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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.