An improved shelf life

June 2, 1995

(Photograph) - Senate House, location of the Ministry of Information in the film version of 1984, seems to shout bureaucracy. But Emma Robinson, head of the University of London Library which is housed there, is making sure that nothing is further from the truth.

Radical reforms in funding the University of London's central services which began nearly two years ago have left the central library in a unique and potentially awkward position.

"At the moment, we have on paper no secure sources of funding for next year. This makes budgeting extremely difficult," said Ms Robinson, at 41 one of the youngest university head librarians in the country. The schools of the university now decide whether to subscribe to the library and some of the larger ones have already partially opted out.

In response the library has sought to exploit outside sources, such as private colleges or research institutes. In all 23 per cent of the library's budget will have come from private sources this year.

"I am looking towards running the library far more as a business unit," said Ms Robinson. Soon after the funding changes she recommended hiring a marketing professional to secure outside funds, so Hilary Turner was taken on as library development/customer care manager. The post is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. She then led a marketing campaign to encourage more fee-paying private researchers and private colleges to use the library. These include lawyers and colleges such as the Royal Institute of Public Affairs.

Ms Turner is now focusing on fund-raising for the library as an additional source of income. She met Christine McGinlay of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where they have a long tradition of fund-raising. "In the States, their philosophy is that everyone gives money; it's not such a dirty word over there. We have the difficulty of overcoming cultural change here, but I think we're getting there," said Ms Turner.

A very high proportion of the library's undergraduate users are not members of the University of London. During vacation periods up to 60 per cent are from elsewhere, because a disproportionate number of undergraduates live in London, and exercise their reciprocal rights of access. These students are effectively funded out of the remaining "non-formula funding" that the library still receives. This funding also helps pay for the library's special collections, which are used by researchers from all around the country - more than 70 per cent of people using these collections are external users.

While they also encourage individual students at the "new" London universities to pay the Pounds 97 yearly subscription, they do not market their services to these institutions themselves, for fear that the University of London might lose its "competitive advantage" in attracting applicants.

Following Brian Follett's review of library services in 1993, a number of library performance indicators were identified, including "user satisfaction". The library teamed up with a company called Priority Search to produce a piece of software called Libra. "This software takes qualitative information and then quantifies it so that it can be analysed," says Ms Turner.

Before the survey, the library had been planning a new signage system, but later found that users rated this with a "negative priority".

"It's a very powerful management tool," remarked Ms Robinson. "We're very proud of this development, which has now been marketed and sold to 40 other universities, and we're now looking towards the overseas market."

"Other academic libraries have a far more well-defined community which they serve. We have to justify ourselves to our management and to people buying into our services, so such measurement is vital," says Ms Robinson.

She is supported in her endeavours by a 1993 report by Touche Ross consultants that reported that the library was indeed "value for money".

"Libraries are not swimming pools, which can be replaced at any time given the funding and the will. The University of London Library is surviving and even, in some respects, flourishing despite rather than because of the university whose name it bears," concluded Ms Robinson.

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