Information culture in search of a landslide

October 13, 1995

They are short of money, running out of space, and threatened by rising crime. They are struggling with technology that offers amazing opportunities but often disappoints in practice and always changes too fast for comfort. Academic libraries are living in the 1990s like everyone else, and they are discovering that the social and economic issues of the day are not left at the gate with the bags and overcoats.

Librarians have been among the first to explore the new information landscape of the Internet. Those who can handle such uncatalogued chaos have turned the Internet to their own uses, establishing beacons like BIDS (the main bibliographic service on the JANET academic network) or slipping into the crowds roaming the World-Wide Web and using their information-sifting skills to pick jewels from among the trash. Economic pressures are forcing librarians to become managers and master the business vocabulary of outsourcing, value chains, cost centres and customer focus. Echoing the business fashion for having a chief information officer, some academic libraries are merging, or at least converging, with the campus computing service. A shared concern with information is the rationale; but critics of convergence argue that the library is just another department which uses computing services.

Contracting out acquisitions to an outside company is no longer unthinkable. The principle of charging academic departments for library services has become accepted, but computer systems can itemise costs in unprecedented detail. Public libraries charge for the loan of each video or CD. University libraries use the same software and could switch on the pricing function at any time if they have not already.

Most publishing houses have been absorbed into multimedia empires whose alliances are with the entertainment or telecommunications industries. The book trade is in a period of tectonic change with the demise of the Net Book Agreement, the growth of electronic trading, and the emergence of new kinds of intermediary (such as Internet booksellers) to compete with library suppliers, book wholesalers and subscription agents. Watch out for the hidden electromagnetic tag which gives every book its unique digital fingerprint. Not just an anti-theft device, it will revolutionise stocktaking and fight the entropic menace of mis-shelving.

The shift of scholarly publishing from printed journals to the electronic medium is a landslide waiting to happen - one which cash-strapped librarians would welcome, provided that publishers pass on some of the potentially enormous savings to journal subscribers.

The paradox is that reducing books and journals to electrons does not abolish their requirement for space. A journal page is paper-thin, but to paint the same page on a screen with electrons requires a bulky cathode ray tube. (The flat screens used on portable computers are improving in quality but remain fiendishly expensive.) The fortunate libraries are growing into spacious, multi-million pound learning resource centres. But those lacking either the cash or the space for expansion are finding that they have to move out books to make room for the computers. In some libraries students are sitting on the floor.

Networks are reaching out from libraries into academic departments, giving remote access to CD-Roms. Many American colleges are extending their networks into student accommodation - "fibre to the dorm". The practice has been taken up by British universities, at least in newly built residences. But students and academics have to visit the library for printed material or to obtain a librarian's assistance.

The quality of that assistance depends on the quality of librarian training. Information studies courses are taking on board all the new technology, but library schools must balance this with more traditional skills like the "reference interview" - finding out what the reader wants to find out. One academic librarian, who believes that these skills are being lost, spelled out the depressing consequence: "I think that people will simply make do with less information in the future." Surely that was not the plan?

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