Dr Matthew Shaw, Joanna Ashe, David Gee and Dr Raphaële Mouren, reflect on the challenges faced by the School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) libraries during lockdown, and look ahead to the way things will change.

Among the novel activity of the last few months, perhaps the most useful has been the self-reflection imposed by this period of internal exile. For the libraries of the School of Advanced Study, being separated from its physical collections and reading rooms has raised questions about what a library is, what it might be, and who is it for. 

Like other libraries, we of course stress that although our buildings are currently closed, the libraries are not, and we continue a whole host of activities and services remotely. It is also a reminder that we are fortunate to be located in a particular part of London – in Bloomsbury, next to the British Museum and not far from the British Library – but that this circumstance also can be in tension with our national role. 

We are a long way from Liverpool, Plymouth and Tyneside, and even a trip from Milton Keynes is a not inconsiderable investment in time and money. While the UK is a relatively compact country, and London can be a useful port of call, since most railway lines congregate here, most humanities researchers can’t simply pop in during their lunch break. 

Of course, all libraries suffer from this to some extent. While we hold many items in common, most studies of library holdings reveal the extent to which their collections contain unique or rarely held items.

Researchers need to travel, make use of inter-library loans, or dust off a credit card and order digital photography. Much is available digitally, but only the tip of an analogue iceberg. Much of it is likely to stay there unless copyright and intellectual property regimes change markedly and the economics of library funding dramatically. Even then, there will be valuable edge-cases, such as the hunt for evidence of stitch binding, marginalia or copy-specific information (or in my case the loop of string that held up old almanacs on rural kitchen walls).  

This remains academic to some extent at the moment: library buildings are closed, with the exception of some of those specialising in health. But libraries remain open. Membership of public libraries has increased six-fold over the last few months, with thousands of readers making use of e-books and online databases, such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or genealogical products.

Within higher education, enquiry desks are being staffed from the kitchens, bedrooms and studies (if colleagues are lucky to have such space) across the UK. And hundreds of thousands of journal articles, database entries and digitised books continue to be accessed on computers in lockdown homes. 

But libraries are more than storehouses of bits of information. Humans, and sophisticated cataloguing systems, make this information useful and available. Beyond that, libraries offer a huge range of services that support teaching, learning and research. 

Our recent exile from Bloomsbury has, however, been a reminder of some of these activities offered by the libraries hosted by the School (the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS), the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS), the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) and the Warburg Institute; the libraries of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) and the Germanic Studies Library of Institute of Modern Language Studies). These knowledge hubs are maintained by a partnership between those institutes and Senate House Library. 

While they support University of London and its federal member institutions, such as Birkbeck, City or King’s College London, they are, as part of SAS, funded to support the work of Research England, facilitating research and its promotion across the UK. This post draws out some of this work. 

At the heart of this, of course, are the collections. Libraries select, catalogue, make available and preserve items for wider benefit, and the SAS libraries underpin specialist, discipline-specific research. They acquire broadly and deeply, avoiding duplication and often holding the only copy outside of the British Library or Oxbridge, whether an expensive multi-volume work or near-ephemeral work produced by a local community group. 

The collections are also gloriously polyglot, with the majority of titles purchased by the IHR, for example, sourced in languages other than English. Within those collections, or providing the basis for them, in the case of the Warburg Institute Library, there are also special collections, perhaps collected by a particular institution or individual. As well as the knowledge contained within the individual items of the collection, the shape and story of its whole is also a part of a humanistic understanding of how the world is conceived and understood. 

Some of the libraries, such as the IHR and Warburg, are reference only, reflecting the need for historians to be certain that a particular book is on the shelf and allowing quick access to historical records. Classics, meanwhile, offers a postal-loan service and IALS runs a successful commercial document supply service. All offer inter-library loan.

The libraries also offer that most vital of services: open shelf browsing, allowing quick access and a way to physically explore and be surprised by a topic of study. The unique Warburg classification leads the reader to look at topics differently. 

