Last week my post mentioned the popular practice of studying for exams in the sunshine. This week I take a look at another popular student hangout at this time of year – the library. Neil Howard, who was an arts student in the 1950s when the library was in the clocktower building, remembers the “cosy comfort of the little cubicles where we could chat”. The “most terrifying place was the upper Oliver at the northern end where the real swots worked. Here silence reigned supreme, dropped books, coughs, sneezes, splutters were greeted with angry eyes appearing above the top of books while a spoken word suggested the imminent appearance of a bouncer.” The library may have changed, but the mixture of people chatting and “real swots” has not!
Of course a library is not just a study space, for a good collection of books and journals is critical to a university’s teaching and research. In 1872 – a year after classes commenced – the university library boasted just over 500 volumes, and fitted into a bookcase in the council chamber of the original university building (in Princes Street). The first four professors had purchased books, which were supplemented by public donations. The cash-strapped university spent very little on books, or their management, in its first few decades. The library grew to around 8000 volumes in its first twenty years thanks to books gifted by the public, the collection of a short-lived independent reference library committee, and the donation of the provincial government’s library after the provinces were abolished in 1876. The books were kept in locked shelves, with the university registrar, who also served as librarian, holding the keys.
The library received a big boost in 1908 when Dr TM Hocken donated his valuable collection of early New Zealand books, pictures and manuscripts to the people of New Zealand, on condition that they be managed by the University of Otago. A new wing was added to the museum (which was also run by the university) to house the new collection, and the university employed its first full-time librarian, William Trimble, to catalogue and care for it.
Meanwhile, the main university library remained under the care of the registrar in its long-term home, the second floor of the main university building (where the registry is now). Trimble’s successor, Beatrice Howes, was appointed in 1913 to be half-time at the Hocken, and half-time in the main library, finally relieving the busy registrar of library duties. The next big change came in 1935, when John Harris was appointed librarian. He was the university’s first trained librarian, and in his 13 years at Otago brought a new professionalism to the place, improving the collections, the staffing and the access students enjoyed to books and journals.
Eventually the students and books outgrew their library space, and there was no further room in the main building. A brand new library building opened in 1965 on the corner of Albany and Cumberland streets, strategically located half-way between the medical school and the main university buildings. It was an attractive space, two stories high, with a courtyard in the centre; the building also housed several university departments, which later moved into other new buildings, allowing the library to expand.
Sadly, once the building was full it had no potential for extensions. Jock McEldowney, who was university librarian from 1961 to 1987, recognised this before the library moved in, and set about some long-term planning to help the library cope with the anticipated future growth in students. His strategy was for “controlled decentralization” – six physically separate libraries around the Dunedin campus, each with senior librarians and the capability to provide full services to students. This was a pragmatic solution, and it remains the university library’s basic administrative structure to this day. It was based around various libraries which had developed in an ad hoc fashion on campus over the years, and added one important new one.
Many departments had developed their own libraries, and some of these were quite substantial. The geographical expansion of the university, together with its frugal funding allocation to the central library, encouraged the practice. When the medical school moved from the central campus to its new Great King Street building (now known as the Scott Building) in 1917, the medical library was born and all the medical books in the central library were moved there. Medical school administrators took over the running of the collection; this later became a point of tension as the medical school and the library sometimes wrangled over the control of the medical library. The expanding medical library moved into a purpose-built space in the new Sayers Building in 1972.
The dental and law libraries gained new status under McEldowney’s library structure. Both were essentially departmental libraries which had grown along with their faculties, and got much improved spaces when their faculties moved into new buildings: the dentists into the Walsh Building in 1961 and the lawyers into the Hocken Building (now the Richardson Building) in 1979. The Hocken Building also provided a new home for the Hocken Library, formerly housed in the museum and part of the 1965 library building. Heritage collections do not, like other libraries, throw out their “old” books, and this made the Hocken especially prone to a need for more space. Its manuscript and photograph collections lived for some years in the former vehicle testing station in Leith Street, before all the collections were reunited in their current location, the former cheese factory in Anzac Avenue, in 1998.
The final library in the “controlled decentralization” programme, the science library, was a new institution, created out of the libraries of several different departments. This was a controversial move, with some departments very reluctant to lose their individual libraries; there was a major battle over Chemical Abstracts. But the advocates of a centralised science collection, with easier access for all students and a professional librarian in charge, eventually won out. The library was able to take advantage of the development of major new science buildings in that period, moving into its current premises in 1977.
The development of the clinical schools of medicine at Christchurch and Wellington in the 1970s presented a new challenge to the library. The university wanted staff and students in these campuses to have equal access to research services. Fortunately both cities had exisiting hospital board libraries, and Otago was able to pool resources with them to create joint library services for the university and healthcare staff.
Back in Dunedin, the decentralization scheme reduced pressure on the central library for some years, but eventually the continuing acceleration of the student roll made a larger building essential. In 2001 the magnificent new Information Services Building was opened, with greatly improved study space for students.
The newest additions to Otago’s collection of libraries came with its merger with the Dunedin College of Education in 2007. The Robertson Library opened in 1981, bringing together the College of Education and Otago Polytechnic library collections. It is named after Bill Robertson, who taught at the polytech and also chaired the College of Education Council and the Otago Education Board. The university library now runs the Robertson Library, supplying services under contract to Otago Polytechnic as well as to its own students. With the College of Education merger the university also acquired the smaller specialist education library on the Southland campus.
From that single bookcase to ten libraries in four cities, the University of Otago library has certainly come a long way! Of course, there have also been major changes in the technologies used by the library, but that’s a whole other story which I’ll save for a later post. Do you have any Otago library memories to share?