Saturday, 14 March 2009

Researchers can't get 'essential' texts

Postgraduate students desperate for new books critical to furthering their research are being told by the Library “we must not order books that are not on reading lists,” Leeds Student has discovered.

Bertie Russell, a Geography PhD student, has been unable to use a book “essential” to his research because the library does not stock it and his purchase suggestion was rejected.

After Bertie placed a proposal for ‘Deleuze and the Social’ he received an email reply from Sara Thornes, Faculty Team Librarian for the Edward Boyle library which read: “Unfortunately the fluctuation in the exchange rates that has come with the credit crunch has hit the library budget hard, and we have recently been told that we must not start any new subscriptions or order books that are not on reading lists.”

Bertie was dismayed at the response: “It is one of only two books that have been written on the issue – so, it is essential that I have access to it. It costs £20 but I can’t get the book, as there are no funds available.”

He explained that the only way for him to obtain the book is if a sympathetic lecturer were to place it on a reading list. “But that means research is largely being determined by the remit of what is already being taught,” he said.

“It’s quite illogical if research is supposed to be producing something new. There is not much precedent for my subject area within Leeds Uni, so the Library is particularly scarce on the newer books.”

“The recent fall in the value of sterling has hit the Library, as some of our purchases are made in dollars and euros.” Margaret Coutts, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said. “Subscriptions in US dollars are currently costing an additional 37%, and those in Euros an additional 19% above the anticipated cost.”

Thornes was on hand to explain the Library’s reasoning. “Texts on reading lists are used by large numbers of students, typically a single copy of a reading list book would be used by around 20 students,” she said. “Books requested for research, tend to be used extensively by only one individual.”

The Library’s current stance is at odds with information provided at start of the year. “I was informed before starting my PhD that the Library appreciate the suggestions of research students as it means less work for the faculty librarian.” Bertie said. “The books a PhD student recommend are also likely to be at the ‘cutting edge’ of research, helping to open access to these topics for students in all cohorts.”

An article in the Times Higher Education highlights the problem as a national one. THE reported that the fall in the value of the pound is having a ‘crippling effect’ on the budgets of UK university libraries with Glasgow University estimating that every time the pound went down either a euro cent or a US cent over a year, it would cost their library £12,000 and £7,000, respectively.

“This is indeed a national problem and all university libraries are experiencing the same,” Coutts explained.

The Library say that the block on orders will be in place until May, after book costing has been reassessed. For the time being PhD students should be offered alternatives, such as document supply or inter-library loans.

The Vice-Chancellor Michael Arthur was open in his assessment of the cash flow problem. “We’re facing quite a bit of financial turmoil,” he admitted during a recent question and answer session with students. “I’ve been putting the Library under some pressure by asking for an extra five per cent efficiency as a way of coping with the economic downturn.”

Arthur added: “We’ll try and ensure that material for students is affected least; the research side might be affected more.

“Library costs actually inflate at way above the rate of inflation – about 6 per cent per annum. When I arrived here we were actually spending about £8m in the library and we’re now spending £12m.

“The library is not suffering a cutback in funding, we’re talking about not increasing it by as much as we had planned.”

Originally published in Leeds Student on March 13

£360,000: Fine for some. University library pockets record sum in fees

Leeds University libraries took £360,000 in fines in the last academic year, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.

The total is up £60,000 from the £295,000 charged in 2006/07 – a rise of more than 20% in one year.

The charges levied in 06/07 themselves represented a significant increase, up £25,000 from the year before.

In all, the University has amassed £925,919 in library fines over the last three academic years.

The figures reveal that the average undergraduate pays around £9.30 in library fines for every year of their degree, totalling £28 for the last three.

Exeter student paper, Exepose, reported last year that the University of Manchester collected the highest amount in fines of those libraries that responded to their enquiries.

Manchester, the largest university in the country with over 39,000 students, charged £190,388 in 2006/07. The figures obtained by Leeds Student show that Leeds exceeded this total by over £100,000, even before the 20% increase that occurred last year.

The figures come as part of a response to a Freedom of Information Act request sent to the University by Leeds Student earlier this year.

Public authorities are legally required to respond to requests submitted under the act, and subject to a number of conditions they must supply the information within 20 working days.

The response from the library came after 21 days, one day over the legal maximum.

The University has moved to justify the record sum collected.

