cent reduction in purchases for the OI Library would save just £30,000.

The Library, which is part of the OI’s building, houses 55,000 volumes covering the Islamic World, Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Eastern Christianity, and Asia. The nearby Sackler houses volumes in Art History, Archaeology, and Classics.

When the original proposal was released in Hilary, it came out of the blue for many students . Neither the Bodleian nor the OI Faculty had communicated directly with the student body before the proposal’s release. There was, however, student representation at all meetings where the option was discussed.

66 per cent of OI students opposed the initial proposal, an internal poll determined. Concerns included the availability of shelf space for OI materials and study space in a Sackler Library often crowded with classicists. The proposal has since been amended to add more shelving and 40 desks to the Sackler library, Mr Legg told the students, and a new poll is currently being administered.

At Friday’s consultation broader concerns about the role of the library were expressed. One graduate student said: “I wouldn’t have applied to Oxford if the Faculty hadn’t had a library.” The identity of the institute, he continued, was bound up in having a Library, break areas, and faculty all in one building.

If the proposal were accepted, the fate of the OI Library would be uncertain. While Mr Legg suggested conversion into graduate study-space in order to maintaining a sense of community at the Institute, the decision on how to use the floorspace would ultimately lie with the University. It could be converted into offices, and Mr. Legg said could “provide no guarantee” that it would remain a part of the OI.

A 2nd year Arabic Student told the OxStu: “It is very worrying to have heard for the first time the whole future of the OI is at stake and not just the library.” The student also referred to “complete lack of transparency through this ‘consultation’”.

In response to allegations of opacity, Mr. Legg said he’d expected the Institute’s faculty would have informed students of the status of negotiations around the library. He also noted that there have been no spending steps to begin a move.

James Blythe, OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs, discussed the matter in an official statement: “No decision has been made, and we won’t allow one to be made without clear and robust consultation with the students. We have also been helping the senior staff of the Bodleian to enhance and augment their consultation strategy.”

The students’ confusion typifies persistent problems in communication between administrators and the students their decisions affect. While student representatives sit on many committees, formal channels of communication are often lacking. There has also been no consultation of students who currently use the Sackler Library.

The proposed closure of the OI Library reflects the first major impact of the Bodleian’s budget controls, and forces students to directly confront the reality of budget cuts.

Professor Henrietta Harrison, who teaches Chinese Studies, told the OxStu: “It is really sad that the Bodleian is suffering from such a shortage of funding, which affects not just the location of the OI Library and other libraries, but also book acquisition budgets and specialist librarians.”

The intangible impact on the prestige of the OI, its applicant pool, and its operations can only be estimated. What is certain, however, is the importance of many OI students to the library at the core of their studies.

Also uncertain is whether students in other departments will have to contend with similar changes as the result of Bodleian cuts. Mr Legg spoke of an “enormous change in attitude” of the University towards the Libraries since he joined the institution in 2000. Then, the Bodleian budget was “very much a blank cheque.” 

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