Oxford erupts in 'Battle of the Bod'

Paul Gallagher reports from the front line of an academic dust-up

It is a row that could have been scripted by Tom Sharpe in his satirical Wilt series. On one side are some of the nation's foremost academic minds, issuing threats of a "terrifying revolt". On the other, the guardians of the dusty tomes at arguably the finest library in the world.

The battle is over reading space at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, its main research library and one of the oldest in Europe; in the UK, it is second in size only to the British Library. Until recently, several subjects had their own separate library buildings within the Bodleian group. Now, they jostle for space side by side. The management's "bold" vision for a Bodleian fit for the future has been derided by academics as "philistine".

Collections have been moved from their normal resting place, shuffled around and dispersed in their vast new home, leaving visitors scratching heads rather than chins. The Bodleian libraries are now so vast that a separate book-storing facility in Swindon, acquired in 2010, holds more than seven million items. Students request material from Swindon and deliveries to Oxford arrive twice a day.

The decidedly uncollegiate dispute showed little sign of ending this weekend as one academic warned of tumultuous days ahead. Professors and students from modern languages, English, history and classics had criticised the decision to relocate their subject libraries and cram them either into "the Bod" itself or into the Radcliffe Camera, one of its three main sections.

Some academics have been placated by changes to the original plans, but the classics professor Robin Lane Fox said "massive resentment" was still brewing over "the abuse of our former treasure, the Bodleian Library". He added: "The reading rooms have been turned upside-down. Research now means tracking books whose placing we once knew by heart. It is no use the librarian telling us she 'shares our pain'. She has presided over a collapse in front-line research all summer, the prelude to a terrifying revolt this coming year."

The library hit back last night claiming that the professor, whose daughter Martha is one of the founders of Lastminute.com, was wrong. A spokeswoman for the Bodleian said: "The entire lending collections [of the modern history library], along with our expert staff, have moved to the Radcliffe Camera, where students benefit from the proximity of lending and reference teaching collections and significantly longer opening hours."

Barbara Speed, editor of the university newspaper, Cherwell, said many students were upset about the changes. "Faculties used to have their own library but the history faculty library has now completely closed and relocated. A lot of students have complained about the cramped conditions, and academics are obviously upset as well."

Protests by academics have had some success. Gregory Hutchinson, professor of Greek and Latin languages and literature, said that "strong representations" had changed the library's plans regarding classics. "There is a definite sense that the library is doing lots of consulting now and altering plans to accommodate the views of readers."

A debate on the future of libraries in Congregation – the dons' "parliament" – was held last week. But some are still not happy. Dr William Poole, a fellow in English, said the changes had "overridden the basic duty of the libraries of Oxford or of any other university: to serve academics and students". He added: "The culture of the library is changing, we weren't asked, and we don't like it. Following the recent debates, I believe some promises have been made concerning better consultation… so we shall have to see what happens."

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