Between April and June, Birkbeck Library stayed open 24 hours, 7 days a week. In the run-up to this period, considerable concern was expressed within the university about the impact of all-night opening on student wellbeing. Opening 24/7, the line of argument went, would send a signal to students that they were expected to work at all hours.
We were worried about this too. We took the decision to hire library assistants, in addition to security staff, to work overnight. We ran a joint campaign with our university’s counselling service to promote good study habits during the exam period, emphasising the importance of taking breaks, eating well and resting. And we designed a survey in collaboration with the Students’ Union to try and find out exactly why students chose to stay beyond our usual closing time of 11.45pm, and to discover their own perceptions of its impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
We surveyed 115 students who used the Library at night during the period. The survey asked them to rate their agreement with various propositions, make choices from a drop-down menu and included a free text element. The results were interesting – and, perhaps, counterintuitive.
If the Library had not been open, the majority of students told us that they would have studied through the night anyway, either at home (47%) or in a different location (24%). This is reflected in the free comments collected as a follow-up to this question. Several students said that they could not work at home and that the Library allowed them to have long uninterrupted study periods with fewer distractions. Even some of those students who said they would have worked fewer hours were it not for 24-hour opening, indicated that they had made a deliberate choice to come in at night because it was quieter than during the day.
When asked what impact the 24-hour opening had on their mental health and wellbeing, 82% said that that it had a positive impact and 17% said that it had no impact, with only one student mentioning some negative impact. Half of the 82% said that it had a ‘a lot of’ positive impact rather than ‘a little’ or ‘some.’
There was a similarly positive perception among these students of how 24-hour opening impacted on their ability to continue studying at Birkbeck (85%) and to succeed academically (98%). The effect on the students’ overall university experience was considered solely positive.
The evidence from our survey therefore challenges the assumption that longer opening hours must have a negative impact on student wellbeing. In fact, in some cases, the opposite may be true. By offering a greater range of times to study, in a safe and well-managed space like a library, universities can mitigate stress amongst some of their students and even improve this group’s chances of continuing successfully on their degree.
Full details of the survey can be provided on request.