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A startling blow for Auckland’s Elam art students

The Elam Fine Arts Library has the largest fine arts collection in the Southern hemisphere. Photo/Facebook @fineartslibrary.

A plan to close one of Auckland University’s specialist libraries could see art students waiting up to 24 hours to access certain books.

The proposal to merge the Elam School of Fine Arts Library with the University’s General Library has come as a shock to its students.

From a small collection of art books, brought along with the school when it amalgamated with Auckland University in 1950, the Fine Arts Library has evolved into a unique arts library of “national significance” with some 50,000 books as well as artworks, ephemera, photobooks and manuscripts.

A review of the Creative Arts and Industries (CAI) libraries which includes the Architecture and Planning and Music and Dance libraries, recommends merging the three libraries into the General Library as part of a larger restructure of library services to save money and "reflect the changing nature of libraries".

Elam Students Association (ESA) acting vice president and Masters student Olyvia Hong says the impact on students will be huge and there hasn’t been enough consultation.

“They’ve completely ignored the student voice, they haven’t consulted with us at all. They say they have but it’s the way they’ve gone about doing it. I think in September last year they had brought up the conversation...it was very sly and they didn’t publicise it. I found out through the Herald [about the merger], I had no idea this was happening.”

The ESA has set up a website for students to submit feedback on the plan which they will send to the university’s vice chancellor, head of CAI, head of Elam and library management team.

“Basically because they haven’t consulted with us or other stakeholders of the library, we have set up this website so students can send feedback [as] the university haven’t provided the platform to do so.”

Hong says the library is part of the attraction of going to Elam as it’s such a comprehensive collection. “Once it goes to the general library it will be lost in there. I think most of it will go into offsite storage which means you’ll have to request them and it’ll take a stupid amount of time to get it.”

“I haven’t talked to one person who’s against saving the library.”

Vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon told the Herald the university faces an $11.8 million deficit which would have to be met partly by cutting staff numbers; there are 45 full-time equivalent jobs in Libraries and Learning Services on the line under the restructure.

Hong says the CAI libraries are being closed because arts students make up only a small part of the university population.

“I think it’s bullshit, the university functions as a business, they’re just cutting from the arts sector. They shouldn’t be cutting resources on those terms, especially the libraries. We [CAI] count for four percent of the university, so my understanding is we don’t get a lot of money, so maybe that’s why.”

A spokesperson for the university, Lisa Finucane, says staff and students were consulted around the review and their views were taken into consideration.

“While the needs of individual groups were part of the decision making, there were bigger-picture considerations that students would not necessarily have on their radars”.

She says access to off-site material will be within 24 hours and additionally, the General Library would be open 96 hours a week compared with the 55 hours the current Fine Arts library is open.

Material stored off-site would be items that are not accessed frequently, said Finucane. “If there is a course that is taught, say, every second year with no requirement for relevant books on the ‘off’ years, then that too will be taken into consideration. So books that are used will be available in the General Library and can easily be brought in.”

Despite some staff fearing excess books being burned, closure of the library will not mean books will be destroyed or burned, the university told Radio New Zealand.

One member of the review panel had made an alternative recommendation to create a whole new library merging the CAI libraries as part of another university redevelopment, but the opinions of the majority of the panel were accepted for the plan as “best fulfilling the needs of the University and its students, teachers, and researchers.”