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University libraries to undergo major reforms

University library reforms will re-distribute staff in response to slipping performance standards, reports Georgia Behrens.

Fisher Library. Fisher Library.

fisher-library

The University of Sydney has released plans for major changes to four of its 11 on-campus libraries in 2014, with several slated to lose all permanent staff.

University Librarian Anne Bell formally launched her campaign to reform the University Library system in a Draft Change Proposal presented to staff last month.

Under the proposal, the libraries on the University’s satellite Surry Hills (Dentistry) and Camden (Veterinary, Agricultural, and Environment Science) campuses will be converted into “self-access” libraries without permanent staff on site by early 2015.  Students on these campuses will have access to a reduced number of materials via large-scale book distribution machines.

On the University’s Camperdown/Darlington campus, the Badham Library and Medical Library are slated for conversion into dedicated postgraduate study facilities.

The proposal also outlines plans for the re-distribution of many University Library staff.

The University has insisted that the reforms will not necessarily entail a reduction in overall numbers of permanent staff, but Bell admitted that she anticipated some staff would take voluntary redundancies in light of changes to their job descriptions.

Bell said that significant changes to the University Library were needed to address slipping performance standards and “inherent diseconomies of scale” within the current system.

“If we were to continue maintaining our 11 library sites in the same way and with the same hours as we are doing at the moment, we would not be providing the University with the best return on its investment,” Bell said.

“These libraries are certainly very important to their own satellite communities…[but] we need to think on a macro level about this sort of thing. We’re looking to re-allocate resources in a way that delivers the best results for the greatest number of students and staff.”

According to data from the Council of Australian University Librarians, the overall performance of USyd libraries relative to their Australian and New Zealand counterparts has drastically declined in the past 20 years. A recent survey of students’ perceptions of their university libraries placed USyd in the lowest quartile in four out of the five areas covered.

Bell said that these figures provided a clear imperative for major reform.

“Libraries play an absolutely vital role in all universities. It’s incredibly important the Sydney University students and staff not be let down by not having access to world-class research libraries,” she said.

The publication of the Draft Change Proposal in February came after several months of speculation by staff and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) that major changes to the University Library were imminent.

The University has now entered the first of several mandatory stages of negotiations with the CPSU, which has voiced serious concerns about “inadequate” level of staff consultation thus far.

“The University is going through the motions of inviting submissions and so on, but they haven’t given us most of the information we would need to be able to make informed submissions about these changes,” CPSU spokesperson  Grant Wheeler said.

In January, Honi reported on discontent in Badham Library staff ranks when documents suggesting imminent restructuring were accidentally leaked before staff had been consulted.

Wheeler said that staff morale had remained low since then.

“At this stage, we’re in the dark. We don’t know how many staff will be retained, and how many could be made redundant. We don’t know what sort of retraining staff will have to undergo. We don’t know what sorts of jobs people will be required to do once all these changes have been made,” Wheeler said.

“The University’s very happy to talk about outcomes, and everything it’s going to achieve, but it’s extremely selective about the information it releases when it comes to the measures they’re going to take.”

Wheeler said that the CPSU was considering entering a formal dispute with the University if communication and consultation did not improve.

“Unless staff are given the opportunity to have an equitable and informed dialogue about this, this university will just do what it has always done best: making bad management decisions and managing change badly,” he said.

Bell said that she will be working with staff over coming months to ensure that all changes were reflective of extensive in­­­put from current employees.

This the latest in a number of reforms the University has proposed since in the past few decades in an effort to rationalise the delivery of library services.

In 2011, Fisher Library removed almost 500, 000 books and journals from its collection to make way for more student study spaces.  Since 1990, more than ten university libraries have been closed and had their collections redistributed.

Bell said that, while there were currently no plans in place to close any further libraries, “nothing is ruled in, and nothing is ruled out.”