The Main Library of the University of St Andrews closed yesterday for a four-month period of intensive refurbishment. Most of the Library’s staff had already been distributed to other locations around the campus for the summer. A group of us are camped out in the University’s former Medical School. Our Special Collections staff, with their collections, have been heroically decanted to our Library Store building, which nestles between the science campus and the University’s sports building on the edge of the town. They will be there for longer than just the summer, as we launch a project to build a new Special Collections facility.
All of this displacement and disruption is necessary, and positive. The Main Library was built 35 years ago, and – apart from changes to acknowledge technological advances – has remained disturbingly untouched ever since. One of the least missed components of this chronologically challenged building will be the garish mustard carpet tiles, devised it would appear to prevent anyone from feeling restful enough to want to make their stay in the Library anything other than brief.
And yet, walking around yesterday an hour before we closed, as the last students preparing madly for final exams tried to concentrate even though service desk staff were packing crates, while a few who had already finished dropped off their last clutch of books and took photographs of each other next to deserted floor space, there was a strange sadness. The Library will – barring accidents – reopen in September with two of its four levels happily transformed, space reconfigured to reflect 21st century usage patterns, new colours and furnishings, and properly functioning heating and air conditioning systems. But any academic library is a monument to its community’s search for knowledge and understanding, and as the last vestiges of a 1970s way of understanding how that search should be carried out were being removed, I felt a pang of sympathy and admiration for those who designed and built this library 35 years ago. For them it was a landmark in the University’s development. An even more heroic effort had taken place then to move hundreds of thousands of books and journals across the town from the St Mary’s quadrangle, where the newly ‘Old Library’ had housed them in high-vaulted splendour, to their new site adjacent to the St Salvator’s quadrangle. And one or two of the excited young library staff of 1976 are still with us, watching the transition to a new understanding of what being a library is in the age of internet, social web, ubiquitous laptops and plumbed-in journals.
Many of our academics rarely visit now, and when they do they often grimace at the sight of food and drink in places never allowed before, and as they pass Facebooking students on every level. Meanwhile for our student users we are an increasingly popular place for study and contact in between lectures, tutorials and socialising, a sort of natural magnet in student lives. Transforming our largest physical presence on the campus is necessary, but not sufficient. A university library has never meant more things to its diffuse communities of users than it does today, and we must be careful not to conflate the transformed space of a library building with the ongoing transformation of ‘library’ to vital services for our rich mix of home and overseas users, our users whose visits are exclusively via our web presence, our undergraduate and masters students, postgraduate researchers, our academics and scholarly and local visitors. Back in 1976, pace a number of class libraries that were precious to their departments, the new Main Library did embody the library service as the University understood it. Perhaps it is the unavoidable stirring of that memory that makes us feel a sense of loss even in the midst of this very welcome progress.