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Off-site store causes problems after Soas Library refurb cuts capacity. Matthew Reisz writes

November 17, 2011

The refurbished School of Oriental and African Studies Library was opened to great fanfare earlier this year. But while it is undoubtedly an impressive piece of design, researchers have faced major problems accessing parts of its collection now held off-site for the first time.

In a letter to Times Higher Education ("Scholarship out of reach", October), Donald Rayfield, emeritus professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London, described the delays he had experienced in trying to consult a number of sources he needed for a history of Georgia he was working on.

Some of the books he had donated to the library himself.

Eventually, "at enormous expense in time and money", he had been forced to travel to Italy and Germany, order photocopies of material from Tbilisi and take out interlibrary loans from overseas universities.

Distressed that "a major publicly funded university would put out of reach of scholarship for an indeterminate period such a substantial number of items virtually unobtainable elsewhere", Professor Rayfield said he had "begged" Soas' management to rectify the situation.

He claimed his appeals had not even been acknowledged.

John Robinson, director of library and information services at Soas, told THE that the refit had been of vital importance, since by 2009 "the library was not only full, but also badly in need of a major overhaul, including its core mechanical and electrical services, which dated from 1973".

The first phase of the project, he said, required 20 per cent of the library's collection to be moved off-site "at fairly short notice" to make way for the builders.

"As it had become obvious to the school that an off-site store would become a permanent requirement, we then set about the business of forming [it]," he said.

But he acknowledged that there had been "teething problems".

THE has been told that many of these arose from the fact that the storage company selected for the task was chosen by Soas management rather than library staff. At one time, about 250,000 books were stored out of order. Things came to a head over the summer when Soas library staff felt unable to guarantee delivery or delivery times.

The situation has been gradually resolved by subject librarians and shelvers going to the off-site store in person to address the problems.

Mr Robinson said that the librarians had "repatriated about 30,000 items to the library in the past six months or so", and that nothing in the collection was currently "beyond reach".

"Requests for material are logged. Staff go to the off-site store to gather material and it is returned at least once a month, or more frequently depending upon the volume."

However, while it remains the ambition of the library team to provide access to all off-site material within five working days by the start of the next academic year, Mr Robinson said that "there is a lot of labour-intensive work involved (mainly to do with updating the catalogue for each of the approximately 250,000 items in store) before we can get to that stage".

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