Adapt to survive the next chapter

October 8, 2004

Picture this scenario. You head off to your university library for an intensive day wading through a stack of journals or books relevant to your research; yet when you arrive you discover not the quiet aura of contemplation you had hoped for, but huddles of students conducting animated discussions about tutorial work. How are you going to get anything done?

"There are real tensions between researchers and undergraduates and how they want to use the library," says Michelle Shoebridge, director of information services at Birmingham University. "When I was a student you used to sit silently and work, but now it is all about group working and problem-based learning."

The culture clash is forcing academic libraries to be more creative about how they use their space. At Birmingham, work is under way to instal a cyber cafe to draw unwilling students into the main library; and Shoebridge wants to create a special space for researchers, where there will be staff on hand to give them a tailored service and, more important, total quiet.

Appealing to staff and to students is one part of a much broader problem, as university libraries struggle to decide whether they exist for research or for teaching and learning. Shoebridge explains that the government drive to increase student numbers, and the growing awareness that fee-paying students must be treated as customers, has put pressure on libraries to concentrate on textbooks and learning facilities.

But at the same time the research assessment exercise - looming on the horizon in 2008 - underlines the importance of supporting research.

Clare Jenkins, director of library services at Imperial College London and chair of the Consortium of University Research Libraries, says that for research-led institutions it cannot be an either/or situation: they want to do research and teaching to an excellent standard and their libraries are expected to support that. But, Jenkins says: "The budgets won't necessarily always be able to recognise these competing needs in a way that enables you to have everything you feel you need."

Many library heads stress that the requirements of their users are changing all the time and they have to adapt to survive.

Cambridge University library is halfway through a three-year pilot of an institutional repository, a giant digital store cupboard for data. Peter Morgan, director of the project, known as Dspace@Cambridge, says it has not turned out quite as he anticipated. "Like most institutions, we expected that the major area of demand would be to look after published (research) papers but, to date, academics have been slow to show an interest in that sort of material," he says. Instead, academics want to use the repository to store collections of images or digital resources that they use for teaching, again illustrating the importance of the teaching and learning agenda in the library's mission.

Increasingly, libraries are also expected to play a role in shaping the student intake. Glynis Platt is employed by the John Rylands library at Manchester University to coordinate widening participation activities. She brings young people of 16 years old and upwards, mainly from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, into the library in an attempt to break down social barriers. "They see that the university is not an ivory tower and the library is not an intimidating place," she says.

Participants are given access to the library for a year (though they cannot take books away) and an induction session so that the size of the library does not send them running back out onto the street.

Platt adds that technology-savvy young students are often tempted into the library by the sight of lots of computers, though ultimately they will find that their computer searches will lead them into the less-familiar world of the bookshelves.

Most institutions agree that, despite the hype, electronic resources will never completely take over. Anne Murray, deputy librarian at Cambridge, comments: "In this information age more resources are available on the internet, but there has been no corresponding reduction in printed information."

Nevertheless, librarians report a marked divide in how different disciplines use their facilities, and, according to Jenkins, the digital age is deepening this.

Many libraries hope that an open-access publishing revolution, with most scientific journals available freely online, will greatly improve their finances.

Murray explains: "The quantity and cost of scientific publications is a huge pressure for academic libraries. We are all constantly having to decide where to prioritise spending. While we liaise with the academic community, it is a challenge, as everyone naturally feels that their subject should be a priority."

A librarian at another large traditional university agrees: "We are finding that a lot of our resources are spent on journals in science and medicine to the detriment of textbooks and the arts and humanities."

But as more scientific and medical research resources become available online, so scientists' use of their library is likely to diminish. "We have to accept that people's behaviour is going to change as the information available changes," Jenkins admits. "It would be perverse to expect people to come into a library simply because we want numbers through the doors."

But she adds that a researcher confined to his desktop, rather than taking his laptop to the newly wireless-networked library, would miss out on the social interaction that a library can provide.

In contrast, arts and humanities academics are more likely to treat their library as a base, particularly as many of their resources are still available only in printed form. Yet this too is changing. The Joint Information Systems Committee has recently licensed a digital package called Early English Books Online. This means that every book published in England up to the end of the 17th century can be delivered to a researcher's desktop.

"Many of these books are difficult to get hold of and very fragile," says Lorraine Estelle, Jisc collections team manager. "This is the closest you can get to holding the book in your hand. And it's available to all universities."

Jisc is creating a searchable text version of this archive, which will mean that an academic could, for example, take a Shakespearean phrase and search for every other use of that phrase in others' work.

Ultimately, though, university libraries are becoming aware that they will have to collaborate to survive. The Research Libraries Network, a £3 million initiative led by the funding councils, research councils and the British Library, should provide the lead on this.

It will involve universities swallowing their pride to some degree, deciding which areas they have particular strengths in and concentrating their collections more on those.

"These days we are well away from the concept of the universal library," says Ronald Milne, acting director of university library services at Oxford University. "No library can do that - the Bodleian can't; the British Library can't. It is all about collaborative collection management."

But Oxford is taking further steps to ensure that its library survives. The university sent Reg Carr, its director of library services, to America to help raise an estimated £40 million for developments to its library services. "He is entertaining the big hitters," Milne explains.

Michael Gorman, the British president-elect of the American Library Association, suspects that this sort of fundraising will become central to university libraries in the UK in the future. "You never see a glossy university brochure in the US that does not feature the library quite seriously," he says. "It appeals to philanthropists."

Librarians in the UK may try to be brave about their lack of resources, but Gorman views the situation as extremely bleak.

"We've had some serious cuts in the past few years in California," he concludes. "But when I visit British university libraries, I could weep.

They have wonderful collections from the past, but such poor budgets to keep them up and seriously low levels of staff."

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