Shelf hatred On Newcastle University library’s horrible ‘makeover’
Though I retired early from Newcastle University in 1997, I have access to the university library as an associate member and use it fairly regularly. The staff and porters are excellent, and the classical section still serves my humble purposes well enough. But for how much longer?
It was over Christmas 2007 that the culture began to change, and the library to go the way of the rest of the university. Management ‘rebranded’ it, and in January 2008 one walked in to find something called ‘YourSpace’, which offered students places where they could (i) work in comfort, (ii) work with friends, or (iii) chat.
I was not aware that the purpose of a university library was to act as a social networking area, but this move fitted into a wider trend. Government pressure to take more and more students was relentless. Staff-student ratios plummeted. It was now becoming impossible to give the weaker students the help they needed to bring them up to scratch. It was more a case of the university adapting its standards to theirs. The student, not the university, was now the master. Academic staff, naturally, had no say in the matter: the administration made it quite clear what was required. So students want the library (of all places) to be a social space? It shall be done.
A few years later, TV screens sprang up throughout the building.They informed us of the weather, how to contact victim support, where we could get help if we were in financial difficulties, that all the computers were working and we must carry our smartcard at all times — all quite irrelevant to the work of a library. Then management put up a notice informing users that the library strove constantly to ‘deliver excellent customer service’, ‘embrace teamwork’, ‘celebrate success and share praise’ (I am not joking). When management tries to ingratiate itself, you know you are in trouble. Occasionally I asked staff and porters what praise they had shared that day. They fell about laughing.
Soon after that, signs were put up announcing that we would no longer take books out and return them, but visit ‘CHECK-IN’ and ‘CHECK-OUT’, apparently because foreign students did not understand ‘take out’ and ‘return’. Staff told me they understood check-in and check-out even less. And last year came what I assumed was the nadir. At the start of the academic year, a table was placed at the entrance to the library covered with notepads, pens, sweets and ‘gonks’. I enquired what they were for. ‘To show the friendly face of the library’ was the answer.
The place, when busy, now often feels like a cross between an airport, Disney World, a social services drop-in centre and a primary school. Management no longer sees it as a centre of learning, a place set apart to provide the student with resources for study and research, but rather as a transient, exploitable ‘space’, an extension of the full-on uni experience, with added books, to be moulded to whatever ‘lifestyle’ the management thinks students find attractive or will demand. But the worst was yet to come.
This summer, management started removing books. The reasoning was explained in a loop heralding ‘Phase 1 of the great transformation’ that played endlessly on a TV at the library exit: ‘Welcome back to your refurbished Robinson Library. You asked, we listened. . . We have moved loads of shelving to make room for more study spaces. We’ve shifted crate-loads of the less-used stock to provide more light, more room and a more comfortable space to study in. And created a greater variety of study areas. Choose the one that best suits your work-style!’ And the final picture — empty chairs with the words ‘Now that Phase 1 is all done, we are just waiting for you to fill the empty spaces!’ Phase 2, it promises for 2012, will continue this noble mission.
If we thought gonk-world was a one-off, this nauseating hymn of self-praise removed all doubt. Forget, if you can, the paradox that a library should create more space by removing books. Instead, ask ‘which books?’ The answer laid bare the full extent of the management’s trahison des clercs: it was celebrating its triumph in removing, from arts and sciences alike, the complete runs of virtually all the academic journals, the central research tool for academics in the humanities and the goal of all committed students. And management was actually boasting about it! They should be grovelling in shame.
Management’s reasoning tells you everything you need to know about its understanding of academic work: the journals, it claims, are all on computer. That is simply false, but it would not matter were it true.As any fule kno, computers are useful only if you need brief, self-contained, unconnected snippets of information. If you want to do serious academic work, consulting lengthy, properly argued and referenced literature, having a page at a time up on screen is completely useless; even more so when it comes to pursuing what will be the extensive references to other people’s work which it is bound to contain. You would go mad pursuing all those on a single screen.You need the journals open on the desk. Journals, in fact, far from being ‘less used’, are constantly used. They are just not taken out. Further, browsing shelves of journals and articles in journals at speed is an essential academic requirement. You cannot do that on screen. And what was that about research being a top university priority these days?
Ironically, the library has just won the Times Higher Leadership and Management Award for the Outstanding Library Team, largely because it has made 100,000 ebooks available to students. We now know what will happen in Phase 2 of the ‘great vandalisation’. If using a journal on screen is bad enough, just try using a book.
You may imagine the fury of academic staff to discover what had been done, in their absence and over their heads, during the long vacation. But they count for nothing. Even as I was discussing the matter with an ex-colleague, he suddenly remembered he had yet to complete his ‘Transparency Review Diary Exercise’, i.e. fill in an hour-by-hour electronic record of what he had been doing that week. Such is the trust administration now has in its academics. Autocratic, top-down management, as contemptuous of academics as it is ingratiating to students, is almost universal.