This is complemented by a range of e-resources many of which are available to members from across the UK. And the libraries also create resources: BAILII, a searchable database of legal judgements, Current Legal Research Topics, Eagle-i law Portal, Foreign Law Guide, Warburg Commons, an open repository mirroring the physical collections, and the Warburg Iconographic database

Digitisation takes place across the libraries, such as the Leventis Foundation project at the Institute of Classical Studies. Projects are also run in partnership, such as the Privy Council Case Papers digitisation project with IALS and Lincoln’s Inn Library, the Getty Research Portal and others. The IHR has also worked with Ancestry.com and Senate House Library to digitise its collection of East India directories, and IALS Digital (a part of IALS Library) publishes new open access books and journals. 

Training for researchers and students is one key aspect of this role, with advanced, discipline-specific training offered across the libraries. Once offered in seminar rooms, with some videos and written guides placed on the web, we now provide individual and group training via email, Zoom and MS Teams.

Our colleagues at Senate House Library have also introduced a webchat service and IALS has just launched its Chat messaging service. Services such as IALS’s 1-2-1 Zoom reference advice service are in high demand, and offer help using specialised legal resources, which are often difficult to use even for the most experienced of researcher. 

For the last two decades, the libraries have also given vital support to the next generation of subject librarians through the graduate library trainee programme. Each year, six or more traineeships are available, offering paid employment for a year, along with structured training, exposure to a range of activities and opportunities for participants to undertake their own projects.

Highly competitive, the programme has seen a large number of students complete post-graduate library study and take up university and other library positions across the UK and the continent. Helping to provide access to a library pool and attracting and supporting a diverse and talented range of people is vital to the health of the UK library landscape.   

The SAS libraries are keenly aware that they are part of a much wider information and research ecosystem. The density of libraries within a ten-minute walk of Senate House is perhaps unmatched anywhere in the world, with the Wellcome Library and the British Library a short walk northward, and the Wiener and Dr Williams’ libraries nestled alongside. 

This brings home the complexity and richness of the library world; a wonderful thing, but also a reminder that it can be somewhat opaque to the outside world. One way that the libraries contribute to opening up collections to others is through work around resource discovery. 

The IHR, for example, adds detailed subject descriptions to items in its catalogue, which includes freely available online resources. Entries are then shared more widely through union catalogues such as Jisc’s Library Hub. Of course, Google is wonderful at finding things, but there are huge boons in using a controlled vocabulary to allow researchers to track down related material or browse concepts. 

An increasingly large and important amount of scholarship is also being published as open access. To help this to be discovered by researchers (since not all material is well-catalogued or added to traditional library cataloguing systems), projects such as Cataloguing Open Access Classics Serials (COACS) helps to keep scholarship flowing. More recently, drawing on crowdsourced recommendations and librarians’ expertise, we created a series of guides to online, freely accessible resources as a response to the coronavirus emergency.   

The libraries also contribute to librarianship nationally and internationally, helping the field adapt and develop by working with colleagues in leadership roles in organisations such as the IFLA, the International Association of Law Libraries and the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians. As we are embedded within academic institutes that attract a wide range of national and international researchers, the libraries are perhaps able to feed in the latest trends and developments from the disciplines into librarianship more broadly. IALS also chairs the FLARE group of major law libraries in the UK, and its national role is underscored with a Memorandum of Understanding with the British Library. 

So, the libraries are not just in Bloomsbury, but are beyond, just as we are not closed, just not in our buildings. We have adapted to the current situation, moving quickly to close the reading rooms and working with our colleagues offsite (including sending a left-behind reader’s laptop to its owner via Pedal Me cycle courier). 

We are experimenting with technology to offer our library services more broadly, moving the IHR’s weekly ‘Shut Up and Write!’ co-working session to Zoom, and helping researchers to focus on their work for at least two hours a week. We’d be interested in hearing your views on what else we should be doing. 

Dr Matthew Shaw is the Institute of Historical Research’s librarian. You can follow him on Twitter @_mattshaw.

Joanna Ashe is the Librarian of the Combined Classics Library at the Institute of Classical Studies.

David Gee is the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies’ librarian.

Dr Raphaële Mouren is the Warburg Institute Librarian and Reader in History of the Book and Libraries. You can follow her on Twitter @rmourr