The University of Bath's  new Library and Learning Centre , which offers full 24-hour access to all collections, is considered to be the first example of its kind in the UK. I met Keith Jones, Deputy Librarian, to talk about this radical step taken by the university, the day after it was announced that the new Centre had been commended in the national Civic Trust awards for the environment.
The Centre is based in the old library building which has been refurbished and extended to make it almost unrecognisable from the original 1971 library. It now houses both the library and its staff, and the staff of the User Services section of Bath University Computing Services (BUCS). The two staffs are not converged, but work closely on shared interests, such as the operation of the complementary help desks. Library users now have 24-hour access not only to the library collections but also to approximately 350 computer workstations.
Jones explained that the decision to 'go 24-hour' did not originally come from the Library. Like many university libraries, by the early 1990s Bath was rapidly running out of space. Several low-cost proposals were put forward to create more room by in-filling corridors between 1991 and 1992. However it was not until the appointments of a new Vice- Chancellor, Director of Estates and Librarian, that the need for more space was taken seriously. The new Vice-Chancellor, Professor David VandeLinde, asked the Library to look at 24-hour opening as part of its plans to alleviate pressure on space. Librarian Howard Nicholson and his team could see no way in which a small-scale 24-hour facility could be made to work satisfactorily, and so the concept of a fully open 24-hour learning resources centre was accepted.
With fortuitous timing, the University of Bath was able to take advantage of the HEFCE call for building proposals (receiving its grant just before the fund was reduced by budget cuts). The proposal put forward encompassed an extension of the Library onto 'the Parade' - the main thoroughfare of the university, and a refurbishment of the twenty year-old original building. HEFCE provided 1.25 million pounds (29% of the total cost). A further 20% came from the maintenance fund for the refurbishment, and the remainder was met from university reserves.
Building took longer than expected. The major problem was asbestos removal, which delayed the final completion date by six months. Originally there were no plans to remove stock from the building, but due to the asbestos problem, a 1,200m2 temporary library with two kilometres of shelving was set up in a temporary building. This held the most-used stock, mainly seven-day loan and the short loan collection. In the original library building at least one floor was always open, although sometimes the only access was by using external stairs. Most of the library's stock was always accessible, but a proportion was confined to closed access. Total issues for the year 1995-1996 fell, not surprisingly, by about ten per cent. However, in spite of all the disruption and occasional grumbling as the Parade was cordoned off, the library managed to retain the goodwill of the university community. Library staff received several votes of thanks from public committees and the library management took a deliberate decision to keep the Students Union (SU) officers well informed of all developments. This common sense approach and the understanding of the SU officers meant that there was little student opposition to the emergency arrangements and inconvenience of split sites.
The Library and Learning Centre has been open fully since the beginning of the current academic year. The building offers 24-hour access for the use of computers and for study almost every day of the year. The only exceptions are major public holidays, when the whole university shuts down, and the period after pub closing on Saturday nights, when, at the insistence of the university's security staff, it is closed to prevent any trouble from the groups of students on campus emptying onto the Parade near the Library and Learning Centre. Twenty-four hour security staffing is an important feature of the building.
The Centre is not permanently staffed. At present, term-time coverage is from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and at weekends the staffed service is restricted to Issue Desk only, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The BUCS User Services help desk is staffed from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on weekdays with no coverage at the weekend. It is not envisaged that the Centre staffing hours will increase in the foreseeable future. Current statistics from Centre use would suggest that, if the Issue Desk hours were to be extended, opening at 8 a.m. would be the most popular option. Library staff are also keeping a close watch on developments with self-issue systems.
Early experience of the levels of night-time use have exceeded the modest estimates made before the rebuilding, when it was generally accepted that the security presence would be justified as much by the need to guard the equipment in the building as by night-time use of the facility, even with 1,800 students living on campus. "The initial response is very encouraging" says Jones. Use for the hours between midnight and 6 a.m. is usually well above 100, and hit the 400 mark on the Friday before the end of the spring term. The number of users overall in the final week of the spring term averaged 8,000 per day, with a peak of 9,000 at the busiest point. For a small university, with approximately 6,000 students, this is impressive. "We have also been pleased to note high levels of use in the early morning before lectures between the hours of seven and nine, when occupancy levels often reach two to three hundred."
The university is proud of its new, unique facility, which is obviously proving a hit with students at Bath. Worthy of a Parade, indeed.