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Students campaign to stop controversial planned closure of SPS Library

A petition created to ‘Save the SPS Library’ has 247 signatures so far


Cambridge students have this week been campaigning against the planned closure of the Social and Political Science Library (SPS), located in New Museums Site, with some books due to be relocated to the Seeley Historical Library later this year.

The SPS library is the main library for Sociology and Land Economy texts, but also contains books from other disciplines.

HSPS (Human, Social, and Political Sciences) students were emailed about the change on 4th February. The email, sent by Professor Sarah Franklin, Chair and Head of the Department of Sociology, stated: "In summer (sic) 2020 the Library’s working collections and all the staff will relocate to the Seeley Library in the Faculty of History on the Sidgwick Site where they will be based for the foreseeable future".

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The email sent to students by Professor Sarah Franklin

Franklin added that the alteration may cause "uncertainty and concerns" amongst students, and stressed that there were "drivers and benefits", including logistic factors, behind the planned move. These include "local building developments" which have "unexpectedly and seriously interrupted essential services, such as heating and water supplies, several times over the last few years".

Franklin also drew attention to the "demonstrable benefits" in the move to the Seeley. As well as pointing out that the same staff will continue to work as part of a library "hub", Franklin wrote of "opportunities to further engage with the academic staff and students in these areas, develop the print and electronic specialist resources, online subject guidance, and offer additional user-education and study skills sessions."

Addressing the benefits of the "recently-refurbished" Seeley, Franklin wrote that it "can already offer longer opening hours, including Sundays, and these will be further extended." She also highlighted the Seeley's "ample collection", "study spaces", and "IT, copying, scanning and self-service facilities."

Students were informed that the transfer will take place after Easter term and therefore exams, and will "be timed to minimise any disruption to students in the final stages of dissertations".

Franklin concluded by stating: "A project coordinator will keep in touch with departments, library staff and the student community about key dates and with information as planning develops, adding details to websites and social media.

"The University Library anticipates that the relocated staff and service will be ready to welcome new and returning students by the beginning of September."

However, the news has been met with widespread concern, with students quick to protest the move. A change.org petition has been created by Carl Lawrence, a first-year HSPS undergraduate from St. Edmund's College, calling on the Vice-Chancellor of the University, as well as various other individuals and departments, to "Save the SPS Library".

The petition, which has attracted 247 signatures at the time of writing, states: "The SPS Library is a community space that is loved by the students who use it and the Librarians who run it and we wish for the University to reconsider its decision or find an alternative solution to moving it to the Seeley.

"Whilst the loss of the community is the most important thing we wish to preserve we also believe there will be a loss of available resources for students.

"We also conceive of Accessibility issues arising from moving the current resources to the Library".

The issues of community and accessibility have been repeatedly flagged by students concerned by the planned move.

In a Facebook post, the Campaign to Save the SPS Library wrote that it has been "very non-transparent", allegedly with no student consultations having taken place.

Carl Lawrence, one of four fresher Faculty Representatives, spoke to The Tab Cambridge about why he started the petition. He said: "We were only alerted to the decision to move the SPS Library about two weeks ago after an email was forwarded to people by my course administrator.

"In the last week there have been a string of emails of concern from student representatives seeing if there’s any equal opposition from different year groups. I decided to start the campaign after people in my own year group voiced concerns and after myself realising that there is a good student opposition to this decision to try and oppose it.

"As far as I have come to know, this is a decision that was raised and known of at least back in October and has been passed without any consultation with Students since. We believe that the current SPS Library is a community space that serves a varied and connected cohort of students that each benefit from having an accessible library in the city centre.

"The space itself reflects so much of the community, decorated with posters and flyers representing the causes that are close to its users’ hearts. We believe more than just the loss of resources and over-complication of the filing system that will be incurred from moving the Library to the Seeley, there would be the loss of a community, as the loss of convenience of a city-centre library will make some people choose to stay at college libraries instead."

In terms of the loss of community, Lawrence said that the HSPS Tripos, being so decentralised, is already a "very alienating course, as students don't get to interact with fellow course mates outside of their lectures and their usual 2 on 1 supervisions". He noted that the move to a larger library may result in a "greater feeling of isolation" amongst many students.

The petition founders have been invited in for a meeting next Wednesday with the Sociology department where they will voice their concerns directly.

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The apparent lack of student consultation was also cited by the campaign organisers as a major source of concern. They told The Tab Cambridge that "the shut-down of the library was presented as a finalised decision, with very little notice given beyond one email to Sociology students in a mailing list".

They said that it's "disappointing" that students "were never asked for their opinions […] the people who use and love this library at no point were given any say."

