Disabled School of Music Alumna: It’s wrong to use accessibility as a scapegoat for closing University libraries

By   /   April 30, 2018  /   4 Comments

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The saga of the proposed library closures, according to the University, is all about money. According to all the CAI users I know, it’s about devaluing the needs of CAI students and staff. It’s about destroying hubs of learning and community. And if you ask me, it’s about finding scapegoats, like accessibility, to try to assuage the consciences of those recommending the demolition.

Paralympian Aīne Kelly Costello 

The University of Auckland is currently proposing that five of its libraries be closed, AKA destroyed. They include the Music and Dance Library. They are also recommending the gradual disestablishment of 45 full time staff positions within these subject area libraries.

One of the reasons for such a move, according to the review document which specifically focuses on the three Creative Arts and Industries (CAI) libraries on the chopping blocks, is ‘poor disabled access” to the libraries. I have my doubts about whether the review committee consulted a single disabled person before making this statement—certainly their review document provides no such evidence. But I can definitively state that they did not consult me.

So, as a blind School of Music recent graduate (still at uni when the review was being undertaken last year though I didn’t know about it at the time), let me tell you how Auckland Uni’s Music and Dance library made my Classical Flute Performance studies significantly more accessible.

 

Helpful, specialist staff when you need them

Every year, all Classical Performance students need to find an appropriate, and available, edition of all their pieces. Often, that involves searching through the hard-copies in the library. Finding works that might be hiding inside volumes with poorly catalogued titles is probably challenging for your average sighted Music student, but it would have been a Toal impossibility for me without the assistance of the specialist music librarians. Not only did they willingly and efficiently locate many a hiding score for me, they also helped me scan them so I could send them off to be transcribed into Braille. The scanning assistance did not stop there, either. On more than one occasion, I brought them hard-copies fresh from my theory textbook and lecturers of material we would need to be working on soon and this too would magically appear in my inbox to be sent for transcription five minutes later. The Music library staff did an excellent job of ensuring that the world of hard-copy print did not become a barrier for me. That enabled me to concentrate on precisely what I should have been concentrating on: namely completing my theory and analysis assignments and learning and practising my flute music.

 

Accessible and available study space

As you’ll know if you happen to have visited or studied at Auckland Uni’s School of Music, the Music and Dance Library is located, very conveniently for Music students, right inside the School of Music precinct. That means that when my music classes finish, I can walk there in less than a minute. The General Library is probably only a 5-minute walk away for a sighted person, but navigating there with my cane, takes me a good 10. Then there’s the matter of finding somewhere to sit. In the School of Music Library, I know with relative certainty that I will find a desk with less than a minute again. If I get stuck, a librarian will be a matter of a few metres away, where I can easily attract their attention. This proximity is not the case for the General Library.

I’ve been inside the General Library less than ten times throughout my entire five years at university. Not only are the very large, open spaces somewhat disorienting, but in order to have a hope of finding a table space to study, I definitely have to go interrupt a student sitting somewhere in the study space and ask for their assistance guiding me to a free spot. That takes about three minutes. After I’m finished studying, I need to leave another 3 minutes just for getting back to the Library door, because chances are I’ve come so far through the huge open spaces that I need help getting my bearings and locating it again. That means finding another student to interrupt.

It is fairly common at uni to have one-hour breaks between classes, and it is less than ideal, when you simply want some quite table space to study, to have to spend almost half of your hour arranging it. Knowing that I could be virtually assured this space in the Music library not only meant I could get more work done, it also significantly reduced the stress of unnecessary travel. I may be perfectly capable of getting from A to B in many circumstances on city streets, but I have to concentrate a lot to do so through crowds—and crowds abound at class change-over times.

 

Why I’m sharing my Experience

You might be wondering if I’m asking you to buy a narrative about how this one disabled student found their time at the library very accessible and how therefore the University should decide to keep all the Libraries open. Not quite.

I share my story because I find it deeply concerning that the University will use accessibility as a scapegoat for closing down libraries without consulting, so far as I am aware,, with any disabled library users.

The University certainly ought to take accessibility seriously. Their approach to accessibility should be wide-ranging, encompassing access for people with a range of impairments and access needs: be they physical, sensory, neurodiverse, communication, learning, etc.

 

What about the General Library?

Meanwhile, as a litmus test for the University’s actual commitment to the physical accessibility of library buildings, the General Library seems the most appropriate test case. This, after all, is where all library-less students in need of a library would now be obliged to go.

When you walk in the main entrance of the General Library, you are immediately greeted with a flight of stairs. An ordinary lift exists,, but in order to use it, you need an access card with special permissions on it which students are not allowed to be granted. Rather, wheelchair users need to use a mechanical chair-lift in which you press a button to open the door, which is theoretically supposed to close automatically behind you.

