Shelf life: the wonder of university libraries

What’s it like being a senior librarian at one of the UK’s major university libraries? We ask Masud Khokhar of the University of Leeds

“It is my role to ensure that all our university libraries remain a powerful resource for learning, scholarship and engagement – and that our world-class collections continue to enable new discoveries and innovation.” This is Masud Khokhar, university librarian at the University of Leeds – and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, some 80,000 rare books and manuscripts owned by Lord Brotherton, a 19th- and 20th-century industrialist and university benefactor. Masud’s role is, he enthuses, “hugely exciting”, coming as it does “with the privilege of looking after one of the major academic research libraries in the UK”.

So, is there a typical day as head of such a distinguished library? A rhythm to the days? Or is each day a little different? “It is an extensive role, and you learn something new every day,” Masud reflects. “What I really like about the role is the variety of activities that I am involved in, from discussions on procurement of rare or special collections to development of modern, flexible physical spaces; from philanthropic fundraising to development of student skills; and from new methods of open research to digital transformation initiatives across the university.

The variety makes my job exciting, but it also makes it complex to showcase impact and value in any single area.”

Beyond the confines of Leeds itself, Masud also serves as vice-chair of Research Libraries UK (RLUK), a consortium of 37 of the most significant research libraries in the UK and Ireland (including Leeds). “It is my responsibility to work collaboratively with my colleagues to ensure that libraries are at the forefront of innovation in scholarship,” he explains. “RLUK also provides a collective voice and opportunities to work together to deliver economies of scale.” When it comes to the qualities required in a role such as his, Masud enumerates “curiosity, collaboration, patience, optimism – and a sharp user focus.”

Asked if he has any favourite items from the library, Masud confesses: “This is actually not an easy one to answer as I am still exploring the breadth and depth of our collections, which are vast and full of wonder.

Masud Khokar


“I am, however, currently fascinated by the Bragg notebook, which documents the works of William Henry Bragg and William Laurence Bragg, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work in establishing the nature of X-ray spectra and the principles of crystal analysis. The notebook is part of the collection at the Brotherton Library, and a digitised copy is available online.”

The changing role of the university library has been a live topic in academia for some time now. On the one hand, the increasing digitisation of much written material has meant that the need to be in a physical library space and to pore over actual texts may have diminished. On the other hand, since the arrival of tuition fees, students have rightly become more demanding about the services their universities should provide for them. And libraries are often at the centre of this.

They have, after all, some of the highest footfall on campus – and they are one of the key points where a university interacts with its students. So it’s important that they are fit for purpose, reflecting the changing study and interaction needs of today’s students.

You can see these changing ambitions in the ways that universities have talked about their recent library developments: the University of Birmingham opened its new £60m library to give users a “transformational experience”, while Manchester University opened its new £24m learning commons in 2012 “to give students a focal point for learning, offering a stimulating and comfortable 24/7 environment for study”.

Masud recognises that libraries are a crucial part of the student satisfaction and wellbeing jigsaw. “Libraries are, and will remain, absolutely core to the student experience. There are no other places where you can feel similarly academically driven and socially supported.

“The pandemic has further highlighted the importance of libraries as places where students connect with ideas, knowledge, peers – and with the university itself. Libraries act as a microcosm of the wider student experience, playing a significant role in their sense of belonging, their achievements, and their memories of the university experience.”

Libraries are, and will remain, absolutely core to the student experience. There are no other places where you can feel similarly academically driven and socially supported

Indeed, Masud is evangelical about the potential held by universities, and specifically their libraries, for empowerment and social mobility. “University education transforms lives for the better. It gives students a unique blend of critical thinking, challenge and resilience, social experiences, learning and research capability, and a home away from home.

“Libraries do the same. We act as a bedrock for excellence in learning and scholarship, connecting ideas with knowledge and people, enabling discoveries and innovation, all in world-class environments where students can excel and achieve their full academic potential.”

So much for their central role in the student experience – what are busy university libraries actually like for the staff that work there? “We are blessed at Leeds to have four wonderful libraries on campus, plus one satellite library at St James Hospital,” Masud enthuses. “All of our libraries provide a distinct sense of character and feel.

