University Librarian Howard Nicholson retires

When Howard Nicholson came for his interview in Bath in 1992 the internet had not arrived and word-processing was the latest thing in the library.

The man who jointly pioneered the country’s first 24-hour university library retires in July after “20 fabulous years”.

Howard joined Bath as University Librarian from London School of Economics where he was Sub Librarian. He remembers his interview with great fondness.

He said: “It was St George’s Day and they were cutting the grass. I thought anywhere that still cuts the grass can’t be that bad!”

Howard, who is 65, did have his sights set on improving the library building though.

He said: “When I came through the front door I thought the place hadn’t changed since the 1970s.  The services were advanced, the staff were great, but the building was out of date.”

By 1993 plans were afoot to rebuild the library, complete with 400 personal computers.

The 8,000 square metre re-build cost £6.5 million and security was a major issue.

Howard said: “Back then computer chips were worth their weight in gold. They were worth more than heroin! Teams of thieves were going round universities and stealing chips from motherboards.

“We had to make sure these computers were safe so we came up with the idea of keeping the library open 24 hours a day.”

Howard joined the University on the same day as the former Vice Chancellor David VandeLinde and together they put the idea into practice and it became the first 24-hour university library in the country. There are now over 30.

He said: “Most people thought it was a brilliant idea but it did provoke a bit of a response in the media from some people who were concerned that students shouldn’t be encouraged to work through the night and should be tucked up in bed asleep!”

The new library, which was built in 1995 and 1996, meant integrating IT services centrally which coincided well with the arrival of the internet opening up a whole new world for library services, most notably through electronic periodicals.

In 1992 there were just 2,000 journals in the library but today there are 21,000 available electronically. The electronic revolution has also meant that the 17 km of print shelving in the University library is rapidly decreasing.

Meanwhile student numbers have tripled. When Howard joined in 1992 there were 4,000 students on the books, now there are 12,000.

Other changes Howard has seen in his 20 years have focussed mainly around the use of space in the library. Increasingly students are spending more time on PCs. However there’s also been a growth in demand for group space and noisy areas where students can discuss project work or even practise presentations.

Howard, who graduated from Sussex with both an MA in English Literature in 1978 and BA in 1975 said he has noticed a great change in the way that students learn.

He said: “In some subjects the assessment driven culture or ethos has changed the relationship between the librarian and the student.

“Again it’s linked to computing. When I was at university we didn’t have the internet so you would read around your subject. They want to do the quick search these days rather than careful scholarly study. Overall this has changed scholarly practices and to some extent this is a regret.”

Among his best moments he lists improvements in the student experience, the introduction of a self-service library and a 24-hour library.

He said: “I have had a fabulous 20 years and wish all the very best to my successor.”

Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, Vice Chancellor, said: "Howard has been so much more than our University Librarian.  He has played a fundamental part in governing the University and has helped to steer it to its current successes.  He has been a source of wisdom and wit for all who have worked with him, tirelessly seeking to serve our community.”

Howard, who is married to Marsha and has two grown-up children intends to spend more time with his grand-daughters and plans to learn German in his retirement.

He will be awarded an honorary degree in the University’s summer awards.

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