A Complaint, in Defence of Quiet Study

In the afterword to photographer Richard Dawson’s recent book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (2014), writer Anne Patchett writes:

Support libraries in your words and deeds. If you are fortunate enough to be  able to buy your books, and you have your own computer with which to conduct research, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your children, then don’t forget about the members of your community who are like you but perhaps lack your resources — the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to go and sit and think.         Make sure that in your good fortune you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: a better life.

Patchett’s words held great resonance for me as they reinforced my motivations in pursuing a complaint against the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, which began in April 2014 when I learnt that following their recent renovations, they had implemented a charge of £5.00 (£2.50 concessions) for the use of quiet study carrels (small cupboard like rooms equipped with a desk, a power point and a light source). Previously these carrels been allocated free of charge on a first come first served basis so those wishing silence in which to work.  I have been a frequent user of these small quiet rooms ever since I moved to Glasgow to study at Glasgow University in 1993. In those days, The Mitchell Library was only a reference library and visitors were required to decant their personal belongings into a clear plastic bag and go through a security check before gaining entrance to the quiet and studious atmosphere within.

Since the early 90s the Mitchell Library has changed quite radically. Perhaps the most significant change came when the library made the transition from reference only to also being a lending library. The cloakroom and security gates were removed and replaced with a colourful general lending and children’s books area, with good stocks of DVDs and CDS available to borrow. The small and old fashioned pine-walled café in the foyer was removed and replaced with an airy open plan café popular with students, young mothers, pensioners and business people alike, due to the free computers and Wi-Fi on offer.  Nowadays the library serves a much wider section of the community, but as it has gotten busier it has also become much noisier.  Baillie’s Reading Room, ostensibly The Mitchell Library’s designated silent study space, is far from quiet, due to users with leaky headphones, or who are using mobile phones, or eating noisily or those with a propensity to chat.  That is why the free provision of study carrels (small silent rooms) is so important for those who in Patchett’s words, ‘need a place to go and sit and think.’

Thomas J. Clapperton, Literature (c.1909), bronze statue adorning the dome of The Mitchell LIbrary, Glasgow.
Thomas J. Clapperton, Literature (c.1909), bronze statue adorning the dome of The Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

My initial complaint, made on 30th April, and the correspondence that followed, is reproduced below.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to complain about your decision to implement a charge for the use of quiet study carrels on the 5th Floor of the Mitchell Library.  It seems this charge was introduced in October 2013 but as the 5th floor has been closed for several months for renovations I only became aware of the change when I visited the library on Monday 28th April. 

I have been a frequent user of the Mitchell library and the 5th floor study carrels for many years – since 1993 when I moved to Glasgow to study at Glasgow University.

 Since the early 90s the Mitchell Library has changed quite radically. Nowadays the library serves a much wider section of the community, but as it has gotten busier it has also become much noisier.  That is why the free provision of study carrels (small silent rooms) is so important.  Since I began visiting the library in 1993 these had always been allocated free of charge on a first come first served basis so those wishing silence in which to work were advised to turn up as close to 9am as possible.  A study carrel on the fifth floor was where I elected to write significant portions of both the 2003 and 2010 editions of Social Sculpture: The Rise of The Glasgow Art Scene and my PhD thesis (despite by that time also having access to Glasgow School of Art library and the Glasgow University Library) and my most recent book, All Art is Political: Writings on Performative Art (2014).

Since the two floors where I most often worked, Floors 4 and 5, closed for renovations last autumn, I have mainly worked either at home or at Glasgow University Library or Glasgow School of Art library.  As a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art I am fortunate to have access to both those facilities.  However, the Mitchell Library occupies such a unique place in Glasgow and in my own heart that, once this term’s assessments at Glasgow School of Art were completed at the end of April, I looked forward to renewing my acquaintance with the newly renovated floor five of the library.

On the day of my visit the 5th floor was busy with noisy secondary school students studying for Standard Grades and Highers.  Needing to concentrate, I requested a study carrel at the desk, whereupon I learned that a daily charge of £5.00 (£2.50 concessions) for the use of the study carrels had been introduced.  The librarian said that there had been a marked downturn in the use of the carrels following the introduction of the charge – indeed all six carrels were unoccupied. £2.50 a day is a prohibitive cost for someone on a low income, whether a student, someone claiming benefits or a pensioner. 

