Bells and whistles for the wedding march

October 13, 1995

Debby Raven argues that campus libraries and computing centres will be locked in marriages of convenience. Libraries and computing centres in universities are coming together increasingly, formalising what have previously been close working relationships. More than a third of United Kingdom universities are realising the benefits of convergence, merging in almost as many ways as there are services tying the knot. These range from retaining separate structures but bringing them under the same dean, to totally merged and distributed services.

University libraries' role in looking after storage and retrieval systems, "a long and honorable tradition, stretching back hundreds of years, and based on a difficult technology - books and paper documents", as Lawrie Schonfelder, director of computing services at Liverpool University puts it, is changing. As digital and networked information takes over, it is not surprising that librarians, in order to deliver increasingly remote information sources to the user, feel they could benefit from closer access to the skills and expertise of their computing colleagues. And physically, it seems inevitable that access to information and the ability to process it will have to come together in the same location. Students and staff with increasingly sophisticated demands are coming to expect this, along with multimedia resources to support their work. And in research, librarians may have to become expert in network publishing activities, rather than helping academics trace bibliographic references to traditional printed literature.

Richard Heseltine, University of Hull librarian, has suggested that this may become crucial with the growth of closed discussion groups on the Internet. But not everybody agrees. Critics of convergence say that everybody uses IT, and why should not libraries be treated as just another client using the services of a computing department? Is convergence appropriate only for smaller institutions needing to save money? "There is no case for convergence on the basis of pure logic, only expediency," says Dr David Hartley, former director of computing at Cambridge University, now chief executive of the academic network operator UKERNA. But perhaps the most complete merger and the first university - in 1985 - to dispense with a separate computer centre is De Montfort, where convergence was felt to be the best way of delivering services at such a large university with nine campuses in four cities, serving 26,000 students.

Many universities with converged services still retain mainframe and systems management across the university as a separate specialised computer function, but De Montfort decided in the same year that it no longer needed a mainframe computer. It is true that convergence can bring economics of scale and avoid duplicating functions. But although the 1993 review of higher education libraries, in addressing the problems of lack of resources - and space - supported convergence, it also recommended the funding of new university library buildings, or altering existing ones. At the University of Hertfordshire, for example, the Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review (or Follett) report resulted in the Higher Education Funding Council for England offering Pounds 4 million towards a new Pounds 15 million integrated learning resources centre of some 10,000 square metres on its Hatfield campus.

The Follett report also recommended investment in an Electronic Libraries Programme. Follett national co-ordinator Chris Rusbridge says this would be aided by convergence: many of the 30 projects to receive funding cross the traditional library-computing boundary. Projects are investigating electronic document and article delivery, electronic journals, on-demand publishing, and networked resource discovery. But does the rush towards convergence presuppose the end of traditional printed source materials? John Priestley, head of library and information services at Plymouth University thinks the opposite is true. He sees Plymouth's converged service as a combination of improving electronic tools with continued support of traditional print sources: "The use of journals has gone up. Electronic tools have put a big premium on our management of the bookstock. If the electronic catalogue says a book is there, students expect to find it. I predict a massive exploitation of print sources in the next five years". Plymouth has a clearly divided management structure but great convergence in the delivery of services. The heads of computing services, learning resources, student services, continuing education and development report to the dean of academic services. Services are treated as "departments" of the "faculty". Heads of services work with staff from across each service, drawing on all the skills available. In addition, project teams harness multidisciplinary skills, and faculty teams are being set up to deliver all academic services jointly to faculties according to their individual needs. Computing facilities - networked PCs and Macs - are on one floor of the library. A media workshop - with desktop publishing and binding facilities, special copiers, and audiovisual aids - offers students "one-stop shopping" to complete any piece of work.

