LGBT+ History Month/Love Data Week

At the heart of the university, an academic library space offers fertile possibilities for interdisciplinary research, cross-department discussion and serendipitous discovery. At Birkbeck we offer a variety of study spaces, diverse print and electronic resources, and specialist staff to support researchers. Since our refurbishment last summer, we’ve also been able to provide a space for teaching and events – something that had been lacking before.

This February, we utilised this new space to run a series of events celebrating both LGBT+ History Month and Love Data Week.

Slide advertising the Evening of Queer Poetry event. It reads, "An evening of queer poetry at Birkbeck Library. Valentine Carter, Keith Jarrett, Fran Lock, Golnoosh Nour. Thursday 20 February, 10:00 to 20:00 in the Library training room. Search 'Birkbeck events' to book a place.
Slide advertising the Researching LGBT+ Communities event. It reads, "Researching LGBT+ communities. Love data week event at Birkbeck Library. Dr Fiona Tasker and Ralph Day will discuss their potentially sensitive data. When: Wednesday 12 February, 10:30 to 20:00. Where: Library training room. Search 'Birkbeck events' to book a place."

Founded in 2005, in the wake of the abolition of Section 28, LGBT+ History Month is well embedded in the UK library world, particularly in public libraries. At Birkbeck, we’ve celebrated the month with displays of LGBT+ books from across disciplines.

Love Data Week is an annual celebration of research data. It’s an international event, which has been hosted in the College by the Library for the last three years. Previous events have included interdisciplinary panels, workshops, and cross institution collaborations.

Library staff were able to draw from the wealth of experience of our academic staff and students to produce some enjoyable and thought-provoking events, culminating in a cross-over LGBT+ History Month/Love Data Week event.

The LGBT+ History Month events celebrated Birkbeck’s poets and writers from our Creative Writing department. Course Director for the MA in Creative Writing, Julia Bell, read extracts from her new book of essays Radical Attention. This was followed by a lively conversation with fellow lecturer Richard Hamblyn. Later in the month, we hosted an Evening of Queer Poetry with poets Fran Lock, Valentine Carter, Golnoosh Nour and Keith Jarrett. We hold many of the collections by these writers, as well as the full run of the Mechanics’ Institute Review, an annual literary review published by Birkbeck’s Creative Writing department.

Keith Jarrett's performance at an Evening of Queer Poetry. He is dressed in black and wearing a black trilby.

For Love Data Week 2020, we ran two training sessions: An Introduction to Research Data Management, and Data Management Plans for Postgraduate Students. Both were organised in collaboration with the Birkbeck Graduate Research School.  

The LGBT+ History month/Love Data Week cross-over event was titled Researching LGBTQ+ Communities: openness, ethics and consent, and explored the interplay between open research and participant groups who may require anonymity. Two Birkbeck researchers, Fiona Tasker, an academic in the Department of Psychological Sciences and Ralph Day, a doctoral researcher in contemporary history, presented their work.

Image of a presentation slide: Birkbeck Library. Researching LBGTQ+ Communities. Openness, ethics and consent. Dr Fiona Tasker. Ralph Day. Hash tag Love Data Week, hash tag LGBT History Month.

Fiona talked about her work with LGBT+ parents. She took us through the three ‘waves’ of research on same sex parenting mothers, then presented some ideas from her work on a fourth wave. She also showed very interesting data from the Empowering Adoptive Families survey on adoption for non-traditional parents, and alternative data from the family mapping exercise. A copy of Fiona’s slides are available at the bottom of this post .

Ralph provided insight into the early years of the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. He presented data from the log books, described the challenges faces by the operators, and the sort of information they would record while facing these challenges.

Despite Ralph and Fiona drawing from different disciplines and consequently using a different set of methodologies and research assumptions, it was a useful discussion, in part due to these very differences. The audience was made up of students, academics and library staff with differing interests and research backgrounds, and our new teaching room provided an inclusive space for exploration and sharing of experiences.

Fiona is currently running a LGBTQ* UK COVID-19 Lockdown 18-35 Experiences Online Survey. This is a short survey for those in the 18-35 age group, which looks at experiences during the current pandemic and lockdown. If you are interested in taking part in this timely research, you can follow this link to the survey and information sheet.