At the enquiries desk, a staff member said that the charge was justified to cover the cost of electricity; a bizarre assertion given that electricity in the form of lighting and power points is freely available throughout the building.  I can understand why a charge is levied on the musical practice rooms, given the pianos must be tuned etc. but the study carrels have nothing that requires costly maintenance and indeed their decor hasn’t changed in 20 years. The income stream generated by this charge can only be a maximum of £30 a day for each floor, yet the shift that it represents – towards privatization – goes against all that the library has done to open itself up to the general public in recent years – the shift from wholly reference to also being a lending library, the children’s books area, the reduced security procedures, the free Wi-Fi, the free use of PCs, courses for those researching family history, the larger cafe area and so on. A librarian who spoke to me at the Library said that the study carrels are only a small part of what the library offers – but that is exactly why they need to be preserved, as the other changes have increased the number of users and accompanying noise levels such that anyone really needing quiet to study would not now find it in the Mitchell Library except in a study carrel.

The decision to charge for the use of quiet study facilities has effectively privatized an area of a public library.  Even though I can probably afford the £5 daily cost of renting a study carrel I can’t bring myself to do it on moral grounds. I also don’t think it represents good value for money – it costs £50 to belong to Glasgow University Library (where a silent study policy is strictly enforced) for an entire year – that amount would only buy me 10 days in a study carrel at the Mitchell Library.  I can go back to the University Library (in fact that’s where I am writing this now) but what about those people less privileged than myself, who now are effectively barred from The Mitchell Library’s quiet study facilities?

Students from less advantaged backgrounds would not be able to afford to pay £2.50 a day to access the quiet study facilities.  This is really problematic when viewed alongside the increasingly dwindling rates of progression from state schools to leading universities.  Data published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in August 2013 showed that the gap in progression rates between private and state schools has widened since 2008, and that almost two-thirds of students from the independent sector went on to Britain’s leading institutions in 2010/11 compared with less than a quarter of those from the state system. And within the state school system, teenagers from the poorest families – those eligible for free school meals – were half as likely to progress on to any higher education course as relatively affluent classmates. 

I am sure you will be aware of the 2013 survey by the charity Booktrust that found that on average, the richer someone’s background, the more likely they are to read.  Meanwhile a higher proportion of people from poorer backgrounds admitted they never read. More than one in four (27%) of adults from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds said they never read books themselves, compared with just 13% of those from the richest socio-economic backgrounds. Almost half of those questioned (45%) said they prefer watching TV and DVDs to reading a novel.  Source: Hannah Richardson, “England divided into readers and watchers”, BBC News, 11th March 2014.

Given those statistics, the decision to place a financial barrier around the possibility of quiet study seems very poorly thought out and I think contradictory to the stated aims of Glasgow Libraries? As your website puts it, “Glasgow Libraries are proud to provide a free library service to everyone living, working or studying in Glasgow.”

I look forward to your response.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. Sarah Lowndes

On the 8th of May I received the following response:

Dear Dr. Lowndes,

Front Line Stage One Complaint re:

I refer to your complaint regarding charges for the use of study carrels in the Mitchell Library

Your complaint has been considered and I can respond as follows:

Glasgow Life reviews its pricing policy on an annual basis. During the 2013 review process it was decided to roll out the hire charge for study carrels, previously charges had only applied to carrels used for music practice. Essentially the use of library and information services within the Mitchell remains free of charge and this can be sustained by the library service charging for non-core services such as hire of DVDs, copying services, room hire etc. While the renovation work in The Mitchell is ongoing, there has been limited access to some spaces and therefore fewer opportunities for visitors to disperse throughout the building. I apologise that this has contributed to making Levels 4 and 5 more crowded but this temporary situation will be remedied when Level 2 reopens, the estimated date for which is the beginning of July.

While the standard daily charge has been set at £5.00, a concessionary rate of £2.50 is available and is offered to all those entitled. Information about concession entitlement is displayed at counters throughout the library. Please contact me if you wish to discuss this further.

Glasgow Life welcomes customer feedback and all complaints are regarded as important for improving our services.  If you are unhappy with this response and wish to escalate your complaint to an Investigation of our complaints procedure, a member of the Senior Management Team will investigate matters further.  Please call 0141 287 8977 and quote the reference at the top of this letter or write to us at Business Support, Admin Hub One, 220 High Street, 4th Floor, Glasgow G4 0GW or e-mail info@glasgowlife.org.uk  Please raise your concerns to us within 20 working days of the date of this email.

Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.

Yours Sincerely,

Principal Librarian

I decided that I did indeed wish to escalate my complaint and on the 9th of May I re-sent my original letter to info@glasgowlife.org.uk

The same day I received the following response from Glasgow Life:

Hi Sarah,

I am unsure about this email as you have sent your complaint again and this was already responded to by [name of Principal Librarian].

