Oxford warned over sprinkler dangers for book depository

FoI Act flushes out new plans that could risk water damage, reports Melanie Newman

August 7, 2008

The University of Oxford is planning to store thousands of books and manuscripts in cardboard trays beneath a sprinkler system, risking "extensive water damage", according to a document released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The university is continuing to press the case for a new £29 million book depository at Osney Mead, in West Oxford, despite the fact that city councillors refused planning consent for the project last November on the grounds that it would damage the city's skyline and be liable to flooding.

The university has appealed, arguing that the depository is essential to secure the future of the Bodleian Library and to support its library service as a whole. The result is pending.

During the appeal, it emerged that the university was revising its business case for the depository, which was approved by the university's congregation in 2005.

A draft of the new business case review, obtained by an opponent of the plans, says that activation of a sprinkler system would "cause extensive water damage to library collections", although it also says the university's insurer believes sprinklers would "provide adequate protection".

The report notes that sprinkler systems are "fundamentally different" from the low-oxygen system originally proposed, which would have stopped a fire from starting at all. "There is a risk that a sprinkler system may be activated accidentally," it says.

The university had originally proposed a fully automated retrieval system using robots to fetch the books, which would have allowed a low-oxygen environment. Times Higher Education understands that this system has had to be abandoned because of software problems.

The report also suggests that most of the collection was not bar-coded, which would have made robot retrieval difficult.

"There is growing recognition that Oxford, compared to other peer institutions, does not have sufficient control over its collection inventory," the report concludes.

The new proposal is to use human retrievers and forklift trucks, leaving less space for books and making a low-oxygen fire prevention system impossible.

Gill Evans, professor of medieval history at the University of Cambridge, an expert on Oxbridge governance and an Oxford resident who opposes the plan, said the dons should be given the chance to approve or veto new proposals. "No supplementary document reviewing or changing the business case can properly be withheld from congregation," she argued.

An Oxford official said: "This is a draft document, which has no formal status - therefore it has not been considered by university committees.

"Therefore no decision has been made by the university not to adopt the automatic retrieval system. However, when the revised business case is produced in its final form, it will be put before the relevant university committees for approval."

During the appeal hearing, it also emerged that the city council had suggested an alternative site for the depository in Peartree, north of the city and only a few miles from the centre, which had become available. Opponents of the Bosney Mead proposal have argued that the university has not carried out a serious search for alternative sites since 2005.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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