Flyer promoting Fiona's lockdown survey. It reads: LGBTQ+ UK Covid-19 Lockdown. 18 to 35 Experiences Online Survey. We want to hear about your experiences - good or bad or both! We have a short, anonymous online survey which we'd really appreciate you taking a look at. The survey is designed for LGBTQ+ people aged 18 to 35 years, especially to find out about your experiences with the virus pandemic and lockdown measures.

Our UK data will also be added to an international study on LGBTQ+ responses to the pandemic.

You can find out more information and access the survey at https://bit.ly/LGBTQ-c19lockdown

Or please email the research team for more details: Fiona Tasker and Marie Houghton. f.tasker@bbk.ac.uk and mhough01@mail.bbk.ac.uk.

Both Love Data Week and LGBT+ History Month will return in 2021, as well as many other exciting events hosted in Birkbeck Library. Look out for updates on our News and Updates page.

Walking through Birkbeck history

Tim Spring, Senior Library Assistant (Acquisitions and Metadata), writes:

Birkbeck Library has an amazing image collection and I’ve always been intrigued by the people and places in these photos. Within the ‘Birkbeck History’ collection there is a set of photos taken of the family mausoleum of George Birkbeck, located in Kensal Green Cemetery. I don’t live too far from there, so a few months ago I decided to go explore and see if I could find it myself.

Photo of the Birkbeck mausoleum. A grand stone building with greek style pillars wither side and a pitched roof, also in stone.

Discovering the Birkbeck mausoleum made me wonder how many other places in London have a link to the College. I started off with some notable Birkbeckians, and very quickly found out that most of them have a blue plaque somewhere in London. I also started to learn about the history of the College, and it turns out that Birkbeck’s influence can be seen all over London.

This year Birkbeck is celebrating 100 years as a member of the University of London. In the Library we have a small group working on projects for this occasion and it was here that we came up with the idea of creating walking tours of Birkbeck history in London.

The first tour is an exploration of Birkbeck buildings, from the site the College was founded at through to our current location. This walk takes you all over central London, starting at the Strand, then heading towards the Barbican, and eventually ends up at the main Birkbeck building on Torrington Square.

Hand drawn image of the original location of the London Mechanics Institute.

The other two walks will take you past the homes of notable Birkbeckians. Some of the more famous figures on these walks include Rosalind Franklin and T. S. Eliot, but there are many other interesting people that passed through Birkbeck’s door over the years, such as Professor Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, pictured below. My hope is that these tours will get you to enjoy going for a walk in London whilst also discovering more about the history of Birkbeck. We are a unique institution with a rich past and I think a lot of people would be surprised by what they learn about the College and all the interesting people who have helped make it what it is.

Image of Professor Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan teaching in her Botany laboratory in 1923.

Infinite Potential: an update

More than 13,000 people from across the globe came together on Saturday 20th June to watch the online world premiere of Infinite Potential: The Life and Ideas of David Bohm. The recording of this screening is now freely available to watch online, any time. This new feature-length documentary sheds light on the life, ideas and work of the groundbreaking Birkbeck scientist David Bohm, Einstein’s “spiritual son”, whose archive is held here at the Library.

Image of the poster for the film. It shows David Bohm against a mixed background of blue, orange and red swirls overlaid with equations. The text reads, "Mystics have known about it for millennia. Modern Science is catching up. A Paul Howard Film. Infinite Potential. The life and ideas of David Bohm.

Who is David Bohm? Discover more in our previous blog.

A lively Q&A panel session with Paul Howard, the film’s director and producer, Professor Basil Hiley, quantum physicist and longtime collaborator of Bohm, and Dr Jan Walleczek, Director of Phenoscience Laboratories (Berlin), chaired by Susan Bauer–Wu, followed the premiere and is also available to watch online: Q&A panel session

There’s another opportunity to watch the film online with a different Q&A panel which has been organised to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 85th birthday as well as his lifelong love of science. Since the mid-1980s the Dalai Lama has engaged in dialogue with scientists, including David Bohm, around the broad topics of psychology, neurobiology, quantum physics and cosmology. Register for this screening and Q&A panel.

