Content with a starring role

October 13, 1995

Lucy Hodges finds former library schools, such as that at Sheffield, are transforming students into information navigators. Forget your image of the librarian as someone who humps books around and knows the intricacies of the Dewey classification system. Today's librarian, restyled as an information manager, is more likely to be using the Internet and building Web pages. Changes in technology have had profound effects on librarian training.

University departments which nurture the librarians of tomorrow no longer call themselves library schools. Like that at Sheffield University, which has scored top ratings for its research, they are now called departments of information studies. The changes really began to be felt about 15 years ago, according to Tom Wilson, head of the Sheffield University department. It happened, he says, because personal computers made organisations realise that a lot of their time and effort was spent in information handling.

"Before the introduction of computers that fact had been lost, in that people's jobs bore designations that didn't reflect the information handling that they did." People were called clerks, administrators, managers, accountants. They were all doing specifically named jobs, but a large part of their work involved handling information.

The number of jobs in what came to be known as "the emerging market" began to increase. The emerging market was for so-called "information professionals" as distinct from the established market in libraries. Says Wilson: "There was suddenly a demand for people who knew how to handle information content with machines, which is essentially now what the schools and departments in the field do." Kate Wood, head of professional qualifications at the Library Association, confirms that the traditional library school is a thing of the past. "The impact of information technology on the curriculum has been enormous," she says. "The range of employment opportunities for graduates on these programmes has changed considerably."

Cuts in public sector libraries have been accompanied by expansion in the private sector. The information and technology part of the curriculum in virtually all the schools has expanded. And there has been a knock-on impact on research. Thus Sheffield University's department of information studies prepares students for a variety of information-handling roles in all kinds of environments from traditional public or academic libraries to public sector organisations, local government departments (housing and social services, for example), business and industry.

The emphasis is on managing the information content in the system rather than simply managing the technology. Take the example of reference work in a university library. This involves finding the material the inquirer needs. Increasingly, such information is to be found in electronic sources such as online databases or the Internet's World-Wide Web. The aim is to build on the students' disciplinary subject knowledge by providing them with the skills to use those systems. (Sheffield is still predominantly a postgraduate department.) Therefore it is more important to know what information content is needed to answer the inquirer's question, explains Wilson, than to know about the intricacies of the computer system.

Trainee librarians of today have to know how to use the machine, and how to interrogate the system through the machine, but the important thing is which information is useful to the individual being helped. They also need to know how to build and develop electronic information services in their institutions or to project information about their institutions on the Web. What has happened to the arcane skills of classification, honed by librarians over the decades? Classification is not a dead art but it is now taught as one strategy for information retrieval. That is because the business of classifying books is done by a very limited number of agencies and bought in by libraries. Classification has not been thrown out altogether, but it has been transformed or minimised. Sheffield has two taught postgraduate programmes: an MA in librarianship and an MSc in information management. The former is designed for those who are going to follow careers as librarians; the latter for people who want to keep their options open.

Very often the MSc postgraduates go into managing computer systems, according to Wilson. The department operates a loose quota system in that it tries to attract students from the social sciences and science and engineering because the market needs them. Traditionally librarianship has attracted graduates from the arts and the humanities - and it still does. The Department for Education and Employment funds 40 studentships. To qualify for one of those a graduate has to have a first or an upper-second degree. The remaining 120 students are self-financing or are from overseas. The courses are modular. Students on the MA course take six required modules in the first semester and five required modules and two electives in the second semester. There is a similar pattern for the MSc in information management. All students do a dissertation.

A new MSc in textual computing is being offered this year, in conjunction with the computer science department, and there are a couple of professional development programmes - an MA in library and information management and a diploma/MSc in health information management. These are for people already in work. Two undergraduate programmes are offered in conjunction with the management school.

Last year, the department ran an MSc programme in electronic information management for the less favoured regions of the European Union which attracted 33 students from Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and the former East Germany. All these students did a placement month with an organisation in Europe and had to produce a proposal for funding by the EU.

When it was established in 1963, Sheffield's was only the second university department of its kind, the other being at University College, London. Almost from the beginning it was strong on research. Today it luxuriates in being the only department of its kind to have received two 5s (in 1989 and 1992), which is the top grade in the Higher Education Funding Councils' research assessment exercise. The department has 28 full-time PhD students, a high proportion considering there are only 12 academics. The strongest research is in the area of information retrieval, led by Peter Willett and Mike Lynch. The two professors are working on retrieval systems for protein structures, which are important in biotechnology. Databases of protein structures are constantly searched to find those which have potential application in medicine. In a related field, the department's work on chemical structures has been valuable to the pharmaceutical industry worldwide. Professor Lynch's work on chemical patents, for example, is being used in Germany.

Failure to discover that a compound is covered by a patent can be very damaging to a pharmaceutical manufacturer. If it developed a product based on an already-patented chemical, the company could be sued for patent infringement and forced to pay high licence fees for the use of the compound.

A new area of research is computer-assisted work and learning. Sheffield's research in this area has won Pounds 78,000 under the FIGIT initiative, set up to implement the Follett report on university libraries and information technology. The thinking here is that education will be transformed by technology, and librarians must be prepared to work effectively with students on computer networks. Sue Fowell and Philippa Levy, together with Professor Wilson, are developing a training programme to enable university library staff to better help students to access and use the new information networks.

"What we envisage is that increasingly the campuses themselves will be using the campus networks in order to deal with larger groups of students and to provide students with network-based self-learning opportunities," says Wilson.

"The fact that there are going to be a lot of computer-assisted learning resources available on the networks means that students are going to be using those resources either in their rooms or elsewhere. Course lecturers are going to be pointing them in the direction of those resources, and librarians are going to need to be aware of that development and in a position pedagogically to help them."

Professor Brendan Loughridge, and Professor Wilson are supervising an investigation of the management information needs of heads of academic departments at British universities. They surveyed the departments' use of technology. Now guidelines and computer-assisted learning materials are being produced. Senior academics may be accustomed to seeking out information for their teaching and research, but they must now learn to tap a very different set of information sources in their increasingly demanding role as managers.

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