An interview with Paul Layzell: Everything you need to know about the new library

“For me, it’s a big investment. It’s an investment that is driven solely for the benefit of the students.”

On Wednesday I sat down with the Principal of Royal Holloway, Paul Layzell, to discuss the changes which the construction of the Emily Wilding Davidson Building will inflict upon both the Founder’s and Bedford Libraries. My previous investigation into the changes to be made to Founder’s Library had gathered a lot of attention from RoHo students. RHUL students and alumni have left comments on my petition page, including this from a worried current student:

“Founder’s Library is my safe space, and I rely on it to be able to work because I have anxiety and Asperger’s and so cannot work in Bedford or other social spaces. To be downstairs where all the lit-crit and poetry / novels are… it’s my happy place; and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one. Please, I beg you not to close it.”

I wanted Principal Paul to hear what people had to say about it and to see whether I could change his mind. While waiting outside Paul’s (rather big) office I felt like I was about to meet the Prime Minister… I even got offered a cup of tea! To my surprise, Paul was very un-Prime-Minister-like. In fact, he was filled with top-notch banter.

“So, why the £48m new library?”

Well, Paul basically said that Bedford Library had been built at a time when the uni was smaller (early ’90s,) and that in recent years, with the university’s expansion, there just isn’t enough space—it’s always full. Our new library will have one study space per eight students (that’s far more than Founder’s and Bedford Libraries now have combined) and has been designed to complement the Founder’s Building. In Paul’s own words, they have tried to design the new library as Thomas Holloway would have done if he was still alive today. Seriously. It’s just a big, modern building. So, it’s a space thing, right? WRONG. Paul says it is, “way more than that…”

Building a bigger and better library means they can “close” or reconfigure Bedford Library. Paul “hypothetically” suggested that the Computer Science department could move from the McCrea Building into Bedford, leaving space for the history department to expand within the McCrea Building. This means they’ll each get more office space. In fact, he said that almost every academic department would get more space by shuffling around. So, the new library was designed to create more space for everyone.


“But why close parts of Founder’s? Isn’t Bedford enough?”

He argued that Founder’s Library wasn’t really closing at all, and that the “changes” were just another step toward preserving the Grade I listed building. As mentioned in my previous article, the West Reading Room (the only original Reading Room – East used to be a museum) will remain as it is, with low-use books on the shelves. There are no firm plans for the East Reading Room, but he strongly suggested that they were thinking about redecorating it; because it’s not as nice as West in terms of fittings and the ceiling needs painting. He suggested that it might well be turned into a staff common room.

“Why move all the books?”

Well for one, apparently it’s tricky to make sure that people don’t walk off with them in Founder’s. There’ll also be a much better shelving system in the new library. You’ll return your books through a slot, and they’ll go straight to various sections in the library via some snazzy machine; which means less sorting and higher efficiency. Another very good reason (which applies especially to the special collection books) is that the air quality, temperature and humidity in Founder’s isn’t ideal for books.

As for all the other revision spaces in Founder’s: those facilities will be provided for in the new library. That space will probably be turned into seminar rooms, because apparently we don’t already have enough of them…

The arhitect’s model of the Emily Wilding Davidson Building

“Are you aware that the new library just won’t feel the same as Founder’s?”


Paul said that, now, people don’t know what they’re going to get, only what they might lose. He joked that “it won’t be old, cold and the wi-fi won’t be ropey.” Fair play, the wi-fi is terrible. But that’s not the point, Paul. Founder’s is Founder’s.

So, it looks like Paul isn’t going to budge. These plans have been in place for a while, but it was good to finally get some answers.