Detailing why the SPS is so important, the campaign said that not only is it "a dedicated Sociology library, providing books across reading lists that other libraries lack and a space for students of the department"; it's also "an incredibly welcoming and supportive community environment, in the centre of town – there are blankets, pride and LGBT displays, advice on mental health, and an amazingly supportive staff."

The accessibility of the SPS library appears to be a primary source of unease amongst those opposing the change. The students running the campaign said: "All of its books are also completely wheelchair accessible; none of these qualities match the Seeley library, where the move would be to. The move would make for more crowded study spaces in a library already covering four disciplines collections, in a totally different location that students weren't consulted about.

"Overall the SPS is a core part of both Sociology and across HSPS, and shutting it massively undermines the idea that the university takes social sciences seriously. By annual loans, the SPS is the fifth most used faculty library, with over 15,700 loans in 2018-2019, well ahead of economics, divinity, philosophy, the haddon, or music (sic). It just doesn't make any sense to reduce such a core feature of so many students' degrees."

The email sent to students has also resulted in some confusion regarding the books kept in the SPS. The campaign noted that the stated plan is to make the SPS a "hub" of the Seeley, "a very vague proposal with no further official numbers." Students are unsure what will happen to the SPS Library's current collection, which contains books relating to anthropology, politics, land economy, and psychology, with some student speculation that the books may be skipped.

In messages sent to the HSPS 2018 Cohort Facebook chat, as seen by The Tab Cambridge, one student called the decision "insane", asking "were any students ever asked about this?"

Another said "in what world does that make sense?"

Undergraduate and postgraduate students alike are upset about the news. Corinna Howland, a PhD student in the Social Anthropology department from Selwyn College, called the move "fundamentally short-sighted and lacking concern for student needs".

She noted that not all library users have been informed of the closure yet, with Anthropology students yet to have been told. Howland added that there are very few study spaces in the centre of Cambridge open to all students, and that the closure of the SPS library will result in the loss of a "fundamentally welcoming and homely space for students".

The SPS Library is host to the Land Economy faculty books, and so there has also been concern that Land Economy students will be left without a physical library. Land Economy students are also yet to be informed of the move directly. As Land Economy lectures take place on Mill Lane, students are confused by the planned move to Sidgwick Site.

Professor David Howarth, Head of the Department of Land Economy, told The Tab Cambridge: "This is still being discussed. I don’t think there’s any risk of our library ending up nowhere but we are concerned to ensure that all of our books transfer, and not just some of them, and that the library retains expert staff who know about our subject."

In order to best support this campaign, Lawrence suggests using the library as much as possible, loaning books and working in the space to show the Faculty and University that it is an important resource for students.

There has been no mention of the closure on the SPS Library's official Twitter and Facebook pages. The Tab Cambridge could not find any official public announcement of the closure.

Professor Sarah Franklin, Chair and Head of the Department of Sociology, told The Tab Cambridge: "Our understanding of the SPS Library relocation is that this has been led by University Library staff, and that Dr Linda Washington, the Head of Humanities and Social Sciences Libraries, has strongly endorsed this move as the best possible option for the SPS library going forward. We have looked into this and are satisfied the move will ensure maximum retention of the existing collection, all of the library staff, and most of its current functions, as well as adding some new capacities."

In terms of the potential losses involved, Professor Franklin said that she "confident overall" that these can be mitigated, and that the issues raised by the campaigners can be raised. She said she hopes to work closely "with you, the student community, going forward."

Professor Franklin also added: "Our position as a department is that we would be very reluctant not to endorse a relocation that is so strongly supported by the library staff themselves."

Offering some clarification in response to student concern, Dr Linda Washington, Librarian at the Seeley Library, told The Tab Cambridge: "The SPS working collections, staff and services will transfer to the Seeley, not be closed down.

"The move has been driven by the inadequacies of the current space, the very limited potential for development, plus planned building works which will further impact on the library area itself (partly in order to provide access to upper floor departments and lecture rooms). Alternative locations were considered but were either too small and/or being redeveloped into much-needed facilities.

"The transferred stock will be placed in an accessible location and the merged staff will be very happy to help with other accessibility requests (e.g., alternative formats). We very much hope that the community feeling can and will survive at the Seeley; there are adjacent social spaces and the library is so spacious that users can choose to sit in groups or separately as they prefer.

"The extended opening hours will enable evening and weekend visits for borrowing or study. All staff are committed to making the transfer as smooth as possible and will be on hand to assist and advise new and returning students; we also plan to offer a programme of induction and study skills sessions tailored for the subject areas. We will work closely with students and teaching staff as the project progresses."

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