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.

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.