Letter: Partners key to libraries' future (1)

July 27, 2001

David Wells (Soapbox, THES , July 13) argues that university libraries have failed "to cater adequately for the research needs of their employees for more than a generation", thereby making the British Library collections indispensable.

A committee, recently formed by the four funding councils, the British Library and Welsh and Scottish national libraries, is investigating research libraries and research material provision.

The committee, which I chair, first met two weeks ago and hopes to produce an action plan by mid-2002. A "call for evidence" is out and readers can follow the progress of our deliberations on the Higher Education Funding Council for England website, where relevant papers will be posted from August.

The UK has a good record of library reform, one example being the establishment of the national electronic "library" (DNER).

However, the committee is the first opportunity that university and national libraries have to resolve a serious problem: the provision of a truly world-class information environment for UK researchers.

This is a non-trivial aim and will probably demand changes in the way all of us operate. Money may be part of the issue, but a step change in cooperation and collaboration may be as important.

UK university libraries have done a splendid task but are hamstrung by their size. Most of the major university libraries, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, purchase monographs and serials at about 25 per cent of the level of comparable state universities in North America.

The British Library continues to collect on an international scale and, through Boston Spa, offers a world-class serials service. But it cannot collect everything, even in English. How can we provide access to the world's literature, to the growing volume of primary sources and to the new world of e-science?

The answer probably lies somewhere in a complicated nexus of "partnerships". We shall need to work together more and divide our responsibilities for collection and provision, and then provide a national service using a range of tools, including the internet.

My committee may have to ask searching questions about how cooperation can be encouraged and a national strategy developed and implemented. Watch this space.

Brian Follett
Chairman, Arts and Humanities Research Board.

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