Perhaps the finest perk I have ever had is that, as a graduate of the University of Leeds, I am entitled to a ticket for the university library for no more than the payment of a small annual fee. This is more than just a great privilege: I simply could not have carried out much of the scholarship I have without this access to one of the country’s largest research collections. So I was dismayed this autumn to find that the library has had its budget cut, and that the cut has been applied by having the Brotherton library, where the main collections in the arts and humanities are kept, bring its weekday closing time forward from midnight to 20.30.
University budgets may have to be reduced but I wonder why it is the library that suffers. It should surely be at the heart of a university. It is a device for independent working – the chief way university is supposed to differ from school. It is a place to explore any subject. My tutor at Leeds told me early on that you did not come to university only to take a degree in your subject. Throughout my formal education I never felt constrained by a syllabus, and as an undergraduate I spontaneously explored many subjects. As well as my degree subject of linguistics I borrowed books in English, education, politics and music amongst others. And even in your own degree subject you are likely to have special interests and find unexpected delights in the library that your lecturers don’t mention.
I find it difficult to believe, even with the advance of technology, that books are no longer in fashion with the young as tools of study and enlightenment: all complaints of this kind tend to be exaggerated. And whether or not it is true the university ought to be, as it surely is, urging books on undergraduates. The main reason why I won’t use Twitter is that first thoughts ought to be refined before they go public. Extensive, careful exploration of a subject such as a library affords helps this process, helps bring a view and analysis of a subject that is as good as it can be for the time being. (The books in the library have, one hopes, been created this way by their authors.)
That is why I feel dismay that it is library hours that have been chosen to be cut. It is true that the university’s other libraries, the Edward Boyle (sciences and social sciences), the Health Sciences library (medicine and allied subjects) and the Laidlaw (undergraduate collections) have had their hours preserved. But undergraduates, if they are to delight in their studies and to have some feel for the frontiers of knowledge, should be moving beyond the main undergraduate collections and should not have their ability to do so restricted. And the arts and humanities of all disciplines rely most on libraries for research. Why is it they that have suffered?