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Last May I was in England when the Queen was in Ireland. The TV screens in my hotel breakfast rooms were full of news about her trip. In London, the city had been placed on high alert the day I hauled my bags through the Tube system, but nothing happened. The Queen’s visit, the first ever by a British monarch to the Irish Republic, was widely called a success, a sign of how, within everyone’s memory, so much had changed. “Changed utterly,” one might even say, two countries finding themselves at a distance from the spirits of revolution and violence marked by W.B. Yeats in 1916.
London, of course, is a museum for change. One appointment for me was at the University of Greenwich, in East London, which meant getting off the Tube the night before at the Tower Hill station, making my way across the street and up a steep escalator, swiping a pre-paid fare card at a reader station on the barrier-free platform, then boarding the DLR, an elevated train of quiet, sleek, driverless cars. This was the “Docklands Light Railway,” which provides a splendid view of the “Docklands,” a gleaming section of the city where skyscrapers and one of London’s financial hubs can be found today. The most striking sight was an agglomeration of new residential buildings — dozens of high, colorful, angular projects whose architects seemed in competition to design structures as unlike residential buildings as they could manage. Together, they resembled the masts and flags of an armada of ships.
Which, not so long ago, was what you’d have seen in the Docklands. This was the area of the great docks before containerization put the Port of London out of business around 1980 and left much of this part of the city empty and derelict. Our DLR stop was Deptford, and not sure where we were going, we walked down what turned out to be the wrong street. Not long before I had read Anthony Burgess’s novel about the tavern murder in 1593 of Christopher Marlowe, A Dead Man in Deptford, and the grim, dark area we were headed toward looked about right for the story.
But not for our hotel, and so we asked the only others we saw on the street, a pair of African men, for directions. Mainly with gestures they turned us back the opposite way. A few minutes and a couple of turns brought us to a short side street where we checked into a chain hotel, almost new, that had no reception desk but instead crisply uniformed staff to help business travelers and tourists register on kiosks. This part of town was in an earlier state of re-development than the Docklands. In one direction, as we walked to a late dinner, was another apartment project, new and nice but not striking, as we had seen from the DLR. In the other, next to a construction site, was a granite building, apparently closed now and slightly forbidding, identified by an inscription above its entrance as a dispensary, 1875. We found our meal several blocks further, in a lively area of restaurants and pubs offering hospitality above what the unlucky Marlowe had experienced not far away.
In the morning, at nearby Greenwich, we met in one of the buildings of the old Royal Naval College, a colonnaded masterpiece on the Thames designed in part by Christopher Wren. Lord Nelson lay in state there in 1806. Now it’s a World Heritage Site. The University of Greenwich uses parts of it. I needed to kill time before my meeting and accomplished that by walking along a courtyard, the river visible at the open end of two long wings of a building enclosing inner green space in a U. A workman as I walked by asked if there was a lift inside the building. Wren might not have thought of elevators, but we didn’t need one for our room on the ground floor, which once you entered from the stone passageway inside the colonnade, was a plain long meeting room like any meeting room anywhere. We met with a dozen or so librarians from around the UK who had come to London for the day’s session.
The librarian next to me was from Glasgow. She spoke in a brogue and was a little shy. Another librarian, at the table’s far end, was from the London School of Economics and spoke like she belonged there. Earlier this librarian had circulated a YouTube video of a student flashmob that had taken place in the LSE library at the end of exam week, a spontaneous event organized via 2.0 that for a throbbing fifteen minutes packed the library’s atrium with dancing students. “A lovely event,” she reported.
Across the table from me was a young librarian, also from London. She had short, geometrically-styled hair, and it would have been easy to see her dancing in a flashmob. She’d majored in Film Theory and Psychology, but “I don’t believe in that anymore,” she said. Today, she orders and licenses eBooks. She was talking to the librarian next to her, who was from one of the country’s ancient universities. Before becoming a librarian he’d been a scholar, a theologian, “but I found I was reading bibliographies of bibliographies and thought there must be something else to life.” He said there were a lot of “exotic species” at his university. Cooperation was difficult. The Classics faculty, for example, won’t share the journals housed in its departmental library.
There may still be a few Classics departments positioned strongly enough for stubbornness, but throughout my trip to the UK it was clear that things were changing fast in higher education. Every day librarians talked to me about what they were doing or considering doing to respond to the new policies announced last year by Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government, by cutting subsidies and encouraging higher tuition, was transferring much of the cost of a university education to students themselves. While to an American parent this seems the normal state of affairs, in the UK some students will see nearly a tripling of their tuition, up to £9,000, and many will face the option of taking a loan or leaving school. That’s the point, says the government, they will take the loan — if they feel the education is worth the cost.
Universities in the UK for some years now have worked under a system whereby the quality of an institution’s research is formally assessed and ranked. Now students and families, more than before, will from their point of view be assessing and ranking them too. On the Website of any UK university you will find sections designed to draw students with photographs and information about the best research, the best teaching, the best facilities, or the best something else. Often the university’s rankings are cited. On some you’ll spot a tagline that compresses the institution’s message. Plymouth University is “the enterprise university.” The University of Leicester is “Elite without being elitist” (quoting Times Higher Education). The University of Hull is “the friendliest university!” The University of Southampton is “Contributing to the community.” Not that any of this is unknown in North America, of course, but the focus on marketing in the UK is a little sharper, even, than ours.
UK librarians find themselves dropped suddenly into a market economy. Now it’s their job to create demand for library services, services that won’t be floated by government subsidy, but instead will require paying customers. One librarian told me that her library faced potential ten percent annual cuts, each year for the next four years. Everything the staff does is scrutinized for its contribution to creating a superior “student experience” — a phrase I heard often. When needless practices are eliminated or other forms of waste uncovered, “that’s what we want to show in our reports to the vice chancellor,” she said.
Ideas, again, not unknown in North America. But the concentrated dosage of change UK universities are now undergoing offers a magnified view of the changes faced by libraries across the western world. One library has a staff position responsible for “Content Life Cycle,” created under the assumption that from the moment an item is acquired, it will have a life cycle defined by usage. When usage declines the cycle is over, and the content will go. Nothing is permanent when it comes to the collection, or anything else. Everything is cycling through.
We returned from Greenwich by water, on the River Bus, a conveyance of London Transport. It must be impossible to ride on the Thames and not feel you’re being taken to school about change. St. Paul’s Cathedral, built from the ashes of the 1666 Great Fire of London, rises over the surrounding city. And so does the Gherkin, since 2004 the pickle-shaped focal point of London’s financial district. The river view of the Parliament Buildings and Westminster Abbey remains a perfect picture of London from past centuries — unless you look to the opposite bank, where in 1999 the London Eye was erected, and joined its iconic counterparts in defining this city.
If the Queen can go to Ireland, and if the riverscape of the Thames is simply a palette, none of us anywhere should be surprised if, in our libraries, like London itself, everything seems utterly changed.