Dr Richard Espley, head of modern collections at the finest lending library in London, provides a glimpse into Senate House Library’s past and what promises to be an exciting future.

The last two years have seen a tremendous amount of activity among the collections of Senate House Library (SHL). Just in our open access collection, we saw phase one of a collection audit, the first for several decades, which resulted in the removal of 4,000 out of scope and duplicate items from the catalogue, and more than 20,000 items relegated from open access to secure storage.

This is part of a longer-term piece of work to prioritise high-use material on open access and develop a regular relegation process as we move towards a ‘one in, one out’ approach to collection management. In addition, 547,000 items have been fitted with RFID tags, so that all items can be physically tracked by transmitting a unique code. Known as radio frequency identification, this technology enables much smoother self-issue and return processes for our readers, and means whole bays of stock can be audited in seconds. In addition, we are preparing to reclassify the entire open access collection, eradicating the current profusion of different systems of classmarks, which is a barrier to our readers finding the material they want.

As someone who walks among the shelves every day, as do many of our readers, there is a danger that this can occasionally feel like radical change foisted rather suddenly on a familiar (and even loved) institution. The experience of being alone among undisturbed shelving lends to the impression of stately endurance and unchanging quiet, which such programmes seem to shatter.

However, the Library collection has been undergoing constant change since its inception, and change of similarly radical kinds, not merely development and addition. We should remember that this is the third reclassification project to go ahead in our holdings.

The first years of the Senate House Library saw us make-do with simply recording shelf numbers, until Reginald Arthur Rye (in many ways the creator of the Library) introduced a bespoke classification scheme of his own devising. Now known to us as ‘Old Classification’, a scheme abandoned with the introduction of Bliss after the Second World War, the system still largely in evidence on our shelves. This of course ignores the numerous exceptions and irregularities on our shelves, and the previous short-lived schemes to bring order. I have on my office wall as a cautionary tale a copy of an all staff memorandum from the then librarian declaring that the Library would be reclassified away from Bliss into a new scheme within 12 months, dated 1982.

The collections have of course been in flux since the University of London’s foundation, absorbing a constant flow of new material and, not infrequently, whole new libraries, and simultaneously shedding collections as they became obsolete or fell outside the university’s area of interest. It doubtless felt distressing when, in 1988, the Library was instructed to dispose of its then prodigious mathematical, scientific and medical collections. Without such acts, however, we would never have been able to keep pace with the ever-increasing speed of arts and humanities publishing, or to maintain our service without massive new premises.

The last two years have also seen us begin to seriously assess the Library’s print periodical and their relationship to electronic journal content. We know from our readers’ usage patterns that they all but universally choose digital content over print when it comes to journals, with print requests from stack declining at a precipitous rate and usage of our e-portfolio rising by over 65% this year.

By reviewing the combined e-resource and periodical budgets together, we have been able to introduce 10,000 new titles and moved over half of our existing 1,250 subscriptions to digital access at zero net cost, with all e-resource fully accessible remotely. This is a significant achievement, and one that does not disregard the professional judgment and care of our predecessors but builds upon it, for the print choices of the past are guiding our hand as to what we should now consider purchasing electronically.

Similarly, we purchased some 2,000 e-books in 2018/19, a move which was regarded as controversial but to which our readers have responded very enthusiastically. With a little perspective, the e-book is no aggressive newcomer among our holdings, but just the latest in a long line of innovations which the Library has embraced. The University of London Library, for example, was known for its aggressive appetite for collecting microfilm and microfiche when these seemed to be the formats of the future. More problematically, even the invention of the photocopier saw us collecting copies of unique and very rare texts from research libraries around the country, to be carefully bound and shelved here.

At a federal level, the collections advisory group has unanimously agreed to adopt a three-year collaborative collection management framework, focusing on collection evaluation this year with an ultimate view to sharing storage and access arrangements for our reserve collections. SHL has also been involved with Jisc’s plans for a National Bibliographic Knowledgebase, and was invited to be one of ten institutions to upload data as an early adopter. Consequently, SHL led a community data group project team, funded by Jisc from April to July 2018, and we will continue to play a leading role in the conversation about a national monographs strategy and associated research reserve solution.

This focus on storage across the federation shines a different light on the wisdom of our predecessors. While for decades the focus of all attention has wisely been our open access holdings and maintaining reader access to contemporary research outputs, the digital model is beginning to radically alter this truth. As publishers offer new content in digital formats, and historic texts are similarly digitised, national interest turns increasingly to the value of the vast amount of material which lies in between these two. It is this material which occupies our closed access stores, and which many other libraries have dispensed with or are now considering doing so.

In some senses, the value of the collections has been partially inverted as this offsite reserve becomes of renewed value, which again suggests that librarians go most astray when they attempt to make sweeping judgments on things as vast and fluid as collections of this size. Sometimes it seems to me that the Library’s collections are rather like an impossible deep sea creature glimpsed imperfectly but seemingly understood, and yet, when seen from another angle, what was confidently identified as the head transpires to be the tail.

Like the building in which we are housed, any air of traditional conservatism in Senate House Library is misleading. We have always been a restlessly innovating body which has sought to preserve the best of its collections but to assess their worth pragmatically and to respond ruthlessly when required. The programmes in which we’re currently engaged, and in which we welcome user engagement, continue this tradition and give the library a clear and expanding future role.