Image of the film poster on a laptop set on a table together with a cup of tea, a lemon and a slice of custard pie.

Infinite Potential: the life and ideas of David Bohm

World premiere. Saturday 20th June at 8pm BST

This Saturday sees the world premiere – now taking place online – of a new feature-length documentary which sheds light on the life, ideas and work of the influential Birkbeck scientist David Bohm whose archive is held here at the Library.

The film, titled Infinite Potential, draws together contributions from a host of eminent guests from different fields, demonstrating the depth and breadth of Bohm’s mind. Those featured include not only long-time collaborators quantum physicist Professor Basil Hiley and theoretical physicist Yakir Aharanov, but also H.H. the Dalai Lama and sculptor Sir Antony Gormley.

Hiley describes Bohm as a “radical independent thinker”. Bohm had a unique way of looking at physics and his philosophical views were inseparably intertwined with the science. This holistic approach meant that he actively worked also with people from outside the subject area. Bohm’s ground-breaking work remains relevant today and informs current research which has the potential to radically change our world view in the future.

The online world premiere screening of Infinite Potential is free: you only need to sign up via the film’s website in order to attend.

Image of the poster for the film. It shows David Bohm against a mixed background of blue, orange and red swirls overlaid with equations.

The screening will be followed by a live panel discussion and Q&A session with director Paul Howard and other special guests, including Professor Basil Hiley.

Who is David Bohm? 

David Bohm (1917–1992) had an interesting and varied life, a significant part of which was spent as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck, from 1961 until his retirement in 1983.  

Black and white photo showing a smiling David Bohm in suit jacket, shirt, tie and jumper.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Bohm went on to study at Pennsylvania State University, graduating in 1939. He then moved to the California Institute of Technology for post-graduate work, going on to complete his PhD in 1943 at the University of California at Berkeley under J. R. Oppenheimer. He subsequently worked on the Manhattan Project at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. You can listen to David Bohm talk about J. R. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project in an interview from 1979 as part of the Voices of the Manhattan Project oral history. 
 
In 1947 he was appointed Assistant Professor at Princeton University. He worked there until 1950, when Princeton refused to renew his contract after he had fallen foul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). While working at the Radiation Laboratory during the war, Bohm had been active in the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT) trade union.  

In 1949, as Cold War tensions increased, the Committee on Un-American Activities had begun investigating staff who had worked at the Radiation Laboratory. As a member of FAECT and as a former member of the Communist Party, Bohm came under suspicion. He was called upon to testify before the Committee but pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to give evidence against colleagues, including J. R. Oppenheimer. After the USSR tested its first atomic device in September 1949 it was thought that atomic bomb secrets must have been passed to the USSR. It was alleged that members of the FAECT had been in a Communist cell working at Berkeley during the war.  

In 1950 Bohm was charged with Contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions before the Committee and arrested. He was acquitted in May 1951, but Princeton had already suspended Bohm and after his acquittal refused to renew his contract. Bohm left for Brazil in 1951 to take up a Chair in Physics at the University of São Paulo. In 1955 he moved to Israel where he spent two years at the Technion at Haifa. Here he met his wife Saral, who was an important figure in the development of his ideas. In 1957 Bohm moved to the UK. He held a research fellowship at the University of Bristol until 1961, when he was made Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck in London. He retired in 1983 but continued to play an active role. 

Black and white photo of David Bohm, again in suit jacket, jumper, shirt and tie, this time looking serious and wearing glasses.

Bohm made several significant contributions to physics, particularly in the area of quantum mechanics. As a post-graduate at Berkeley he discovered the electron phenomenon now known as ‘Bohm-diffusion‘. His first book, Quantum Theory, published in 1951, was well received by Einstein among others. However, Bohm wasn’t satisfied with the orthodox approach to quantum theory and began to develop his own, expressed in his second book, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, published in 1957.  

In 1959, with his student Yakir Aharonov, he discovered the ‘Aharonov-Bohm effect‘, showing how a vacuum could produce striking physical effects. His third book, The Special Theory of Relativity, was published in 1965.  

