Anger over plans to slash Exeter's library stock

November 9, 2007

Academics have accused their university library of throwing away thousands of books to make way for comfortable chairs in a bid to impress students.

Exeter University has spent £500,000 on refurbishing its main library to create group work spaces, instal a multimedia suite, and put in new furniture.

In the past year, 12,000 books have been discarded. Now library staff are consulting on a proposal by external consultants to remove 40 per cent of items from the library over four years.

One academic from the department of English, who wished to remain anonymous, accused the university of putting students before academic research.

"Academics in the department are stunned. They've revamped the library and taken out lots of books to put in comfy chairs instead. It's another attempt to give undergraduates what looks good. Essentially, they are curtailing the research ambitions of the university in order to privilege the image of the university with undergraduates," they told The Times Higher .

But Steve Vinall, Exeter's marketing and communications manager, said: "Today there are different needs and uses for library space. If university libraries don't change to create group work spaces and new IT facilities, they aren't going to get visited." He said universities all over the country were disposing of books.

Figures from the Society of College, National and University Libraries show that Leeds University disposed of 40,000 items in 2005-06 and King's College London 20,000.

"In an ideal world we wouldn't throw anything away, but we have a limited capacity in terms of space," Mr Vinall said. He added that Exeter's library acquired items for more than 1km of shelf space a year, and that it had been investing money in online journals. The university has come up with a "traffic light" system to rationalise the disposal process: red indicates books that should stay, green is for those recommended for disposal or storage and amber for those books whose future should be discussed.

In an e-mail exchange between staff in the department, one academic called the plans "embarrassingly ill-considered and unworkable", and the traffic light system "gratuitous and condescending".

"Do these people have any clue at all as to who we are as a department? Or what it is we do? Or how it is we might typically or best go about doing it?" the e-mail said.

Another was "appalled and made miserable" by the proposals. "Maybe we should just bow to the inevitable ... In order to avoid confusion and disappointment, the building now referred to with increasing inaccuracy as 'The Library' shall henceforth be known as the 'All-Nite Ready-Text Cafe'."

A third academic said the plans amounted to "wanton destruction of others' property, held in the library under trust (ha!)".

Other academics said they frequently consulted works on the amber list, and one warned that research and research income would suffer.

Another said: "Why not just burn down the library and have done with it?"

Mr Vinall said: "Nothing is yet set in stone, and the majority of books to be moved will be stored."

The university plans to make the 10 per cent of its stock that constitutes 90 per cent of loans more readily available to students. The main library will become the main port of call for students, with the Old Library focusing on research.

The university said no books would be discarded or moved without discussion. It was organising a series of meetings with academics and students in an effort to reach agreement on green, red and amber items.

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk.

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