New tomorrows, stacks of problems

The New University Library - Innovation in Information

April 28, 1995

Libraries, from our great national institutions to the council bookmobile lumbering round the Scottish glens, are in trouble.The crisis of the British library is symbolised by the current plight of the British Library -- paralysed in its interminable transition from the Round Reading Room to its high-tech St Pancras future.

The crisis in British academic libraries has a number of origins. The information explosion generated by the microchip has created difficulties of bibliographical control. The speed of change in information technology and systems has strained the managerial capacity of traditionally trained librarians; the machines are running faster than the people. The cost of new technology has strained budgets. There is (notionally at least) more book stock than ever, and a large question as to whether it might not be semi-redundant in the near future (many public libraries are jumping the gun and getting out of books into other wares). Cataloguing is a problem, conservation a nightmare. The post-Thatcherite ethos which has devalued the ethic of public service has been very upsetting for British academic libraries. Fifty yards from the BL is the Senate House Library. Once a centrally funded facility at the heart of the University of London, Senate House must now survive in a defederalised system by "selling its services" -- even to undergraduates. Every ship must now float on its own bottom. The medium and long-term survival of Senate House will be an acid test of whether the efficiency gains of the new, pay-per-borrow regime are a price worth paying.

That university libraries are facing unprecedented change is the theme running through The New University Library, a festschrift in honour of Ian Rogerson (recently retired as the first librarian of Manchester Polytechnic and of what is now the Manchester Metropolitan University). Overshadowing the discussions of the various contributors is the verdict of the Follett Report, delivered in December 1993. The latest in a series of high-level reviews, Follett is radical in its advocacy of new technology. "Most important," the report stresses, "there needs to be a sea-change in the way institutions plan and provide for the information needs of those working within them. The traditional view of the library as the single repository of information needed for teaching, learning, and research is no longer adequate. This has profound and far-reaching implications."

Calling for sea changes in academic librarianship might seem a Canute-like activity were it not backed up by economic imperatives. University libraries are in a money crunch, squeezed from one direction by the need to acquire new, expensive and short-life information systems and from the other direction by the distorting effect of journal subscription -- an element which can easily soak up as much as three-quarters of a library's acquisition budget. Follett seems to advocate a quick (if hardly painless) technological fix for these problems, by the establishment of consortia -- virtualised super-libraries for the large information environment -- and narrower, customised services for the home-based user. It is not easy at this stage to foresee the shape of things to come, but it seems fairly clear that there will be a shift of resources away from plant, building, and non-specialised human resources to VDUs, data-banks, techno-nerds, and remote document supply.

Ian Rogerson served in an institution which only became a university late in his career, and all the contributors to The New University Library are from new universities. As such, they are more optimistic than their confr res in institutions with larger accumulations of material and longer-standing traditions. It is easier to confront the prospect of "sea-change" if you have been in existence for three years rather than 300. But the resolutely non-whingeing tone of the contributions to this collection is refreshing, as is the very practical problem-solving article, "Looking to the future: the Consortium of Academic Libraries in Manchester (CALIM)" by John Blunden-Ellis. Other contributions range widely from a history of the library buildings of the University of Manchester to a study of special collections of early children's books and an amusing piece on the "The Image of the Academic Librarian" ("They're older and they sit behind desks").

The conditions under which Innovation in Information was written form a microcosm of the crisis in which academic libraries and their host institutions find themselves. The British Library Research and Development Department (BLRDD) was founded 20 years ago -- palmy days, as Jack Meadows recalls, when the only problem was finding ways to spend the overflowing annual budget. Now the BLRDD faces extinction by absorption into a new, as yet unclearly defined "Library and Information Commission." This "might happen as early as April 1994". As the director of BLRDD, Brian Perry, notes in his foreword, the volume went to press uncertain as to whether it (and he) had a future. Jack Meadows, the department's chosen historian, is dean of education and humanities at LoughboroughUniversity. Meadows was asked to write this volume in a period of four months "which unfortunately coincided with a major organisational overhaul at my university". In consequence, as he candidly admits, "the book you have before you was written not only in haste, but mainly at weekends and in the evenings". There you have it: a useful institution under sentence of death (in the sacred name of greater efficiency) memorialised by an academic forced to work seven days a week and 12 hours a day if he is to keep up with his managerial and scholarly quotas. At least Meadows's book will be citeable in the April 1996 Research Assessment Exercise.

Like many holders of a reader's ticket I have worked at the BL since 1974 blissfully unaware of BLRDD and the good it was doing behind the scenes. The department does not perform research itself, but facilitates the flow of information and technical expertise that enables research to be performed more efficiently elsewhere in the "research community". Navigating through a veritable jungle of acronyms, flow-charts and tables, Meadows shows how successfully - and cheaply - BLRDD has performed its intellectual midwifery. BLRDD has been particularly useful in smoothing over the introduction of automation into the British library system. A section on "Humanities" suggests how vital the BLRDD's function might be for the many masters degrees in research methods which are at the moment being set up all over Britain, in response to the British Academy's demand for an intensive technical apprenticeship for doctoral candidates. A glum last section suggests that, even if it is reprieved, BLRDD may not be able to function meaningfully with its present depleted level of funding.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor of English literature, University College, London.

The New University Library: Issues for the 1990s and Beyond: Essays in Honour of Ian Rogerson

Editor - Colin Harris
ISBN - 0 947568 64 6
Publisher - Taylor Graham
Price - £25.00
Pages - 131

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