Christine, an Academic Support librarian, gave us a lovely and informative tour of the New College Library in Edinburgh, Scotland. She began by explaining a brief history of the library and continued up through its present day operations. The current building used to be a church for the Free Church of Scotland. Due to some disruptions in the 1840s and revisions in church policy, it was necessary to train ministers for a New Church (hence, “New College”) and also form an adequate supporting library. Thus, New Free Church College was formed in 1843. Early administrators asked for book donations from private individuals and women. In fact, many of early donors were women, as it was perceived that books were “not as useful to women”. The library received 10,000 books in the first few years.
By the 1930s the present building was adapted for library use and opened in 1936, after which Divinity and New College libraries joined. Now the library has 1/4 million items, including 90,000 rare books in Special Collections. Indeed, the Robert A. Funk Reading Room was built for the display of a small number of some of these materials, after a generous donation was made for preservation/conservation efforts, cataloging, increased security measures, and other useful initiatives. About 30,000 additional items have since been cataloged, and the process is still going strong.
While the library’s collections are fundamentally linked to Protestant religious history, the large postgraduate student base has required the library to expand their scope somewhat. Training young people for ministry was the original purpose of the library, but now it is only a part of what they do, Christine explained. She showed us the 3-hour loan materials (located next to the Special Collections area) and noted that students are fined 2p per minute if items are returned late! Not all of the collections are available yet on catalog indexes, particularly some archival collections, papers of individuals, and certain historical materials. In 2002 the library moved to Library of Congress classification for many of their items, including the heavily-used reference collection; before, they had used the UTS (Union Theological Seminary) classification scheme. New College library uses Alma/Primo software (same as the academic library where I work) and supports students with 4-week to 12-week materials loans depending on their student or faculty status. I was surprised to hear that the loan limit for postgraduate students and faculty members is 40-60 books! That seems like a quite a lot to keep track of.
The library still has the original furniture from the 1930s, but has been rewired for wireless access and now includes a few computers. Most students bring their own laptops, Christine explained, so the small number has not encouraged much complaining. The library does not, however, have any group study spaces, and Christine mentioned that there have been discussions about whether that is something they would/should like to offer in the future.
Christine led us downstairs, where most of the stacks are still open access (not including special collections); unfortunately, as a structural element in the building, these shelves are fixed and cannot be moved or altered at all. We were in an area that held journals and periodicals organized alphabetically by title name. She mentioned that some bound titles may eventually be discarded or stored if they are digitally available. It was clear that space was limited, as the off-site storage facility is used by the entire university and what existing space the library has is nearly full.
Christine gave us some more insights into the variety of the collections. For example, there are around 5,000 items in the hymnology collection alone! About 30-35,000 ephemeral pamphlets from the 16th-20th centuries give students and researchers insights into the contemporary (and hotly-debated) religious and political issues of the day. However, she said, the New College Library’s collections are more diverse than just items related to religion. There is also a strong interest in geology and science as the school offers a masters degree program in science and religion.
Some of my colleagues asked questions about the financial and logistical functions of the library. Christine explained that several thousands of pounds are spent on purchasing books and selected journals each year (although databases are paid for by university), whereas the budgets for general journal subscriptions and monograph series are “squeezed” a bit more. Sometimes the library will purchase an e-book, and then students or faculty will also want it in print as well. Some things in academic libraries seem to be universal). The international use of the library by people from all over the world and from some prestigious universities has also increased the libraries’ sense of needing to raise the scope of their collections. Surprisingly, all of this work is done by a fairly small staff — only 12-15 people, some of whom work only part-time! Christine is the sole librarian with an MLIS, although the other staff has lots of experience of course. They have limited funding for other positions, and unfortunately, as is the case in too many libraries today, once the funding goes the position goes… Once again, some issues that libraries face do seem to be universal.