II.i. History and background
II.ii Languages of the collections
II.iii Supporting research
II.iv Collection Development Policy
II.v Regional organization and focus
II.vi Supporting new trends in scholarship
II.vii Library Transformation Project

II.i. History and background

SOAS Library has been regarded as the leading national library for Asian, African and Middle Eastern studies since the publication of the Hayter Report in 1961.  The only other institution in the UK with such strong, comprehensive African, pan-Asian and Middle Eastern holdings is the British Library, which is wholly reference and “closed access” with no option for readers to browse.

The Hayter Report “… recommended that SOAS Library should be regarded as a national library, and given additional direct funding to support levels of staffing ad collections far beyond those affordable to the School.”  Indeed, “[i]t was the impact of this additional funding and subsequent financial settlements which enabled the Library’s collections to grow at such a tremendous pace during the 1970s and 1980s … ” so that by 1986 the Parker Report “ … rightly hailed the Library as ‘the jewel in the School’s crown’”. (7)

Additional financial support has continued to date (currently from HEFCE under the “National Research Library” banner) to fund directly the specialist collecting and staff.  The Library is unique in bringing together extensive regional African, Asian and Middle Eastern research collections in one building and, up to now, almost entirely on open access, with the collections primarily arranged according to their area studies focus.

“The Library’s early collections were enhanced significantly both by gifts and other donations and by trips to Asia and Africa by members of SOAS staff …  Retiring academics, both from SOAS and other institutions, regularly present their personal libraries to the School, thus making available important works which are frequently out-of-print and difficult to acquire. …  [Donations] of particular significance have been the bequest of books and papers on the Philippines by Ifor B. Powell, the Hardyman Collection on Madagascar and the Burma Campaign Memorial Library.  These donations have been particularly important as they have helped to extend the Library’s coverage across the School’s vast regional remit …  [I]t is frequently though the presentation of materials gathered by private collectors and specialist groups that the Library is able to maintain coverage of other areas.” (8)

The historical collections, particularly pre-1960s published material as well as the unpublished papers and manuscripts in the Library’s Archives & Special Collections, are of national and international importance.  Material acquired in the past 40 years or so is, however, likely to be held at other libraries (in national libraries and in a range of university and special libraries) in the UK and in the USA, Europe and Australia as well as – to varying degrees – throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  For this material, SOAS Library holds a less comprehensive collection for each country compared with some libraries in Asia and the USA.  The strength of the SOAS Library collection is that it covers the whole of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as opposed to concentrating on one country or region (as is often the case with US and other university libraries).

SOAS Library has important holdings of pre-1960s Asian and African published material that in many cases is not available in the countries of origin.  Either the material was not collected or it has been lost through war, natural disaster or the effects of a tropical climate.  For post-1960s publications SOAS Library’s collections cannot be said to be unique or rare and during budget cuts, notably in the 1980s, the collections suffered.  Moreover, the explosion of publishing, first in print and more recently in electronic format, has had a huge impact on libraries’ acquisition and collection development capabilities.  SOAS Library’s more recent collections, particularly in African, South Asian and South East Asian languages (and increasingly in Arabic, Chinese and Japanese) are representative rather than comprehensive in coverage.

Considering the scope as well as the nature of teaching and research at SOAS, which primarily serves the UK higher education community, this is appropriate.  Comprehensive collection is more suited to small research libraries with highly focused specialization.
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II.ii Languages of the collections

The collections are divided into two main categories:  the languages of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and European languages, primarily English.

Regional languages
  • The Library’s priority is to collect material in the languages of Asia, Africa and the Middle East currently studied in the School.  However it also maintains and develops collections of languages never or not currently studied, both for anticipated future need within the School and as a national research library.
  • Where there is limited European-language publishing, or where the bulk of serious publishing and scholarship is in the language(s) of the region the Library collects in depth.
  • Where English, or other European languages, dominate publishing and scholarship (as in parts of Africa, South Asia and South East Asia), the Library selectively acquires local and regional language publications.  The aim is to build up representative collections in regional languages of contemporary and classical literatures, works on language and grammars, religious texts, law (including customary law) and political or historical works.
  • The Library acquires translations from Asian, African and Middle Eastern languages into English (and into other metropolitan languages, particularly French).  Genres so collected include, principally, contemporary and classical literature and also major, seminal or core religious, historical and political texts.
English and other metropolitan languages

Material in English, whether published in Asia, Africa and the Middle East or in the UK, Europe, North America and Australasia, forms the bulk of the European language collection.

