Shelf harm (1 of 2)

August 23, 2012

The University of Oxford holds the second-largest library collection in the UK after the British Library. It is steward of this precious resource for its students, for the nation and for the world.

This summer, something has gone wrong. A programme of closing and amalgamating faculty libraries has begun to put Oxford at a disadvantage against the University of Cambridge. In a rushed move made suddenly urgent by the offer of money from a benefactor, the History Faculty Library closed at the beginning of August. Its books and nearly 1,000 history undergraduates are to be crammed into the Radcliffe Camera and the old Bodleian Library, plus the underground space linking the two.

This overhasty business has been badly managed. Although the moves require changes to be made to the interior of the iconic Camera building, the necessary listed building consent application was not submitted until July. It is now far from clear, even with improbably speedy planning permission, whether adequate undergraduate history provision can be made ready for next term.

This overloading of Oxford's central library complex is having a further effect. Without warning or consultation, a comprehensive reorganisation of the Bodleian's humanities research collection is being pushed through to make room for the books being evacuated from the Camera, destroying juxtapositions and sequences evolved over decades that created a paradise of a library for graduate students and researchers. Shoals of letters of complaint have been written to the libraries' management, the vice-chancellor and the registrar. Outraged visiting academics who regularly come to Oxford in the summer to work in the Bodleian have been adding theirs, too.

In Oxford, the academic community is still the "sovereign body". A preliminary "Question" has already been asked and dozens of signatures collected, creating a Resolution (potentially a legislative act) requesting a pause for proper consultation. Oxford's executive council will have to make some difficult decisions about how to proceed at its September awayday.

G.R. Evans, Oxford

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