Academic libraries have travelled a long way quickly in the past few years. David Baker has assembled a team of respected academic library managers to discuss the central resource issues facing the modern library. Despite a range of styles and approaches, some key themes are woven through the various contributions: the increasing pressure on resources throughout higher education; the need for greater accountability and transparency in resource allocation; and uncertainty about how to fund electronic developments.
Academic libraries consume substantial resources, and many senior academics and administrators are entitled to wonder whether that money could not be spent more effectively elsewhere.
Bernard Naylor, university librarian at Southampton, reviews the state of academic library management in "old" (pre-1992) universities, emphasising the political skills required by library directors. Colin Harris, of Manchester Metropolitan University, looks at the "new" universities. Similarities of the resource issues facing the two sectors outweigh the differences. Baker reminds us that academic libraries are there primarily, if not exclusively, to meet the needs of their parent institution. This simple statement means providing a service that must support research, teaching and independent learning, not to mention clinical research and practice (it is not widely realised that university libraries provide the NHS with its core library services), and invest in new methods of delivery while coping with increasing demand for existing services. Financial uncertainty does not help: institutions and, in turn, their libraries get little notice of allocations. The trend in most universities to devolved budgeting, often income-based, has increased pressure on library budgets, now more clearly perceived as part of the institutional overhead.
Devolution, of course, has been on the library agenda for some time. Most university libraries now have some sort of formula to allocate the materials budget between academic areas. The advantages and pitfalls of this are discussed in a chapter by John Hutchins, a colleague of Baker's at the University of East Anglia. Few have gone so far as to transfer the library's materials and services budget to academic departments. Just as we have become used to financial services advertising reminding us that the value of shares can go down as well as up, so such libraries have found that while some departments buy more services and books, others may decide to pull money out.
It is not just financial risk that the library runs in devolving budgets to academic departments: its ability to plan ahead, to respond flexibly to changing needs, and to invest in new ways of delivering services may be diminished. There is tension between the objectives of transparency and accountability that generate pressure for devolution, and the need for strategic vision and tactical management at a time of rapid change. This is clearly the case with electronic resources, where libraries are spending more on multi-user licences, sums that cannot easily be collected from devolved book and periodical funds without inordinate time spent brokering deals between academic budget holders. Here is a key management challenge for library directors.
Other issues addressed include service level agreements and performance indicators, which are increasingly important resource management tools. Costing of services, discussed in another chapter by John Hutchins, is a discipline that needs to be practised more widely. Set against this, however, is the long-recognised and as yet unresolved difficulty of measuring library outputs objectively. The revised Total Quality Assurance process takes us some way down that road, indicating the effectiveness of learning resources in contributing to the overall assessment of each subject. Andrew McDonald, director of information services at the University of Sunderland, discusses the planning and design factors that make library buildings successful. There is less help, however, for the library director who needs to make a case in 1998 for funding a new building. Finally, David Baker looks at bidding for special funds. Programmes such as eLib have offered scope for library managers to bid for project funding. Baker looks at the benefits, which include institutional street-cred, and the pitfalls, which include the loss of managerial time and possible distraction from the library's central mission.
There are some minor criticisms. Income generation really merited a chapter of its own, and surprisingly little attention is paid to the resource implications of library collaboration, something which is getting renewed attention as the institutional pendulum swings back from competition to cooperation. Library directors may find that there is a little too much statement of the bleedin' obvious, and more aggressive editing (perhaps we do not need to be told by so many of the contributors that libraries face unprecedented change) might have trimmed the book.
David Baker has put together in this book, whose compilation just predated publication of the Dearing report, a valuable conspectus of the state of British academic libraries as they enter the hybrid electronic/ print environment that will characterise the next century. For library schools, this will rapidly become a core academic textbook. It is an excellent gift idea for the chair of the library committee.
Martin Lewis is deputy librarian, University of Sheffield.
Resource Management in Academic Libraries
Editor - David Baker
ISBN - 1 85604 036 4
Publisher - Library Association Publishing
Price - £37.50
Pages - 256