The Laidlaw Library is our modern undergraduate library, with lots of collaborative spaces and embedded technology. The Edward Boyle Library creates a stronger academic purpose with dedicated areas for silent study and postgraduate students. The Brotherton Library is a 1936 Grade II-listed building that gives a sense of a traditional library, much as Oxford or Cambridge libraries do. The Health Sciences Library provides access to space and resources for our health and medicine students.”

And there’s a caveat, here, over what a library actually is, or can be – not just a physical space, but a knowledge repository, a training space, even something akin to a digital museum. “Many people think of a library as a physical space only – but in reality, space is only one aspect of what we do. We also provide access to a large number of information resources, curate knowledge and collections for future generations, develop academic and digital skills, engage the public through our galleries and exhibitions, and provide strong support for research and learning. We are at the forefront of digital transformation as well.”

Physical space is only one aspect of a university library


Indeed, Leeds’ libraries have kept busy and engaged with their community, albeit virtually, throughout the pandemic.

“There have been so many activities, including a virtual sketch club for budding artists and creatives, a virtual pen-to-paper activity for creative writers, research spotlights highlighting amazing collections ranging from Simon Armitage’s poetry to medieval illuminated manuscripts, and two-minute treasure videos providing short, fun responses to an item in our collections,” Masud recalls. “This is just a glimpse of the vast number of activities our galleries team has undertaken to engage with the public. I am incredibly excited that the physical galleries will be opening shortly, and I’ll be delighted to welcome the public back safely to visit our fantastic art and special collections.”

Masud is also on a personal quest towards greater diversity within the university library system – both in terms of the materials they house (and thus, the communities they represent) and the staff that run them. “I am passionate about diversity in libraries and support the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work strand for both RLUK and the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL).”

So what is the diversity landscape like in libraries currently, and where would Masud like to get it to? “My main area of focus is racial diversity, and in this area, libraries have a long way to go to improve representation. In 2015, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and the Archives and Records Association (ARA) in the UK found that 97% of respondents identified as white. Meanwhile, in 2019, SCONUL commissioned research about lived experiences of BAME staff in academic and research libraries, which highlighted that 44% of the 273 respondents experienced racism in their role. This level of non-representation and racism is unacceptable.”

As far as I know, there are only three UK university librarians or directors from an ethnic minority background. Out of the three, I am the only one at a Russell Group University

As Masud explains, very few people from an ethnic minority background occupy senior management or leadership positions in university libraries. “As far as I know, there are only three UK university librarians or directors from an ethnic minority background. Out of the three, I am the only one at a Russell Group University.

“The good news is that libraries have acknowledged this as a serious concern. RLUK, SCONUL and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), along with The National Archives, are all working towards a racially diverse workforce at all levels.”

He also has some thoughts on the way that university libraries should reflect the diversity of their users, and of the wider society beyond the campus. “Library services have constantly been transforming over time, which has kept them relevant to the changing needs of the users and society at large. However, libraries have not managed to update their methods and philosophies in the same way, when it comes to how we collect and curate our material.

“Our past collecting practices, spanned over a long period, have led to non-diverse and non-representative collections.

Many organisations are tackling this gap through diverse contemporary collecting practices. At Leeds, we will also need to ensure that our services and collections are representative of the diverse societies that we support and serve, and this will be an area of focus for us within the next couple of years.”

At the top of the to-do list for this period is an evaluation of precisely which voices are missing from Leeds’ collections – followed by a time of actively pursuing any related collections that will enhance the libraries’ overall representation. “For our modern collections, we are investing in a ‘decolonialisation’ of our reading lists and curriculum to ensure that a wide range of voices are taught, learnt, and understood,” Masud explains.

“For our special collections, we have been actively pursuing more representation on women’s movements and campaigns. Our Feminist Archive North is one such example of wider representation. Similarly, we have one of the largest Gypsy, Traveller and Roma collections, which are of national and international importance and have a designated status. However, although a significant proportion of the university (and city of Leeds) population is from south Asian or Black ethnic backgrounds, our collections have not yet fully captured their experiences and understandings of society. We will be building long-term relationships with underrepresented communities, and actively seeking out a greater diversity of voices to provide collections from which all of our users can benefit.”

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