Special collections and university rankings

The University of Leeds has made two prestigious acquisitions recently which have been deemed worthy of announcing from the university’s own news page. In early June, the university acquired the archive of Marks & Spencer, one of the UK’s most prestigious stores, which began its life in Leeds some 125 years ago (and has created an online exhibition drawn from its archive). Now headquartered in London, the return of the company’s archive is a nice example of regional cultural repatriation, and will undoubtedly provide a basis for a great deal of interesting research as suggested by the University’s Vice Chancellor, Michael Arthur:

We already have one of the best academic libraries in the country, and the arrival of this tremendous archive will further strengthen it. The collection spans economic, social, artistic and cultural history and will be of interest to staff and students from all parts of the University as well as the public.

And just a few days ago came news of the acquisition of a collection relating to Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, a controversial early 20th century English novelist. This collection adds to Leeds’ substantial holdings in Victorian and early 20th century literature, and illustrates well the importance of cultivating vital relationships in a collecting strategy that gives gravity to a strong research library.

I was interested in these library stories that had made the ‘front page’ of the university’s website, since Leeds is anxious to improve its reputation internationally. The university’s ambitions are expressed very starkly in one of the the standard footnotes for editors: ‘The University’s vision is to secure a place among the world’s top 50 by 2015’. News stories based on research developments, awards to staff or students, and prestigious acquisitions like these, are of course now common on university websites, and a standardised list of notes to editors is frequently used. But even in the reputationally aggressive UK, it is unusual to see a university stake its claim quite as boldly as this. This is probably because the league tables themselves are still not widely respected nor held as authoritative – though Leeds may be banking on that position having changed by 2015.

It does as yet have some distance to travel though, since the Times Higher table currently lists Leeds in 104th position, having dropped 24 places since the previous year. The Shanghai Jiao Tong Index has it in 131st, down one place. But the new edition of the oddly named Ranking Web of World Universities, which judges institutions on the strength of the web presence of their research rather than on prizes won or citations, has boosted Leeds from position 180, in January, to 167 in July. Perhaps stories about research, including research collections, are beginning to have the desired effect.

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One Comment

  1. Re John’s very last sentence: let’s hope that’s not the reason. And I realise you were only speculating! But if the day comes when the value (for immediate want of a better word!) of a university is determined by the promotional achievements and abilities of its PR team rather than real and actual educational and research achievements then we might as well all pack it in and go work for a bank (or a PR company, perhaps?).

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