One of the world's most famous libraries, the Bodleian, may be broken up as part of an overhaul of Oxford University's library services.
Most of the Bodleian's 6 million books are expected to be moved to new locations around Oxford under controversial proposals to cut the number of libraries run by the central university, as opposed to departments, from 40 to 15 over the next decade.
The plans, contained in a consultation paper seen by The Times Higher , have not been widely circulated and have yet to be seen by most Oxford academics. The paper recommends the merger and closure of the many small specialist libraries in Oxford, which are popular with academics and research students.
Bodleian officials claim it has yet to be decided what proportion of books will be moved elsewhere, but senior librarians say there is little doubt that, if carried through, the proposals would leave only ancient manuscripts and special collections on the Bodleian's shelves.
The rest of its collections, which, the library boasts, cover everything ever published in the UK, will be relocated to at least three other sites.
These include a new repository 3km away that will use "robotic procedures" to store and retrieve up to 9 million books. The repository, at Osney Mead, is due to open in 2007.
Library staff, many of whom stand to lose their jobs in the reorganisation, fear the space left vacant in the Bodleian will be turned into a tourist attraction or used as a conference facility.
There are concerns that, in the process, its worldwide reputation as the UK's second largest and most acclaimed library will be severely dented.
The Bodleian was built by the scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602. It draws researchers from across the globe. The majority of its registered readers are from outside the city.
One senior Bodleian librarian, who did not wish to be named, said there had been scant consultation over the plans.
The librarian said: "A lot of them (the readers) will be angry when they discover that the library that they have always used has been abolished.
"Messing around with the Bodleian needs to be tackled with more delicacy, tact and discretion, bearing in mind that it is so well known and used by so many people from outside Oxford."
Union leaders are waiting to hear how many library posts will be axed across the university as a result of the restructuring. The aim is to save more than £500,000 a year in staff costs and to streamline and modernise the university's complex library service.
Another librarian who stands to lose their job said that staff were already overworked and that cuts would result in huge backlogs.
The consultation paper suggests that £300,000 will be needed to cover the cost of an early retirement and voluntary severance programme for staff. A spokesperson for Oxford said compulsory redundancies could not be ruled out.
The consultation paper follows a freeze on library staff recruitment since 2003 and the introduction of a financial recovery plan last year to address a Pounds 1 million deficit.