Statistical and quality surveys show how effective and efficient the service is for its 16,000 potential users. But how do the staff react when faced with new roles, new skills, and working with different types of professionals? At Plymouth, John Priestley admits, it took time to convince computing services staff about the benefits of convergence. The Fielden Report on academic library staffing for the 1993 Libraries Review suggested, controversially, the need for a new breed of hybrid personnel with computing and library skills. Peter Brophy, librarian of the University of Central Lancashire says it is impossible to find such a "polymath" with enough detailed knowledge of both. His counterpart, head of computing and learning technology Ted Smith, suggests that users require different assistance from the staff of the two services: "This will not change just because information is more electronically based", he wrote in the Library Association's University, College and Research Group journal, Relay (no.42). Although some feel it could pose a threat to professional identity - something librarians have always been protective of - convergence also brings new opportunities for co-operative development, for instance, greater involvement in course design. And as librarians become more involved with the information superhighway, Lawrie Schonfelder says:

"It is going to be a huge job for librarian-type scholastic skills, sifting vast amounts of material. It all needs to be searched". A project on convergence and the reskilling of librarians is likely to receive funding from the Electronic Libraries Programme. Chris Rusbridge says: "Librarians are already learning to search with new sorts of tools. Skills are needed to create an info rmation source, and integrate it into the service. It has to be done with a sympathetic understanding of what there is already, in order to create a useful digital library". Under the training and awareness strand of the programme, "Netskills" at Newcastle University is looking at librarians' network skills, awareness of resources and technical competence. Another project recognises the need for computing services, libraries, educational technologists and academics to work together in the design and delivery of courses. Based jointly at Kingston University and London Guildhall, it is working on the development of an interactive electronic magazine. At De Montfort, Mel Collier, head of the division of learning development, says convergence has promoted co-operative project work. The division combines libraries and computing, which merged in 1989, with educational technology and media, which followed in 1992.

It also runs staff development programmes for the university. "The nature of jobs changed radically to begin with. Librarians now do Internet work, etc, and computing staff have moved from being technically orientated and take part in developments in teaching, learning and research," says Professor Collier. Multidisciplinary work includes projects under the European Library Plan, Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) and Electronic Library Programme. And material benefits to users include a European study centre, and open learning service. Liverpool John Moores University has a converged service delivered by subject and operational teams, containing staff from both professions. Although, says learning resources manager Phil Sykes, the aim is not to create a "hybrid" person, the job descriptions of all staff have a common core of basic duties drawn from what were previously exclusively library or computing. "The staffing structure is shaped by the needs of particular groups of service users, rather than by the professional allegiance of the service providers," he says. Eventually, all divisions will have converged services. So far convergence is embodied in the new Aldham Roberts Learning Resources Centre, or ARC, which opened last July to serve the 5,500 full-time equivalent students in the division of arts and professional studies. The ARC has subject floors, reflecting the staff subject teams. Computing facilities are spread out among the floors and within them, among the 720 study spaces, to offer all learning support needs in one place, such as multimedia and applications software and audiovisual materials.

Benefits to users include a larger staff with basic knowledge, at least, of the computing and information facilities. At a higher level, services such as CD-Rom databases can be better developed. Users appreciate the ARC which has seen a remarkable increase in use: gate figures have increased by 75 per cent over the total gates for the two computing centres and two libraries that were merged. Satisfaction surveys show that the library is the most popular service.

The use of multimedia software is rising only gradually, however. Phil Sykes says this could be due to the lack of appropriate software at higher education level. This should be ameliorated to some extent by TLTP, the scheme backed by the funding councils in which consortia are developing multimedia subject-based teaching products. Liverpool John Moores also has the innovative Learning Methods Unit, famed for Roy Stringer's innovative multimedia courseware. The ARC building is flexible enough to be restructured at any time should areas need to be adapted as the use of electronic information and multimedia materials increases. The University of Hertfordshire is going further along the merged staff route. According the university librarian Di Martin, the plan is for fully merged staff teams - from assistants to managers. And each of the four campuses, with 17,000 students and 1,700 staff, will eventually have converged services. Details are not finalised as the location of converged services has been the most pressing issue for the multi-site university. But recruiting for a service for the law faculty, due to open this autumn, is in train.

The job descriptions are of skills which are neither library nor computing-oriented. Planning for the new centre for law will help map the future for the rest of the converged services, including the integrated learning resources centre for the largest campus at Hatfield. And (who knows?) there might not be a university librarian or a director of computing.

But the present director, Gordon Spencer-Brand, is optimistic: "We needed to come together to realise common goals. And we were duplicating services - CD-Rom, Internet and the Web, for instance. "This will give us a fantastic opportunity to provide services we couldn't have dreamt of in the past."

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