During his 20 plus years at Birkbeck, Bohm and Professor Basil Hiley were colleagues, discussing a wide range of topics and writing many papers together. In his biographical memoir of Bohm, Hiley recounts: “our original investigations had as their focus the need to develop a new conceptual order in which to accommodate both quantum mechanics and relativity in a more coherent way, hopefully without their present conceptual problems and their mathematical infinities. This involved excursions into other disciplines like philosophy, biology, language and even art.” At the time Bohm died, he and Hiley were putting together the final details of the book that they had been working on, The Undivided Universe. 

Bohm’s scientific and philosophical views were inseparable. After reading a book by the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti in 1959, he was struck with how his own ideas on quantum mechanics meshed with the philosophy of Krishnamurti. The two first met in 1961 and over the following years had many conversations or dialogues. Bohm’s approach to philosophy and physics is expressed in his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, and in the book Science, Order and Creativity, written with F. D. Peat and published in 1987. F. D. Peat also appears in the new documentary.

In his later years, partly through his connection with Krishnamurti, Bohm developed the technique of Dialogue, in which a group of individuals engaged in constructive verbal interaction with each other. He believed that if carried out on a sufficiently wide scale these Dialogues could help overcome fragmentation in society. Bohm led a number of Dialogues in the 1980s and early 1990s, the most well-known being those held at the Ojai Grove School in California.  

Bohm was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990. He died in 1992.  

Black and white photo showing David and his wife. He wears his suit jacket, jumper, shirt and tie. They both smile at the camera.
David and Saral

Read more about Bohm’s life and work in the following: 
B. J. Hiley, ‘David Joseph Bohm’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 43, 105–131 (1997). 

The David Bohm Archive at Birkbeck Library

Following Bohm’s death, Birkbeck took the first deposit of his papers and correspondence in 1997: this was the start of the David Bohm Archive at Birkbeck. You can find out more about what is held in the David Bohm Archive at Birkbeck on the Archives Hub, along with links out to other organisations holding related material.  

If you have any questions about the Bohm Archive at Birkbeck please contact Emma Illingworth, Subject Librarian (School of Science), Birkbeck Library.

The Coade Stone image collection

In 2018, the Library received, as a bequest, the research and teaching slides of Alison Kelly, an expert on the work of Eleanor Coade. These slides complement another of our collections, London Architecture Online.

Eleanor Coade was a brilliant businesswoman who, in the late eighteenth century, developed a formula for the manufacture of artificial stone. She wasn’t the first to try this, but her product was superior to anything that had been made before. It is stronger than natural stone and stands up better to the elements. In her book, Mrs Coade’s Stone, Kelly suggests that this might be the reason the product isn’t better known: people simply don’t realise that it’s not stone. Coade called her product Lithodipyra, but it is more commonly known as Coade Stone.

Photo of the rear of Buckingham Palace.

Eleanor Coade insisted on high standards of production and employed renowned sculptors to make the originals for her moulds. Very quickly, her pieces started being used by the most important architects of the time. This means that you can see Coade Stone on many prominent buildings: Buckingham Palace (John Nash), The Bank of England (Sir John Soane), Kenwood House (Robert Adam) and the Radcliffe Observatory (James Wyatt). Closer to home, it was also used in this Bedford Square doorway.

Photo of the Bedford Square doorway. Georgian style. Around the doorway itself, decorative stone panels are picked out in white against grey bricks.

Since the pieces were made in moulds, they could be reproduced quickly and more cheaply than was possible using natural stone. Coade exploited this and marketed her work to the increasingly prosperous middle classes. The same mould could be used and adapted very easily to produce different pieces. A classical statue of a Vestal could be transformed into Faith simply by adding a chalice, or into Flora with a sheath of flowers. The collection includes many examples of the use of Coade Stone.

Photo showing four small sphinx like creatures carved in stone.
A photo of a large gargoyle next to three smaller ones.
Photo of a highly decorative grave memorial. A royal figure with crown lies below a coat of arms reading, "Le bon temps viendra', the good times will come.

A good place to start an appreciation of the work of Eleanor Coade is with the Westminster Bridge lion, made in 1937. This thirteen-tonne sculpture is on the eastern bank of the Thames at the end of Westminster Bridge. Originally, it stood high on the parapet of the Lion Brewery which was demolished to make way for the Royal Festival Hall in 1949.

