Sydney University Library: Borrowers Protest

Lots of people in the foyer of the Fisher Library, University of Sydney

The normally empty foyer of the Fisher Library was crowded with people seeking to borrow books at yesterday’s mass book borrow protest.

Yesterday students at the University of Sydney organised a mass borrowing of books to protest against proposals by the University’s Fisher Library to remove 500,000 books from the shelves and retrench 30 staff.  Just two months ago concern was expressed at the removal of a large number of books from the library at University of New South Wales. I wrote about this in a previous post and examined the problems librarians face as the result of a finite amount of space to accommodate an increasing number of books. In this post I will examine more closely the specific circumstances and issues that the borrowers and librarians at Fisher Library are grappling with.

University of Sydney Librarian, John Shipp

The man in charge of the libraries at the University of Sydney, John Shipp, at yesterday’s protest.

The Library has shared a presentation about the Fisher Library renovations which I recommend you read. After reading this presentation I had some further questions which I put to the University Librarian, John Shipp.  I will share with you his e-mailed responses. The concerns expressed about the future of Fisher Library show how important it is that librarians publicly talk about libraries and interact with the users of their libraries.  By making his e-mail address publicly available, talking to the media about the proposed changes and attending the protest yesterday wearing a name badge so that he was easily identifiable, John Shipp is endeavouring to reach out to the people who use his library.

This is an emotional topic, and sometimes emotion clouds the issues. My aim is to take a deep breath and try to give a fair portrayal of the problems the Library is grappling with.

Retrenchment of Staff

The issue that most concerns me is the proposed retrenchment of staff. University Librarian, John Shipp explained that the retrenchments are not connected with the proposed renovations of the library and that last year the university library network (not just Fisher Library) had overspent their budget on salaries:

The need to reduce staff is partly related to budget restrictions. In 2010 the Library overspent its salary budget by around $1.5 million. Due to unfunded salary increases over the years, we have an imbalance between salary and collections expenditure. Changing the staff profile is necessary to meet budget obligations and allow more funding to be directed to collections.

John Shipp, University Librarian, 17/5/2011

There is no escaping it. Money is a finite resource. There is choice with regards to how it is allocated but often there is no choice about how much money is available to spend. I am not privy to the budget details for the library network, but the fact that these retrenchments are going to occur and that a reduced workforce will have to handle the extra work and difficult working conditions caused by renovations suggests to me that the university library network could do with a larger operating budget. But where are extra funds going to come from? We all wish we knew an answer to this.

John Shipp said that firstly the library will be asking staff if they wish to take voluntary redundancy. No decisions have been made as to which services will be cut. The redundancies will be spread across the entire University library network, not just the Fisher Library. Decisions regarding retrenchments will be made by 1 July. There are around 250 people who work for the libraries of the University of Sydney. The 30 retrenchments will therefore comprise around 12% of the current library workforce. When asked which services currently provided will be cut, Shipp said “no decisions have been made” but he added, “it is intended to maintain those services which provide direct support for learning and research”. What does the library do that is not directed towards learning and research? I don’t know.  It will be interesting to see how these staff cuts will affect the operations of the university’s library network.

Fisher Library’s Policy on Removal of Books

A person walking with a pile of books along an aisle in the library.

A student takes away his haul of books on Level 9 of the Fisher Library.

“The largest library collection in the southern hemisphere” is how the University of Sydney Library network is promoted on the Universities Australia website. I don’t know how that status will be affected by the proposal to reduce the collection size by half a million books. However, of greater importance is how this decision will affect the users of the library, both current and future users. As I stated in my previous post on this issue, my work has been affected by decisions by various organisations to dispose of material that with hindsight were poor. It is not surprising that history students have been among the most vocal in expressing their concerns. Time and again we hit a dead-end because people in the past destroyed material that they felt was unimportant. So historians are watching the library’s reduction in collection size very closely.

It is stated in the Fisher Library Renovation Project presentation that “one copy of every purchased monograph will be kept in the University Library collection” (slide 38). John Shipp said that items which have been donated to the Library will be retained where they support research and learning. Duplicates of low use items (defined as those that have not been borrowed for the last five years) will be firstly “offered to the University community” and items remaining after this will be donated to the Chancellors Book Fair. There are no plans for books to be thrown into a skip bin.

More room needs to be found at Fisher Library, so it is proposed that items that are not used often will be moved offsite (slide 38).Currently there are two off-site storage areas, one close to the library in Darlington, the other in Canberra. I was rather surprised that the university was storing items in Canberra because it takes about three hours to drive there from Sydney. John Shipp explained, “the Canberra store is a joint activity with the Australian National University and costs significantly less than any other facility we could find.” He said, “it contains journals that are now available in digital format”. This sounds like a good solution for items that will be rarely recalled as they are easily available through other means.

The concern is about the Sydney storage facility. It is expected that this facility will be destroyed as part of other redevelopments at the university (slide 41). So where will those items more likely to be recalled stored? The answer is – we don’t know yet. John Shipp told me that it currently takes one working day for items to be recalled from storage. “We are anticipating that the same turn-around will apply in the future”, he said. This suggests that storing these types of items in Canberra would be out of the question due to the cost of transport and the length of time it would take to recall the books. A solution will have to be found in Sydney. I don’t have a problem with more items being transferred to storage from Fisher Library as long as the items can be recalled in a reasonable time. This system operates at the highly regarded State Library of New South Wales fairly well.

Why More Room is Required: Access for People with Disabilities

A student between two sets of shelves in the Fisher Library.

No room for wheelchairs here – cramped space between shelves on level 9.