The Library actively collects

  • languages of the (former) colonial powers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East – including primary materials and contemporary literature and works of scholarship – e.g. works in Dutch on Indonesia, in French on Indochina and the Middle East; in Russian on the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in French and Portuguese on and from Francophone and Lusophone Africa.
  • current publications in European languages (mainly English and French) which are official/business or literary/academic languages of parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, e.g. English in South Asia and parts of South East Asia; English, French, Portuguese and Spanish in parts of Africa.
  • studies of the Turkish and Muslim empires in Europe (e.g. in the Balkans and the Iberian peninsula), including publications in the languages of these regions.
  • works of scholarship in other European languages, e.g. German scholarship on Middle Eastern, Turkic, Indic, Tibetan and Chinese studies.

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II.iii Supporting research

As the research library for the School and a National Research Library for Asian, African and Middle Eastern studies, a priority for the Library is to develop the research collections, building on existing strengths.  It pays particular attention to those areas for which it has special responsibilities under cooperative arrangements, but needs to be alert to changes in area studies in UK higher education and how these impact upon library provision nationally.

“The most distinctive feature of SOAS Library staffing structure is the regional and subject librarian grouping, comprising those who are specialists in the language and publications of a region of Asia or Africa.  Their responsibilities embrace the selection and cataloguing of new library materials and the provision of reference and higher-level research support to students and staff.  They collaborate closely with opposite numbers in other libraries around the world …” (9)
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II.iv Collection Development Policy

The duality of SOAS Library is that it collects for national and international scholarship as well as serving the teaching and research needs of the School.  And it has been through the “legacy” collections, combined with its primary role of supporting the teaching and research of its parent institution, that the Library most supports the national and international research community.

The latest Collection Development Policy revision, now in progress, breaks with tradition in that a structured approach is adopted in order to identify and follow current research and anticipated research trends and benchmark holdings against selected research libraries internationally:

  • liaising closely with academic staff to clarify individual teaching and research interests;
  • matching these against existing SOAS collections;
  • comparing SOAS Library holdings for these with other national and international collections;
  • identifying SOAS collection strengths (research level) and weaknesses (teaching or “basic/selected” level);
  • following up accordingly.

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II.v Regional organization and focus

SOAS Library’s holdings are organised within seven regional collections:  Africa; China/Inner Asia; Japan/Korea; Islamic Middle East/Central Asia; Ancient Near East, Semitics & Judaica; South Asia and South East Asia (including the Pacific Islands).  There are also separate collections for Art/Archaeology, Law and the Humanities/Social Sciences (including non-regional inter-disciplinary and cross-regional material).

Within SOAS Library, the distinct regional collections and specific issues in developing and managing such collections mean that regional librarians have a strong, ongoing identification with their particular region and languages.  This has been a strength so long as research and teaching have traditionally concentrated on the languages, literatures and cultures of Asia and Africa – and area studies have delineated and defined what was taught and researched at SOAS.
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II.vi Supporting new trends in scholarship

These days, the nature of teaching and research at SOAS (and in the higher education  community at large) is changing, encompassing a greater range of inter-disciplinary and cross-regional studies where researchers increasingly identify with one or more disciplines rather than an area and seek more non-regional and inter-disciplinary material.  In addition, there is a distinct shift towards using primarily English-language material.

While the Library continues to collect heavily in the languages of Asia, Africa and the Middle East (and in European-language research materials pertaining to these regions), it is also developing the collections in new directions, following the broadening teaching and research interests of the School.  These include global concepts in cross-regional and inter-disciplinary studies that embrace and incorporate Asia, Africa and the Middle East while not being bound by them.  Examples are migration, diaspora studies, gender studies, race and ethnic relations, comparative religion, development studies, terrorism and counter-terrorism, violence and conflict, financial management, diplomacy, energy resources and more.