Photo of the Westminster Bridge lion, made in 1937. On a large plinth is a statue of a lion standing, looking out. An old Bedford type van is parked near it.

If you pass the lion, take a moment to look at how pristine it is, despite decades in the elements, and at the quality of the workmanship. The sculptor was William Frederick Woodington, curator of the Royal Academy’s School of Sculpture.

You can view the Coade Stone collection here.

There is more about the lion here.

Bibliography

Kelly, A. (1990) Mrs Coade’s Stone, Upton-upon-Severn: The Self Publishing Association Ltd.

Where have all the silent study spaces gone?

This summer, Level 1 of the Library was extensively refurbished, creating expanded group and silent study areas, two additional rooms for disabled and dyslexic students, and more than 80 extra study spaces overall.

Overall, the refurbishment has proved very popular with our users. Over 70% think it’s a big improvement.

Yellow post it note reads, "Well, I actually love the new renovation." Smiley face.

However, not all of our users are happy. In particular, some students have asked: where have all the silent study spaces gone?

Yellow post it note that reads, "I use most silent study areas. But now it does not exist any longer, especially with computers available. The whole library has become very noisy like a hang out place."

The refurbishment has radically changed the layout of the Library. Whereas before, Levels 3 and 4 were silent and the group study area was located at the far end of Level 1, the new layout reverses this.

The group study area is the first thing you see when you emerge from the lift or stairs on Level 1.

Photo of the first floor entrance to the Library showing a comfortable, informal group study area.

It continues through the arches to the Malet Street side of the building.

Photo of a mixed group of students working in one of the many study spaces in the Library.

But where has the silent study area gone?

The new location of the group study area means that the upper floors cannot always be totally silent, since at busy times some noise will travel upstairs. Levels 2, 3 and 4 are now designated for ‘individual study,’ although in practice they are usually extremely quiet.

The new silent study area is actually on Level 1 and begins through the double doors which lead off the group study area on the Malet Street side.

Photo of a black male student working in one of the silent study areas in the Library.

If you walk down this corridor, passing the Accessibility Centre and doors leading to the toilets and the Phone Zone, you will find Room 107, which has computers for silent working.

Then, on the left through the glass link, is another silent room with computers.

Finally, at the far end of Level 1, you will find the main new silent area.

Photo of one of the silent study areas in the Library.
An asian woman student works at her laptop in one of the silent study areas of the Library.

There are more seats upstairs on the Mezzanine.

Two white male students work at separate desks in one of the silent study areas of the Library.
An asian man works at one of the silent study areas of the Library.

We thought deeply about zoning when we planned the refurbishment and worked with the Students’ Union and our Student-Library Partnership to ensure it reflected their preference for a range different study environments. Overall, we think that the new layout is more logical, with a busy and bustling area at the start of Level 1 and a secluded and silent one at the back. However, we realise that, for returning students in particular, it may take a little time to get used to.

There are actually more silent study spaces in the refurbished Library than there were before: you just have to know where to look!

A blue post it note saying, "Love it!!! Well done."

24-hour library opening can support student wellbeing

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.

Image of a sign in the Library that reads, "Get some sleep. Take time out to rest and relax while you are revising. Look after yourself at hash tag exam time. Birkbeck Counselling Services. Birkbeck Library.

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.

Photo of a sign in the Library which says, "Fix yourself a meal. Eating and sleeping well are crucial for good mental health. Look after yourself at hash tag exam time. Birkbeck Counselling Services. Birkbeck Library.

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.

What makes a library?

Library refurbishments can sometimes seem like a simple trade-off between stacks of books and rows of seats, with the latter increasingly trumping the former. As we have prepared for our own summer works, some staff (although hardly any students) have expressed the concern that we are betraying our core mission by reducing our on-site book stock in order to create more study spaces.

Space has certainly been a big driver for this refurbishment. During the last few years, and in line with the rest of the sector, the use of our printed books and journals has declined steadily as more information is supplied digitally: our users borrow 46% fewer books than they did ten years ago. However, during the same period, library visits have gone up and a greater number of students than ever are choosing to spend time here, either to read, write or work collaboratively. This has meant that the we are often full to capacity – and at busy times of the year there are literally no free seats available. Moving some of our lesser-used volumes to a nearby location seems a reasonable solution to this problem. The first phase of the refurbishment will increase the number of study spaces in the Library by about 15%.

