Full of touchy-feely, signifying nothing

November 22, 2012

The concerns that emerged this summer about the Bodleian Libraries are leading to quite a shake-up ("Shelf harm", Letters, 23 August).

Last week, a two and a half hour academic-led discussion on the future of the libraries, attended by a couple of hundred people, was held in the Sheldonian Theatre. The speeches will be published verbatim on the Oxford University Gazette website today, so readers of Times Higher Education can check for themselves both the details of the academic concerns raised and the defences constructed by a management still not confident about engaging with students and scholars over academic needs.

There has been a public admission by the university council that "communications" must be improved. "Better communication" initiatives coming from the management of the libraries so far have consisted of three US-style "town meetings" to discuss the draft strategic plan but not the concerns raised in the summer. These meetings were attended by only a tiny handful of people, particularly the one intended for students. Management has also disseminated a LibQUAL+ Lite survey (another American touch), mainly asking how readers "feel". Internal adjustments to the functioning of faculty committee structures are also being proposed.

Oxford needs to improve "communications" about its libraries in far more inclusive ways. For example, the vice- chancellor did not allow students to attend or speak at the discussion except for a single approved student union representative, although several asked to speak.

The university's statutes require it to maintain the libraries as "a national and international scholarly resource". But the thousands of Oxford graduates with lifetime rights and the worldwide visitors who rely on the Bodleian as a research collection have no forum in which to contribute to the necessary, serious, detailed discussion about putting right the damage done by this summer's rushed changes.

Meanwhile, plans for the rebuilt New Bodleian Library (now to be named the Weston Library after the Garfield Weston Foundation, which donated £25 million to the project) are rumoured to have a greater emphasis on tourism than meeting library needs. Sadly, in this area "better communication" seems to have broken down again, and once more all is secrecy.

G.R. Evans, Oxford.

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