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.


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.

Birkbeck’s image collections

Birkbeck Library has a number of image collections available for research use.

Birkbeck History is full of images of notable people and events in the college’s past.

Birkbeck was the only central London university to stay open during the Blitz. Even after the library was bombed, teaching and study carried on.

Four people are working at a table. The table is in a bombed out street.

The college was one of the first to allow women to study.

Image of edwardian artists painting a life model.

The Album of Mrs Birkbeck is made up of poems, prose and images collected by Anna Birkbeck, George Birkbeck’s wife.

There are contributions from well-known society figures over a period of about 20 years from 1825. Entries from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Robert Owen show that George and Anna Birkbeck were mixing with important people in the fields of the arts and social reform. Compiling these albums was a popular activity at the time, but it is rare that one survives intact and with well documented provenance.

Image of a book with a decorative spine. The book title is 'Album'.

There are two collections, Garden History Online and London Architecture Online that are made up of digitised slides from what was the university’s slide library. The slide library is now closed. These collections are extensive and varied. They contain beautiful, historical photographs, paintings, maps, plans and architectural drawings.

Image of a formal victorian garden with flower beds surrounded by low hedges, six diamond shaped topiary bushes in front.

The collections grow and develop all the time. We are currently working on a new one that compliments London Architecture Online. It contains images of architectural, monumental, sculptural and ornamental uses of Coade Stone in the UK, bequeathed to Birkbeck College by Averill Alison Kelly.

Photo of a central London street, in the 1950s or 60s. On a large plinth is a statue of a lion standing, looking out. An old Bedford type van is parked near it.

Coade Stone is an artificial stone (in reality it is a ceramic material) developed by businesswoman, Eleanor Coade in the late 1700s. Coade worked with skilled craftsmen and artists and marketed her product to highly regarded architects of her day. It can be found across the UK and internationally. In London, noted examples can be seen at Buckingham Palace, Sir John Soane’s Museum (Lincoln’s Inn Fields), Old Royal Naval Palace (Greenwich) and Schomberg House (Pall Mall)

You can explore all our collections and find images, by subject, from other collections worldwide here.

Using coding to improve our digitisation service

Although people tend to think of the Library as a collection of physical books, a key part of our offer to students is the provision of digitised readings through Moodle. We work with module leaders to ensure that book chapters and journal articles are available online for students to read in advance of their lectures and seminars. Last year we received and processed 2,503 new requests for digitised readings and e-journal links, and a further 2,849 digitised readings which had been scanned in previous years were re-checked for compliance.

Photo of a black woman in the Library, sitting in a comfortable seat whilst working on her laptop.
Birkbeck University Library

It is very important that the digitisation of material is carried out by the Library as detailed records of each scan must be kept and reported annually to the Copyright Licensing Agency. There are strict copyright rules pertaining to the sharing of published material online and we check compliance with our scanning licence before readings are produced. This includes ensuring that no more than one chapter of a book, or one article from a journal issue, is scanned per module.*

We also work to ensure that all readings are provided in an accessible format. All materials digitised by the Library for Moodle are formatted as readable PDFs. Text can be copied and pasted, read aloud with text-to-speech software, or annotated.

It is a huge operation with deadlines in place to enable us to meet the demand for the service at peak times and to ensure the material is made available to students when they need it. We are therefore continuously reviewing and refining our workflows. The ongoing work of a member of our E-Services team, Robert Williams, has driven these improvements over a number of years.

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

Robert has applied his coding skills and understanding of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to different stages of the digitisation process. In simple terms, APIs enable software systems to talk to each other. In this case, he has written programmes which have allowed us to automate the key tasks of checking ISBNs against the Copyright Licensing Agency’s database of works covered by their license, and to find out whether we hold the latest editions. Together, these programmes have increased the speed by which we are able to process requests, reduced the chance of error and freed up staff to carry out other tasks.

This is a great example of the way individual staff initiative can have a positive benefit on our services. At Birkbeck we have fewer staff than many academic libraries, and it is therefore vital that we support their development and foster a culture whereby they are able to apply any newly learned skills. Using APIs is just one way that we have reduced the administrative burden of managing the digitised readings service.

If you’re interested, Robert has published a more in-depth account of his work in SCONUL Focus.

Further information about our digitisation service is also available.

*or 10% – whichever is the greater.