There are many reasons why more room is needed in the Fisher Library. I want to focus on one reason that I think is important but not given much attention in the discussion about this issue – the need to improve access to the collection for people with disabilities. When the university’s Sci-Tech Library was opened I looked at its low, widely spaced bookshelves and rated it lower on my library rankings list. A ‘real’ library to my mind, was one chock full of books, tightly packed and one that required me to use a stool to get to the top shelves. A real library was one like Fisher.

I feel rather embarrassed about that view now. Fisher has been great for me, but horrendously difficult to negotiate for those confined to wheelchairs. We want libraries to be accessible to as many people as possible. To do this there needs to be major changes to building design and layout of shelves. I have now learned that we need lower shelves, more widely spaced. In other words, the current number of books held in Fisher would need to occupy a much larger space, space that is just not available at Fisher Library. John Shipp explained the situation,

Basically, sufficient space has to be provided between the shelving to allow a person in a wheelchair to pass an ambulant person. This requires a minimum of 1200mm. If the length of the shelving exceeds a stated length, then the aisles have to be wider or a turning circle provided. Theoretically, the height of the shelves should allow a person in a wheelchair to access items on the top shelf. We have been able to gain dispensation for higher shelves on condition that staff members are available to assist in the retrieval of items from the higher shelves. We are unable to circumvent the aisle width requirements. In any case, the University has a commitment to making the campus accessible to people with disabilities.

John Shipp, University Librarian, 16/5/2011

There are currently two small lifts servicing the nine levels of the Fisher Library. These are totally inadequate to service the number and variety of people who use the library, including people with wheelchairs. John Shipp said that another lift will be added with a spare shaft added should an additional lift be needed in the future.

I noticed that the renovation plans only covered levels 1-4 of the Fisher Library. I asked John Shipp what was going to happen to the other floors. He said, “changes on the upper levels will be minimal apart from providing new lift access, improving air-conditioning and better fire and emergency services.” However, the books on levels 6-9 will be included in the collection review as these levels will need to accommodate some of the displaced books from the lower levels. The space available on the higher floors will also be reduced due to the space taken by the new lift shafts.


After taking my big breath, I think that I have a better understanding of the issues and the difficulties faced by the management of the Fisher Library. Yet understanding does not make the retrenchment of staff more palatable. I hope that some way is found to avoid the loss of staff but that might be wishful thinking. I am now more relaxed about the reduction in the number of items held at Fisher Library provided that the time to recall items is maintained. I think everyone agrees that the renovations at Fisher Library are essential. It just doesn’t meet the demands of the large numbers of people using it or the needs imposed by the technology of today…

Change is difficult.

Your Turn…

Make sure that those in charge of the Fisher Library know what you think by completing their Building Renovation Feedback form.

Chairs on level 4 of Fisher Library

These chairs on level 4 are comfortable. I hope that the chairs in the refurbished library are as comfortable as these.

More Information About the University of Sydney Library Cuts

I will add more links as more news emerges…

5 thoughts on “Sydney University Library: Borrowers Protest

  1. Chaotic scenes at Fisher Library on Wednesday at 1pm!
    Throngs of Library protesters flood into Fisher Library foyer in chaotic scenes of mass book retrievals and borrowings. Huge lines of borrowers and sit-ins created chaos and media frenzy in Fisher Library foyer !


    • I liked the fact that the organisers of the mass book borrow and read-in emphasised that everyone should be considerate of the library staff during this action which helped to set the orderly and good natured tone of the event. Media attended but I haven’t come across much coverage aside from those already listed on the links above. Please feel free to share links of media coverage of yesterday’s action.


  2. I don’t want to sound unsympathetic to people in wheelchairs, but I don’t understand why the entire library needs to be remodelled (and books removed from the library) simply to allow them access to the books. Is this really the most cost-effective way of dealing with the situation? Couldn’t the library offer some sort of service for people with disabilities – a librarian to help search and retrieve books for them?

    What is the proportion of disabled people who need access to the library? (And more specifically – the Fisher Library.) I thought that the Fisher was one of the few deposit libraries in Australia, and therefore that the emphasis was on having a comprehensive collection for scholars nationwide. Is providing disability access to a lesser amount of books really of more importance than having such a resource for Australian scholars? (Able bodied and disabled, I might add.)


    • There has been a significant change in the laws regarding buildings to make it easier for people with disabilities to enter and use them. Any changes to public buildings after May 2011 must ensure accessibility for those with disabilities. You can check out the Australian Human Rights Commission’s website for further details. These building standards apply to the library. The library management has little choice in this. As you can see by John Shipp’s comment about the shelves, they did explore means of reducing the cost impact of these regulations and managed to negotiate higher shelves on the proviso of having a staff member available to get items off higher shelves for those in wheelchairs.

      There are other compelling reasons for re-modelling the building. The current lift capacity is pitiful. Most able-bodied people would prefer to go from level 3 to level 9 in a lift but the wait for a lift at busy times can be lengthy. Inserting more lift shafts reduces the floor space available for books. Even without making the library accessible for those with disabilities, there would be a need to remove books from the library and store them off-site.

      I expect the library to carry out its policy of retaining at least one copy of every purchased book in its collection and moving infrequently used books off-site but providing them to borrowers within one working day of a request. If this is done then I believe that they are providing the same level of service as is provided by the State Library of New South Wales. I have found the service at the State Library of New South Wales satisfactory for my needs and am not aware of any complaints by others about this service. I believe that the collection will still be as comprehensive but the reductions in the number of duplicates is reasonable where there has been low demand for these items.


  3. Hi everyone,
    was just reading all your posts- i am a journalist from city news and i used to study at USYD. I am looking to write a piece on one of the librarians at Sydney Uni- to highlight the unfairness of the cut of staff members at the University.
    If you have a statement or any info you would like to give me it would be much appreciated.
    Holly de Boer


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