If library management demonstrated half the care and thought that its staff did about what a library should be doing for its users, none of this would have happened. As it is, I have no doubt that in a few years’ time students will demand ‘music’ in the library, and management, striving constantly to ‘deliver excellent customer service’, will provide it, ‘to suit your work-style’. And doubtless ‘share the praise’. Even very good students — and there are plenty of those — will find it impossible to get £27,000 worth of anything resembling serious education out of such a ‘uni experience’.
the spectator | 29 October 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Rod Liddle
A lesson from the Premier League in what’s truly offensive
What is the appropriate sort of language, do you suppose, for the captain of the England football team to use in respect of his colleagues? This is an important issue and I, for one, will not sleep until a sort of resolution — a closure, if you will — has been arrived at. Because we have a dispute on our hands and at the heart of it is a moral issue. Needless to say, the police are investigating.
It is alleged that the present England captain, Mr John Terry, of Chelsea FC, addressed his opponent, Mr Anton Ferdinand, of Queens Park Rangers, with the wholly unacceptable words ‘you f *** ing black c *** ’. Mr Terry, for his part, has strenuously denied saying such a thing and insists it was simply the anodyne and perfectly inoffensive ‘you f *** ing blind c *** ’. Mr Ferdinand has lain low for the last few days, but it seems he knows what he thought he heard and has not sprung to Terry’s defence.
Being called ‘black’ was what offended Mr Ferdinand, not being called a ‘f *** ing c *** ’, of course. These two latter words have long since lost their power to offend anyone and, indeed, are sometimes used in a familiar and almost affectionate manner, as in ‘How was the trip to Zimbabwe, Rowan, me old f *** ing c *** ?’ But black is not acceptable. You would not call the Archbishop of Canterbury a black c *** , even if he were black. Perhaps particularly if he were black. This is another confusing issue, by the way, for Mr Ferdinand is not actually black, but of mixed race. So politically ‘black’ then, if not, you know, actually black.
The waters have been further muddied by Mr Terry’s admission that he did use the words ‘f *** ing black c *** ’, but in the context of a firm denial to Mr Ferdinand that he had used the words ‘f *** ing black c *** ’. As in ‘I didn’t call you a f *** ing black c *** , I just called you a f *** ing c *** , you f *** ing c *** .’ We are, I think, in Pete and Dud territory. I would pay an awful lot of money to hear Mr Terry and Mr Ferdinand’s exchange in the tunnel following the game in which, with some bad feeling, they took part. It was a game in which Chelsea, to the great delight of almost the entire nation, unexpectedly lost. A fractious, nasty and very entertaining game. The entertainment came from seeing the rage on the faces of the likes of Mr Terry at being beaten, and later on the face of Mr Terry’s manager, a usually smug young man called André Villas-Boas.
Almost the whole business was caught on film, as luck would have it. Except at the crucial moment in the brief filmed exchange between Mr Ferdinand and Mr Terry, another hugely likeable and intelligent footballer called Mr Ashley Cole walked between
I would pay an awful lot to hear Mr Terry and Mr Ferdinand’s exchange following the game in which, with some bad feeling, they took part them, obscuring from view Mr Terry’s thin, rodentine, lips. Mr Cole is black, but that is not strictly relevant right now. An email was sent to the Metropolitan Police insisting that Mr Terry be investigated for racism and therefore a ‘hate crime’.
I have asked the police if they will be drafting in lip-reading experts to discover the precise nature of what was said between the two men and the press office said they would get back to me about this. I pointed out that the police have in the past used lip-reading experts to help them solve comparatively trivial matters such as murder, abduction, etc, so surely they would be utilised for a matter of this gravity and seriousness.
Meanwhile, Mr Terry has released a statement to the press which seems to have the spectator | 29 October 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk been drafted for him by the saddened ghost of Dr Martin Luther King. He has said that he believes there is no place for racism in football or any other walk of life and that he was the ‘proud captain of one of the most internationally diverse teams in the Premier League, you c *** ’.Actually, he didn’t say the last couple of words. I put those in.
But clearly, Mr Terry is in trouble. Under existing police guidelines, if Mr Ferdinand believes he was called a ‘f *** ing black c *** ’, then he was, even if he wasn’t. So it may well be case proven. And worse, following the allegations, Mr Terry failed to turn up to open a shop, Reptile Kingdom in the southwest London suburb of Surbiton. Mr Terry claims he had never agreed to open the shop, but the manager of the shop, a Mr Terence Clarke, told me it was definitely agreed, through a third party, and had been reported in the local papers for weeks before (this is true: I checked). Lots of children turned up and were ‘in tears’ when the England captain failed to show up and cut the ribbon. The third party who brokered the shop-opening deal, Mr Clarke significantly revealed to me, was of mixed race. And Mr Clarke confirmed to me that he, too, was sometimes mistaken for being of mixed race, although he insisted that he was nonetheless white.
Reptile Kingdom specialises in snakes, and according to Mr Clarke the best snake they have on offer at the moment is a cyanomorphic green tree python, which will set you back at least 400 quid and should really be purchased by someone familiar with handling pythons, rather than a novice. It might be better to start out with a simple corn snake. Anyway, these cyanomorphic pythons change colour as they grow older, in spectacular fashion. Right now the young snake in Reptile Kingdom is a pale yellow, shading into green, but when it is a fully grown adult it will gradually become a strangely lustrous blue.
Spectator.co.uk/rodliddle The argument continues…