Campaigners fear ‘devastating’ impact of Soas library cuts

Staffing reductions could leave institution unable to meet needs of international researchers, academics warn

December 14, 2018
Source: Getty

Protesters fear that cuts to staffing and spending will leave one of the UK’s leading specialist libraries unable to meet the needs of national and international researchers.

Soas University of London houses one of the UK’s five national research libraries and boasts an unparalleled range of titles dealing with Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

However, campaigners claim that planned cuts, which they say will total between £650,000 and £675,000, will have “a devastating impact upon the services the library is able to offer staff, students and visiting researchers”.

A statement issued on Facebook by a group called Save Soas Library claims that the equivalent of 13 full-time roles will go in the library. It expresses particular concern about the loss of specialist librarian support for all subjects other than law, with these responsibilities being reallocated to librarians with regional specialisms. This would, in turn, “impact negatively upon the regionally focused work which these staff currently do in supporting the local, national and international research communities”, the campaigners say.

The campaigners express concerns that Soas’ library has been “specifically targeted” for cuts, claiming that it will bear the brunt of about £1.6 million of savings planned in the institution’s professional services departments. They fear that the cuts might jeopardise the repository’s status as a national research library, for which it receives about £670,000 annually from Research England.

“It’s foolish and irresponsible to be intent on slashing the staff budget for such an important and unique national research library,” said Joanna Lewis, associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics. She relied on Soas’ vital African material for her book Empire of Sentiment: The Death of Livingstone and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism, “as have countless undergraduate and doctoral students over the years. At a time when we need to be prioritising the study of Africa and training up [black and minority ethnic] lecturers for the future, these planned cuts must be withdrawn.”

A petition, which had received about 4,000 signatures at the time of writing, declares that the cuts “threaten the future of this internationally important collection” and says that Soas students “deserve a well-resourced library, staffed by experienced and responsive professionals, not a moribund collection run by a skeleton staff”.

A Soas spokeswoman disputed the figures offered by campaigners but acknowledged that there would be “fewer posts in the library” as a result of the proposed changes – a reduction from 41.78 full-time equivalent posts to 36.1.

Nonetheless, the new structure would enable the institution to “deliver an improved service” and to “properly fulfil our remit as a [national research library]”, the spokeswoman said.

Unlike other universities, the spokeswoman explained, “Soas has doubled up with both subject librarians and regional librarians – we do not believe this is sustainable. As a regionally focused institution, we will have six regional librarians who will be experts within their regions across the social sciences and humanities we teach and research.”

It was not true, the spokeswoman added, that “we are taking away our commitment to Soas library”, given that “future investment [in the library] would still place Soas close to the top of any comparator institution as a percentage of our income”.

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