The case for 24-hour libraries

Image credit: Benjah-bmm27

The first thing I did when I decided to write this article was to do some research. After all, I haven’t met anyone in person who was against 24-hour libraries, and one of my pet peeves in Cambridge is that the University Library nor my College Library is open all the time.

So I started googling and asking around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a lot of people who were against 24-hour libraries. Those who were against them seemed to mostly oppose pulling all-nighters, and seemed to be foreign to the idea that other people might either want to pull them or, more simply, worked better at night. Some of them argued that 24-hour libraries are more expensive to run, since overnight security is needed.

I do not put any stock on the first argument; after all, I know plenty of people who quite simply work better at night, not to mention people whose schedules are so full that they rarely have time to sit down to study before 7PM in the evening (the time at which UL closes). As to the second argument, I have to admit, I’m pretty sure it’s correct. A 24-hour library means 24-hour staffing. But it doesn’t have to mean full staffing. Potentially, the library could be fully staffed between 9AM and 6PM and have minimal staff after that. This wouldn’t make it cheaper than closing it after 7PM altogether, I’m pretty sure, but likely it would make it cheap enough to run. In any case, we are constantly told as students that we come to the University of Cambridge, one of the top universities in the world with top level facilities! Well, if that’s really the case, then spending a bit extra on having a top notch library that people can use at their leisure shouldn’t be a problem.

In any case, I suspect that any arguments as to the cost of having a 24-hour library should come after arguments about whether they are necessary. I believe they are. Universities are places of learning. They are places where people spend a lot of time and energy trying to learn new things. Studying at a University (not to mention one such as Cambridge) is a huge privilege, but also a responsibility. And life should be made easy for those who choose to pursue their studies.

Cambridge undergraduates have short, very intense terms. The schedules are gruelling and the reading lists are long. Asking a Cambridge student to never pull an all-nighter or to never work at night and still finish all their work is tantamount to asking them to be superhuman. I’m sure depending on the course, the organisational skills and productivity of the individual, plenty of people manage without working at night. But I know that there are plenty of people that either out of preference or need do work between the hours of 7PM to 9AM. After all, that’s more than half the day. And these people should be able to access libraries at those times as well.

Another point that I feel I should address is the commonly bandied about idea that a 24-hour University Library isn’t necessary because that´s what College libraries are for.

Here I come to a more insidious issue with Cambridge generally and the College system specifically. Part of me feels that this system, where students are grouped into smaller communities where they are taken care of, is fantastic. It means that each person can find their own place, that people are taken care of more individually, it makes it easier to make friends. On the other hand, it seeds huge inequality. After all, a student at a rich College can get access to a lot more funds in the form of scholarships and facilities than a student at a poor College.

In terms of the libraries, a student at a College with a 24-hour library gets better studying value than one who is at a College that doesn’t have such a system in place. I don’t think this part of the issue can be easily solved: there’s not really much point in having different colleges if they are not different, of course. But it’s also sad that these differences can mean huge inequalities in terms of people’s experiences at University. Going back to libraries, there seems to me to be a simple way of solving the problem: open the University Library 24 hours a day. This levels the ground for everyone a little bit.

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