Photo of a white woman working at one of the many computers in the LIbrary.
Birkbeck University Library

But there is a broader vision behind the refurbishment: the creation of a space which reflects the Library’s evolving role within Birkbeck. That role includes, but is not confined to, the provision of information resources, and encompasses many other services which add value to the institution and the student experience.

The project will create a physical environment which better supports current teaching and learning practice at our university. IT facilities for the delivery of digital education will be central to the newly designed space. There will be an expanded group study area with bookable pods for collaborative working as well as enhanced zones for individual and silent study with booths and softer seating. We are also exploring the possibility of incorporating a separate room for research postgraduates in the future. We want a space in which different levels and styles of learning – blended learning, project work, traditional text-based research – can all take place under the same roof.

We are building two additional study support rooms for disabled and dyslexic students, and further improvements are planned for our popular Accessibility Centre. The refurbished Library will better reflect the diversity of our students.

Photo of a mixed group of students have a discussion in one of the Library's study pods.

There will be a new training room: a modern, flexible space in which Library staff will deliver workshops on subjects such as research skills, information literacy and data management. Increasingly, we provide training as part of College-wide programmes and we will invite other student support services such as Study Skills, Birkbeck Futures and the Birkbeck Graduate Research School to share this teaching facility. The refurbished Library will become a hub for skills support.

Finally, this theme of collaborative working will also be reflected in a new single helpdesk where Library and ITS staff will work alongside each other. Students will receive a more joined-up service and the Library will become a place that students and staff can visit for an even wider range of support and advice.

Photo of two black women cheerfully discussing a document that one is holding. They are in one of the comfortable areas of the Library.
Birkbeck University Library

So, the project is about more than just books and study spaces. It will establish the Library as a key location for learning, teaching and research at Birkbeck. It will enhance the student experience and support efforts to improve retention and achievement. The refurbishment will ensure that our physical space reflects the reality of our role as a modern academic library.

Reading for pleasure in an academic library

It might seem counterintuitive to launch a collection of leisure reading in an academic library, particularly at an institution like Birkbeck, where students are often time-poor, and juggle multiple commitments alongside their studies. For them, reading for ‘fun’ might seem an unaffordable luxury. But, in fact, libraries are increasingly recognising the importance of promoting reading for its own sake, both to improve personal wellbeing and to support lifelong learning, a concept particularly close to Birkbeck’s heart.

Photo of five books in our reading for pleasure collection. The books are, "The Shadow of the Winds', Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine', 'Sapiens', 'Empty Cradles', and 'The Colour of Time'.

In recent times, we had started receiving feedback from our students that they would appreciate a collection of books geared more towards leisure, with some mentioning that they enjoyed the serendipity of browsing our print collections. This gave us pause for thought, as the trend across academic libraries is very much to reduce print collections and replace them with digital resources. Indeed, our own Library is about to undergo renovations which have required us to shift our lesser-used print material into an offsite store in order to create room for additional study spaces. The students’ comments encouraged us to revisit our assumptions about what our students might actually want from the Library.

Last year, inspired by similar initiatives at London Metropolitan and Loughborough, we applied to the Birkbeck Alumni Fund for money to create a Reading for Pleasure collection. We were successful with our bid and, during the summer of 2018, recruited students from our Student-Library Partnership and Team Birkbeck to select the books. The students were paid for their work and given minimal selection criteria. These were that the Library couldn’t already have the book in its collection, and that they could only choose one book per author.

Photo of five books in our reading for pleasure collection.

We encouraged the students to take advantage of Bloomsbury’s wealth of independent bookshops, such as Gay’s the Word, Housman’s Bookshop, Persephone and Gosh! Comics, and saw the project as an opportunity to support these outlets rather than going via the larger suppliers we normally use. This also allowed us to select books with nice covers. While we’re always told ‘don’t judge a book by its cover!’ we wanted our new collection to look attractive, using displays to evoke the joy of reading in the way that public libraries are so good at, rather than the often utilitarian method of shelving academic libraries employ.