I caught up last week with two wheelchair users who have both made attempts to use the general library. Here’s what current UoA student, Emma had to say.

“That library will be the death of me. The last time I was there, on a Sunday, I couldn’t get the lift door to close—which happens all the time, it hardly ever works for me. The alternative is accessing the lift from the basement, which is locked on the weekend, so does not allow me to come to use resources on the weekend. This lack of accessibility has been a major hurdle to my undergraduate studies”.

Recent Dance Studies graduate Anna (not her real name), expressed a similar sentiment when asked for comment separately.

“Disabled access to the General Library is poor. The lift has a very difficult-to-operate door which is extremely slow”.

 

If the University was genuinely concerned about access to the libraries

If access to libraries was a genuine concern for the University, one wonders why they have yet to provide an ordinary, functioning lift with no access restrictions in their main library building. More than that, however, one would hope that the University would at least do its disabled students and staff the courtesy of consulting them, and providing evidence of having done so, instead of deciding what is best for them on their behalf. They should also elaborate on any accessibility concerns they raise in review and proposal documents, not least so that cost-effective means of addressing them can then be developed.

Aside from assurances from Anna that the Music and Dance library has “good accessibility”, I do not know the extend of the problem in the other CAI libraries. The CAI review document is not forthcoming in this department, explaining only that “Wheel chair access to collection is difficult as aisles are too narrow and shelves are too high”. While this is a valid point to note, I need hardly mention that this is a comparatively minor inconvenience, considering that specialist staff are always on hand to help. I would, rightly, be laughed out of town if I suggested that we should close the Music libraries because I, as a blind student, couldn’t access  the print music scores unaided. That, in fact, is one good reason to value the positions of the specialist librarians, some of which the University also seeks to disestablish.

 

It’s not just disabled students

It obviously isn’t just disabled students who value access to their libraries, and their is plenty of

evidence to prove it. The occupancy figures for the Music and Dance library in 2017, when you discount tables being used for specialist music equipment, stood at 66%*, second only to the Engineering Information commons study space. While CAI students make up 4% of the University’s student population, CAI library loans account for 18.5% of total University loans—evidence that these libraries’ are very well-used indeed.

To top things off, Fine Arts students occupied their library on Friday, telling 1 News that the library is the heart of theSchool’s community and that they would be unlikely to recommend Elam (the Fine Arts School) to friends without it.

 

The upshot

The saga of the proposed library closures, according to the University, is all about money. According to all the CAI users I know, it’s about devaluing the needs of CAI students and staff. It’s about destroying hubs of learning and community. And if you ask me, it’s about finding scapegoats, like accessibility, to try to assuage the consciences of those recommending the demolition.

 

Rallying around to Save the Libraries

The Auckland University Students’Association is organising a rally today outside the General Library on Alfred st at 12pm and submissions on the proposed closures have to be in by today. AUSA will deliver your comments to the University directly if you fill them in here.

 

*Figures available upon request from the Music and Dance library

 

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4 Comments

  1. Rosemary McDonald says:

    Many thanks Aine for sharing your experience and insights.

    I listened to those news reports with growing horror, and I’m appalled (but not at all surprised) that the powers that be are using their faux concern for disabled students as one of the reasons for their proposed destruction of these facilities.

    The very best of luck with your rally.

    May your collective voices be heard loud and clear.

  2. MattyGee says:

    Now we know why the government (et al) was so determined to make compulsory student union member voluntary in the 1990s. The student union would never had stood for this, back when it had teeth. The issue with closing the libraries (which directly affects my post grad study as I’m an enrolled MArch student) is that absolutely NOTHING will stop this change from taking place. There is nobody that will circumvent the course of action because nobody that wishes to keep the libraries as-is, or the collections intact has any power! A classic case of fait accompi… Want a change? Reinstate a strong student union.

  3. savenz says:

    Good on you Aine Kelly-Costello for highlighting your experiences and also this disturbing trend of documents spouting all manner of nonsense, but really designed to transfer money away from the less powerful people/groups/courses/careers and inflate other parts of the university and give more power/money to them …. while lying through weasel words pretending it’s going to help them or make zero difference. Good Luck!

  4. Janio says:

    A powerful argument Aine Kelly-Costello. Reminds me of when I used the main library as a PhD student with MS. I went in the evenings and staff went out of their way to be helpful. I don’t remember asking for assistance but it was great to have it. But they are expendable under the new ethos. I also read they have burnt books left after the first library clearance. Seems to defeat the purpose of a university to do away with the tools for learning. The neo-liberal project is for universities to be corporations run for profit as so many of these contributions point out.