Our libraries are being treated as an economic luxury

The other week, nine Oxford academics submitted a ‘Question in Congregation’ on the cuts to the University’s libraries budget. The immediate cause of this was the recent proposal to close the Oriental Institute Library, currently in the Oriental Institute, and transfer its holdings to the Sackler Library, already under considerable pressure. This move has been criticised by both students and staff in the Oriental Institute and the Classics Faculty, and has been covered in the Oxford Student and Cherwell.

But this proposal for the Oriental Institute Library is only one part of a wider restructuring of the University’s Humanities libraries. In 2012 the History Faculty Library was closed (despite opposition by academics and students) and its contents moved to the Gladstone Link. The Taylorian’s Slavonic and Greek Library is in the process of being wound up, and its books moved into the Taylorian. What future centralisations, rationalisations and downsizings the University management may have in mind have not been disclosed. What is certain, however, is that the root cause of the closures is budgetary.

The University libraries budget, after being slashed by 10 per cent in 2010, has undergone steady cuts of 2-3 per cent each year since then. In this context, a move like the closure of the Oriental Institute Library may look like a realistic attempt to grasp the nettle: by making a substantial saving in one go, it will prevent the whittling away of services by slow increments, and save library provision for the future. But whether this kind of strategy will in fact succeed is open to question: the University management has been known to shift the goalposts for budget targets in the past, and it may be that these moves are simply taken as evidence of further opportunities to cut back on services.

The effect of these cuts on library provision within the University should be clear: besides the obvious closures of Humanities libraries, more and more corners are being cut on a day-to-day basis, often in ways that are not obvious to library users – until a point of crisis is reached.

Although the ordering time for Bodleian books from off-site storage remains only a day, it takes anything from a week to ten days for books, after being ordered, to find their way back onto the shelves – meaning that they are unavailable during this period. This may be sustainable at this level, but if – with continued cuts, and increasing reliance on off-site book storage – the backlog carries on growing, many Bodleian books will simply be unavailable when readers want them. The remaining faculty libraries – such as the Sackler – are under considerable pressure from overcrowding.

As figures provided by the University authorities themselves show, library provision has been decreasing while demand has in fact been rising: the libraries receive more visits than in 2010/11 and hold more books, but have less physical space, less staff, and less money. And the closures or proposed closures of the History Faculty, Taylor Slavonic and Oriental Institute Libraries, amount to a still more worrying trend. We are entitled to ask where this can be expected to end: the University authorities have said little on the subject, but are Faculty libraries due to be condemned as uneconomic luxuries?

This is not, of course, an image of the University, or the Bodleian libraries, that we will find on the University website, in official prospectuses and announcements. Only recently the University has been trumpeting the opening of the ‘new’ Weston Library (in fact the old New Bodleian refurbished with external funding, renamed, and equipped with restaurant and gift-shop). The Bodleian continues to be a key part of the ‘Oxford experience’ that the University claims to offer. Articles and press releases covering some especially newsworthy part of the libraries’ holdings appear with great regularity. Certainly one can see why the University does not wish to proclaim to potential students, staff, funders, or the general public the fact that its library services are declining, and may soon face a crisis. Yet crisis is creeping inexorably on, at the rate of two to three per cent a year.

At the same time, the group of academics asking the ‘Question in Congregation’ suggest, the cost to the University of reversing the cuts and remedying the situation would be fairly minimal. Both the University’s income and its endowment fund have grown by almost a third since 2010. Somewhere out of this mass of wealth, the funds the libraries require – a mere half a per cent of the University’s income, the ‘questioners’ suggest – can surely be found.

It is to be hoped that this ‘Question’ will lead on to further questions, and even perhaps, at some stage, to answers. The University Council’s published response, in the Gazette, offers little more than a recapitulation of the budgetary situation, and no indication that they are prepared to reconsider the continuing cuts. But academics in the Classics Faculty and Oriental Institute are readying themselves for a more sustained campaign next term.

Oxford University is, of course, in a privileged position, on libraries as well as other matters, compared to that of other institutions across Britain: we have recently seen announcements of 25% cuts in adult education, and whole departments have been closing in some UK universities. But it is exactly because of its relative privilege that Oxford can and should take a stand against this race to the bottom which is devastating UK Higher and Further Education as a whole. It is not enough to accept the approach of crisis by increments: at some point, library resources – and above all the irreplaceable specialist librarians – have, like other parts of higher education, to be defended. Oxford’s wealth and prestige put it in a position to take a lead. It is to be hoped that students as well as academics will speak out for the future of their libraries.