Is the Hive the future of university libraries?

What’s wrong with university libraries? Lots of things. They cost too much. Most knowledge is not on paper any more, which despite librarians’ protestations is their first love. Students need work space rather than shelf space. And so on…
But you can’t really have a university without a library, even if you call it the Learning Resource Centre. And maybe I have just seen the future of these venerable establishments. In 2005, Worcester and a clutch of other Roman towns in England got universities. The University of Worcester is an impressive place in many ways. But among its feats is the £60 million library which it is opening in July.
For one thing, it is a massive, gold-topped structure looming over the city’s modest centre, known as The Hive and shaped in tribute to the town’s former pottery kilns. But more importantly, it is not the university’s library. It is a joint venture with Worcestershire County Council, unique in the UK and rare anywhere. (University vice chancellor David Green points to San Diego as a precedent.)
So what? For one thing, both the city and the university get a library they ould never have afforded otherwise. This is especially true for the city. Library provision is in crisis nationwide as local government spending cuts bite. Here there will be a shiny new one with a golden bridge to the city’s main shopping centre.
More to the point, students and citizens

alike stand to learn something new. The books will be shelved with no distinction between the county’s and the university’s stock. The massive children’s library, built up to feed one of the university’s academic specialisms, will be available to Worcester’s youngsters. The county archaeological records

 

will be available to the university’s archaeologists. And so on. (On that theme, Roman buildings were discovered and excavated during construction.)
There have been compromises for both sides. While anyone can look at anything (apart from rare and precious stuff), there are rules about borrowing which will ensure that students can get at the material they need. And the council has had to accept that the place will be open

for long hours,every day.
As well as providing great resources, the aim is to give the people of Worcester some

Will it work? At the moment the Hive is librarian heaven – a massive, silent library with no users and no books. In a year, we’ll know far more about the problems of this setup in practice. While there may be sticking points, it is not as if the university is some remote actor in Worcester life. Instead, it is already

a highly visible presence in the city centre.
But there seems to be one mistake they have not made: I was assured on my visit that the county’s irreplaceable historical and archaeological records are above the high water mark for the flood-prone river Severn, which runs nearby.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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