“The significant rise in fines charges between 06/07 and 07/08 was because the overall fines threshold was raised from £10 to £30,” Janet R Jurica, Senior Assistant Registrar at the University explained. “Whilst before students had to clear their fines at £10 they can now accrue higher fines before their accounts are suspended.”

Margaret Coutts, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said the decision was student-led. “The threshold was originally introduced in consultation with students to prevent their borrowing being blocked too rapidly when using our self-service lending facilities in the evening,” she said.

However, Katie McDougall, second year Theology and Religious studies student, thinks the change was for the worse. “I don’t think the threshold increase was a good thing,” said Katie. “It means people will keep books out for longer meaning others can’t because I don’t think fines deter people that much.”

To many students, however, the fines represent a hidden charge for using what are regarded as essential facilities.

Penny Walker, in her third year of studying English, said: “I’m shocked at the figures. It just seems so much money.” Penny thinks that incurring fines is ultimately inevitable. “If you’re using the library regularly it is unavoidable to rack up charges, she said. “I took out a primary text at the start of the year to use for my assessed essay and renewed it each time I was required to. But a week before deadline someone put it on hold and I was unable to renew it again.

“I desperately needed it for the essay so had to keep it and incur the charges. I was also blocked from taking out any other books.”


Aled John, another third year English student, reckons the large total is slightly misleading. “The grand total, in its accumulated form, sounds horrific,” he said. “It seems one ostensibly reminiscent of the sort of miserly and loveless revenue generation endorsed by councils all over the UK in the form of parking tickets we all have grown to despise.”

“Roughly speaking though, the current figure for the library fines works out at an average of 11 quid per head, deflating the shock of the hike in thousands that the statistics show.”

Aled says charges are necessary: “As long as the library’s punitive policy is relatively comparable to the costs of running such an institution, and at the same time feasibly repayable, I don’t think it is that problematic.”

Coutts explained the role of the fines. “The sole purpose of Library fines is to prevent individuals from keeping books for unreasonably long periods and so disadvantage others who need to use them,” she said. “We set the rates to make them a deterrent only, and not an opportunity to make money from our customers.”

Coutts added: “The money from fines goes into the Library’s general revenue account and is used to support collections and services for students.”

Universities such as Birmingham, Manchester and University College London adopt a similar approach when it comes to library fines, charging daily rates along the lines of those set by Leeds. Each institution levies around a 40p tariff for a seven day loan.

Ryan Mole, 4th year Physics student, suggested that the reason for Leeds’ huge lead over other universities might involve more than just the scale of the charges per day.

“As a physics student, I find that all the books I need are always in seven day loan, but there are always a dozen copies of each book and there is only ever one or two out on loan,” Ryan said.

“The higher charge per day for seven day loans, as well as the higher frequency with which they must be renewed, means I find it much easier to accrue large fines. The standard loan section for my subject seems to feature books that have very little to do with the modules taught, and they definitely aren’t on reading lists.”

Course matters

Rachel Garrard, a final year Accounting and Business student, thinks students doing courses dependent on loaning literature are more at risk:

“People that do subjects where you tend to take out a lot of books are penalised more. I’ve only taken out out three books all year, whereas friends doing Arts degrees have taken out doz­ens.”

Penny questioned why students received fines for books not on reserve: “Having to renew books that people haven’t asked for is irritating. Getting fined for not renewing them on time when no one else wants them seems unnecessary, especially if the fining system is only in place to act as a deterrent. You are clearly not being of inconvenience to anyone else.”

Aled saw the system as fair though: “My personal tracklist of fines has held rather steadily at around £27 for the last year or so. As long as there is no favouritism, and the rise in monetary retribution for slack students (like myself) gets injected back into the system and not the pockets of the ‘suits’, then more power to it.”

No fines at all

Other UK universities have adopted what many cash-strapped students might regard as much fairer approach to late returns. The University of Southampton doesn’t charge their users fines at all, instead suspending users’ borrowing privileges until late books are returned, and simply charging for the replacement cost of a new book if it is not returned within 56 days.

Coutts­ said that this year more students were returning books on time. “The drop in fines for this academic year is currently approximately 10%. Of course, we won’t know the final figure until the end of the year.”

She added: “The Library does carry out regular checks on the level of the fines charged, and this happened most recently in 2007.

“Currently, we are planning to introduce online fines payment next year. We believe that this will make it easier for students to settle their fines promptly, and not run up large sums which cause problems for paying back.”

Originally published in Leeds Student on March 13