“The growth of disciplinary activity in the School, particularly in the social sciences, has resulted in an overwhelming demand for English language publications about Asia and Africa, rather than literary and other works from the regions themselves …  [This and other] changes have increased demand for information skills training to be delivered by qualified librarians to students as part of their degree studies.” (10)

In order to assist students develop core skills (such as note-taking, research and presentation skills as well as library resource and information skills), the Library acquires material supporting these, including works on essay and thesis writing, designing and carrying out surveys, and study techniques.

The Library has responded to the growth in interdisciplinary and cross-regional studies in creative ways:

Expanded range of resources

The range of resources (both print and online, accessible on- and off-campus) has been expanded hugely:

  • academic staff and research students have been canvassed to identify and prioritise journals, electronic journals and databases needed for their research and teaching;
  • funding has been directed towards electronic subscriptions to support these wish-lists;
  • logging into electronic resources by SOAS students and academic staff has been extended off-site wherever possible, to ease access to materials (although this is not possible for external users).
Subject librarians

Staff restructuring has made possible an extended team of subject librarians supporting the full range of disciplines in addition to the traditional regions studied and researched at the School.  Working closely with the regional librarians (and the two existing subject librarians for Art/Archaeology and Law) are subject librarians for Anthropology/Linguistics, History/Religions and Politics/Economics/Financial Management.

Every department in the School now has its own specialist, liaison librarian.  Subject librarians can also now provide a level of cover for one another, not previously possible, during leave or illness.

New services

A number of new services have been introduced:

  • online subject guides for regions and subjects, designed and maintained by specialist librarians, are freely available on the Library’s webpages;
  • information skills training is available for students at all levels, from first-year undergraduates to PhD candidates, and for academic staff;
  • subject librarians prepare electronic reading lists by working with undergraduate and postgraduate course lecturers to link directly from the course BLE (Bloomsbury Colleges virtual learning environment) to the full text of journal articles, where held by the Library) or to the SOAS Library catalogue record (where not available as full-text).  A service much appreciated during its pilot phase, priority is now given to first-year undergraduate course reading lists as these are the students most in need of support in locating in-house resources.

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II.vii Library Transformation Project

The present library was designed and built in the early 1970s for the needs of a small research institute in which there was rough parity between research and undergraduate students, with about 300 of each, and fewer than 200 taught masters students, totalling approximately 800 students.

The regional layout and the specialist staff were primarily centred on the classical “Orientalist” subjects based on the regional languages and literatures, although politics, economics and anthropology already had a presence.  There was no archivist, and the archives and rare books occupied part of one floor of the Library.   The opening of the Library in 1973 was a significant moment for the School as it enabled all the various collections and departmental libraries to be brought together in one place for the first time in its history.

Since that time SOAS has changed radically and grown significantly, not least in student numbers, but the Library organisation only recently began to implement its own changes to meet the current and anticipated future needs of the School.

The Library Transformation Project, with a mix of funding from HEFCE, SOAS and the Wolfson Foundation, seeks to accommodate growth in line with the School’s ten-year vision and strategy (11) and to create space through reconfiguration and extension of the accommodation.  The aim is to adjust an old and very inflexible building to meet the needs of modern and diverse study and research styles.  In particular, the Library seeks to enhance research facilities through:

  • refurbishment of the atrium and the upper floors;
  • increased study and quiet reading spaces;
  • reorganisation of library book stock, with busier and more heavily-used (mainly English-language) materials on the lower floors ascending to the quieter atmosphere of the research collections on the higher levels);
  • rethinking of staff accommodation to facilitate access to a range of support services;
  • new roof windows and lights and louvres to the atrium;
  • improved thermal conditions allowing a better flow of air;
  • increased levels of daylight.

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(7) Webster, K. and Seton, R., “The SOAS Library and archives”, pp.129-45 in Arnold D. and Shackle C. (eds.), 2003.  SOAS since the 60s, London:  School of Oriental and African Studies, p.120 and p.134
(8)ibid., pp.135-6
(9)ibid., pp.137
(10) ibid., pp.137
(11) 2016:  a vision and strategy for the centennial, London:  SOAS. Vision and Strategy [viewed 21 April 2010]

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