Please advise how you are wishing to proceed with this and I will pass to the Principal Librarian.

Regards

Glasgow Life staff member

That afternoon I responded by writing to Glasgow Life:

Dear Glasgow Life staff member

I have sent my complaint again as I don’t feel that the response from the Principal Librarian addressed the points that I raised in my letter, notably that £2.50 is a prohibitive amount for those on low incomes to pay for the use of a silent study carrel.  I don’t accept that use of a study carrel is the same as borrowing a DVD or paying for photocopying and I find the decision to attempt to raise revenue from silent study carrels is morally questionable and discriminates against those on low incomes.

I look forward to your response,

Dr. Sarah Lowndes

On May 15th I received the following response from the Glasgow Life Chief Operating Officer:

Dear Dr. Lowndes

MITCHELL LIBRARY – STUDY CARREL CHARGES

Thank you for bringing to my attention your correspondence with colleagues in the Mitchell Library about the policy for charging for the use of study carrels. It is not unusual for a public library to charge for the use of services and facilities, which are non-core business. The Mitchell has always charged for the use of music study carrels on Level 4 of the Library. During the annual review of charges in 2012/13 the anomaly of charging for some study carrels but not all study carrels was highlighted. This coincided with the planning of the Mitchell Upgrade works and also an exit survey, which is carried out, on annual basis.

As a regular Mitchell Library user you will be aware that the Library provides services to the business community, most of which incur a charge due to the nature of the research involved. The exit survey highlighted a strong use of the Mitchell Library with some users from the business community frequenting the building on a touchdown basis when they are in the Charing Cross area of the City due to the facilities, which were available to them. One of these facilities was the use of the study carrels, which were and are used as a “pop up” office.

Another highlight from the exit survey was the lack of general seating in the Mitchell. While the public areas have a plethora of general study facilities at certain times of the year this is under significant pressure (as you have highlighted in your email) and one consideration was the removal of all the study carrels to increase the floor space on Levels 4 and 5. The Mitchell Library is unique in providing this type of study space within the City and indeed academic libraries have moved away from providing this type of facility in favour of providing spaces for group work activity. Something, which the Mitchell is actively considering at the present time however mindful that the presence of private study space is valued.

So considering the anomaly in the charging policy, the all year round use of the study carrels from the business community and the needs of the learning community it was decided to retain the study carrels but align the charging policy.

Charges were introduced for all study carrels in the Mitchell in April 2013. At the annual review of charges for 2013/14, the implementation of charges for all study carrels was assessed. Feedback was reasonably positive with library staff highlighting that students would come into the Mitchell just after 9.00am when the building opens and hire a carrel at the concessionary rate, frequently students would share the use of a carrel by swapping over the course of the day. Other users pay hire carrels for the day. Due to the ongoing building work and the limited availability of study carrels during this time, it was decided to leave the charges as they stood despite being encouraged to consider raising the charge.

There are quiet study spaces for customers to use free of charge in all areas of the library which is in line with the public library ethos. When levels 2 and 3 of the Mitchell re-open at the end of June, the Baillie’s reading room which is the Mitchell’s main quiet study area will be located on Level 2.

I appreciate the sentiments in your email and the Mitchell Library has indeed tried to reflect the changing times and the aspirations of the way in which the public want to use it. There is the challenging backdrop of the economic climate within which the public sector operates and income generated assists with offsetting the pressures of cutting back in expenditure. While the carrel charges may seem like a small pool of income in the overall Mitchell budget it does support other budget pressures which in turn protect frontline library services to the benefit of the general public.

I trust that this answers the points in your email and that you will continue to enjoy using the facilities within the Mitchell Library.

Your complaint has been investigated at every stage of Glasgow Life’s Complaints Procedure. If you remain unhappy with our response, you can ask the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman to investigate.

They can be contacted via the following methods:

Post: SPSO, 
Freepost EH641,

Edinburgh, EH3 7NS.

Tel: 0800 377 7330 Web: www.spso.org.uk

The SPSO advises that you usually need to contact them within 12 months of first experiencing the problem about which you are complaining.

Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.

Yours sincerely,

Chief Operating Officer

I have since sent my original complaint to the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman. If you think the Mitchell Library’s change of policy in regard to study carrels is unacceptable, perhaps you will also consider making a complaint, by contacting: libraries@glasgowlife.org.uk

 

 

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