In the meantime, we had identified the lovely wooden shelves in our Group Study Area as a suitable location for the new collection. These were sitting empty after the area had been converted from a reading room a few years ago, so we had an attractive home for our new books and didn’t have to worry about adding a large number of extra items to our main collection, just as we were trying to reduce its size.

Photo of books in our reading for pleasure collection. The titles are: 'Little Fires Everywhere', 'To the River', 'The Music Shop', Delirium', 'Sour Sweet', 'The Secret Life of Trees', 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek', and 'Books v cigarettes'.

We are extremely happy with the resulting student-chosen collection, which was officially launched on 31 January 2019 and has proved very popular already. As we had hoped, it is attractive and diverse, ranging from graphic novels to poetry, cookbooks, popular non-fiction, crime novels and literary prize-winners. After all, everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a relaxing read.

For staff involved with setting up the collection, it was a great opportunity to talk with students about the things they’re interested in beyond their studies, and to contribute to their educational experience by providing a resource that demands nothing of them but relaxation and enjoyment.

Photo of the bookshelves containing our reading for pleasure collection.

You can browse the titles and reviews on our website.

Are 24-hour libraries bad for you?

This month, Birkbeck Library will begin a period of 24-hour opening. We will remain open continuously between Monday 29 April and Sunday 16 June 2019.

We’re hardly breaking new ground here and it’s increasingly common for academic libraries to stay open all night, either during exam periods or the whole year round. Many nearby University of London libraries already do so and eight out of ten of the most highly-ranked UK universities offer such a service.

The main reason we haven’t done this until now has been cost. Keeping the Library open for an extra nine hours requires additional staffing which, over a period of several weeks, adds up to a lot of money. Fortunately, thanks to strong campaigning by Birkbeck Students’ Union, we have obtained funding for this pilot.

Image of two students working on laptops in the Library.
Birkbeck University Library

But there is, potentially, another cost: that of student wellbeing. There is a danger that by opening all night we risk sending a signal to students that they are expected to study around the clock.

Charlotte Williams, Head of Counselling Services, explains:

“Although many students manage and survive the stresses of the exam period, perfectionistic traits are increasingly common both within contemporary society and amongst students nationally.  Whilst the flexibility of extended opening hours might enhance some students’ wellbeing, it may tempt others to work incessantly and neglect important matters that are key to their health and the capacity to learn. The Counselling Service encourages students to remember that to study and learn effectively we need balance in our lives.  Alongside work and study, we need to take time to socialise and relax. Eating and sleeping well, and connecting with others, are crucial for good mental health.”

Increased stress levels are certainly a problem at exam time and often manifest themselves within the Library.  We will therefore be liaising closely with Charlotte and her team to promote a balanced approach to study during this period. We also intend to survey those students who do take advantage of our extended opening hours and will ask them directly about its impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Image of the cover of our Bibliotherapy leaflet.

The picture is, of course, complex. Research by the University of Warwick Students’ Union has shown that many students already work late into the night at home. Providing a public space for them to study could be a healthier option. Our Library staff well know that throwing users out onto the street at a quarter to twelve can itself cause stress.

There are other advantages to overnight opening. Alex Holmes, Student Leader-elect at Birkbeck Students’ Union says:

“Moving to a 24-hour opening of the Library is widely supported by the student body here at Birkbeck, which is why we’ve been campaigning for it as a Students’ Union. The flexibility of being able to use our Library at night clearly suits a lot of our students, many of whom already study at night at home.

A high proportion of Birkbeck students have work and family commitments, and so have even more need for late opening than students at other institutions. Many of our postgraduate students previously studied at a university that had all-night opening and want that same service to be available here. A 24-hour Library is an important part of Birkbeck having a competitive offer for prospective students.”

Photo of a white male student working at one of the many computers in the Library.
Birkbeck University Library

Birkbeck’s mission remains the same as when it was founded in 1823: to provide high-quality university education in the evening for working Londoners and those who would not otherwise be able to study. As the city changes, we need to change too. While there are certainly risks associated with this pilot, on balance, we believe that it will be an initiative with positive benefits for many of our students.