Senate House Library may merge with UCL's collection

April decision expected on three options mooted for cash-strapped resource. Elinor Zuke reports

January 29, 2009

London's Senate House Library may be merged with University College London, a move that would almost double the number of volumes available to users but would end its 130 years as a shared resource of the University of London's federal colleges.

The merger proposal is one of three on the table for the library, which faces a £1.4 million operating deficit because the Higher Education Funding Council for England is withdrawing its special funding.

Following the loss of funding, the University of London commissioned a fundamental review of Senate House and the libraries of the School of Advanced Study (SAS) - which together form University of London Research Library Services (ULRLS).

The review was conducted by Chems Consulting, which assessed options for ULRLS based on criteria including future financial stability, ensuring wide access and encouraging "coherent shared collection development policies between libraries".

Three options were shortlisted, and the collegiate council has postponed its decision until April to allow the proposals to be developed further.

Chems Consulting warned that if none of the options can be funded or agreed, closing the library and breaking up its collections "may be inevitable".

The first proposal is for ULRLS to streamline operations by cutting staff and getting rid of duplicate stock held at other sites. An extension of the proposal moots reducing open shelving, reader seats and acquisitions.

The School of Advanced Study is leading a second proposal, which envisages developing a central humanities and social-sciences resource, with other libraries joining to reduce duplication across the capital.

Sir Roderick Floud, dean of the school, said the model "offers a greater hope of effective collaboration between the colleges of the University of London and, potentially, other universities in London, based on the very strong research libraries of the SAS".

UCL's proposal

UCL's proposal is to merge its library with Senate House and the majority of SAS collections, with books held across two sites. The merger would add 2 million volumes, including science material, to a large humanities collection of some 3 million volumes. UCL has also offered to invest in more electronic resources. Access to members of other colleges and external users would be on the same terms as Senate House currently offers.

Michael Worton, vice-provost (academic and international) of UCL, said: "The vision is to create a top-class library. All the other options do seem to include some sort of reduction. We want to maintain and enhance collections and services to staff and students alike."

But the Chems report warned that once collections are integrated, "it will be increasingly difficult to ensure that any guarantees about open access to them are maintained, as UCL's own collection management policies would tend to prevail".

David Pearson, director of ULRLS, said: "There's a strong recognition out there that the library is a very important asset, right across the federation. It has always been a collective facility, and I think there's a lot to be said for keeping it as a centrally managed, collectively owned service.

"Particularly when economic times are hard, it surely makes more sense to invest in a shared service and save money collectively by developing shared facilities.

"Just looking at it as a financial asset, the collection is valued at £280 million for insurance, and there's an obvious issue about transferring that collectively owned asset to one particular player," Mr Pearson said.

This is of particular concern amid continued speculation about the future break-up of the University of London federation.

Professor Worton said UCL has no current plans to leave the University of London, but there would be safeguards for the Senate House collection in such a situation.

"One of the big issues at stake here is levels of trust ... Everyone assumes that UCL is the dangerous partner, but this will only work if we're working in a relationship of trust. This is not about UCL acquiring a benefit, it's also acquiring an enormous liability and a long-term responsibility," he said.

Asked what the merged library would be called, Professor Worton said: "We don't know the name yet. We recognise that it's a very sensitive issue. It will not be the University of London library, because it will not be funded by the University of London mainly. It's not just Senate House; it's also UCL's library. We will have to find a name that feels comfortable."

Redundancies sought

In advance of the April decision, "efficiency changes" are already under way at Senate House.

ULRLS directorate staff received a voluntary redundancy call earlier this month, with managers looking to cut 17.5 full-time equivalent positions.

Mr Pearson said: "We want to move to a model of more flexibly deployed teams of support staff. We want to work towards it in as sympathetic and sensitive a way as possible, working with what comes out of the call."

Jon Richards, head of higher education at trade union Unison, said: "Having spent several weeks in the Senate House Library while writing my dissertation, I have a personal attachment to the place, but these redundancies are part of a wider decline that needs a wider response. Unison is building a cross-public-sector campaign in defence of all libraries and their staff."

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