Descending to the shrouded depths of the bottom floor of the Main Library, I am met by the man in charge of this beehive of student procrastination, caffeine quaffing and occasional academic research. John MacColl, MA MEd DipLib MCLIP, and Head Librarian for St Andrews, greets me along with two of his associates, Ewan McCubbin (Assistant Director) and Graeme Hawes (User Services Manager), in a well-lit board room overlooking the St Mary’s lawn.
Our interview attempts to look into his and his colleagues’ experience of the trials and tribulations of running this integral part of the University’s activity.
The main event he notes is the transformation of the Library itself, which has “escaped its 1970s timewarp” of mustard-yellow carpet, inadequate space and uninspiring architecture; Graeme Hawes agrees – “we recognise that the Library has to move with the times”. He notes the various areas which have improved, such as the modernised study rooms, electronic borrowing system and increased focus on student feedback, with the latter apparently of particular value to the staff in the Library:
“I think it’s important that we have a very good relationship with our students”. Mr MacColl shares this view: “The very fact that we have begun the investment in this building with the student experience right at the heart illustrates that it’s right at the top of the priority list.” Indeed, the Library website constantly runs surveys for student opinion, such as the ‘It’s Your Library’ series, with one particular success instigated by Director of Representation, Amanda Litherland, who campaigned for the decision to introduce 24/7 opening hours in the run up to exams.
It has been no easy task to transform the Library, however – “it’s been a battle for many years” Mr MacColl points out. The original plan was to invest above £40 million in a complete overhaul, including an expansion of the current building by around a third in size, which he frankly admits “never happened”. The main factor behind it, supposedly, was the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8, leading to a black hole of funding.
He optimistically notes, however, that “there was subsequently an effort to recognise that the Library had critical problems, and that something needed to be done…The University Court approved a more modest approach, with current funding of about £14 million, including £3 million for the North Haugh, a £3 million increase on collections and about £7million for the Main Building.” Mr McCubbin is keen to reject the traditionally stuffy conception of a library: “The Library today means so much more than books – it means space, digital learning, social research,” he said.
It is a pattern which echoes the Library’s turbulent past – it is apparently a “constant game of catch-up” with other universities who have secured more funding in earlier years to expand their libraries, during the ‘70s in particular, so that St Andrews is keen now to level with other research-intensive institutions.
I ask about the other, more day-to-day challenges of running the Library. Mr Hawes responds, citing the challenge of catering for the diversity of users and their “different expectations” – “what you might expect from the library, be it social spaces, coffee rooms, is quite different from maybe a researcher who wants silence and plenty of space for their materials.”
Given the multitude which the Library attracts on a daily basis, did he ever feel that it was misused? He replies that he is aware of the Spotted: St Andrews Library Facebook page, but doesn’t seem perturbed: “the vast majority of students use the library appropriately, and we have no problems with them.”
I push for more details, but apparently the only incidences of the euphemistically termed ‘Non-Academic Misconduct’ have been few and far between: McCubbin points out that “I can count on the fingers of my right hand the number of times that we’ve had to get involved.” Mr Hawes puts this in context – “considering we had 960,000 visitors to the Library, the number of times we’ve had to step in is miniscule.”
The Library, of course, remains a vital part of the functioning of the University and the work of its students, though the amount of work done behind the scenes is perhaps underappreciated. It is testament to the hard work of this team that it has not only been able to make so much progress from its chequered past, but remains a constantly evolving entity which can celebrate both its rich history and strive for forward-thinking. John MacColl, a man of many letters, is also a man of many books, and it is his passion for the written word which continues to keep St Andrews’ Library at the forefront of student resources.