Finding solutions on and off the shelf

January 4, 2008

In a wired world, libraries are keen to adapt their services to researchers' needs, but more dialogue is needed, says Michael Jubb.

When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, he made sure that the library was placed symbolically at its heart. He and his contemporaries were clear that the library had a central role in any institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and understanding. But in a world in which ever-increasing quantities of information are readily available 24/7 anywhere you can get an internet connection, do libraries retain this central role?

Concerns expressed recently about libraries' disposing of low-use books and journals suggest that many academics care deeply about their institutional libraries. Broadly, they are satisfied with the services that libraries provide. They welcome the rapid shift to providing an enhanced range of information resources in digital form, and also the growth of web-based services. But these developments have brought transformations in expectations, potentially damaging differences of view about the future direction of academic library services and the risk that those services are becoming invisible.

Arts and humanities researchers still visit libraries fairly frequently because for many of them the library is their laboratory, and much of the content they use is not yet available in digital form. But many other researchers visit the library hardly at all. Increasingly, they are unaware of the role the library plays in acquiring the licences for the content they need and in providing the services they use in places remote from the library building. As digitisation proceeds apace, and more information is created and made available only digitally, these trends will continue. Already, researchers use their own informal networks to find information resources the library does not provide for them. In five years' time, researchers in all disciplines will expect, irrespective of the institution to which they are affiliated, that most of the resources they need will be available freely, wherever and whenever they want.

Changes in the nature of research are already posing new challenges. The growth in large-scale collaborative research brings the problem of how to provide access to parallel sets of information resources for teams spread across several institutions. Interdisciplinary teams have new needs, but working out what resources to provide is made more difficult because researchers themselves often cannot say accurately what their needs are. The rise of e-research and of virtual research environments brings new challenges in information management, but libraries have yet to determine what part they should play in looking after and providing access to unpublished research outputs, as well as those that are formally published.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there are uncertainties about the future direction and roles of academic libraries in supporting researchers. Many academics believe that their libraries have become too focused on services for undergraduates. And while researchers and librarians agree on the importance of the traditional roles of libraries as custodians and administrators of collections, there are marked differences of view on other matters. Thus, while librarians almost unanimously believe they have key roles as both subject experts and as teachers of "information literacy", relatively few researchers - very few in the sciences - agree with them. Rather, researchers see themselves as the experts in meeting their own wants and needs.

Many librarians believe they have a critical role to play in running institutional repositories that hold and provide free access to journal articles and other research outputs. Librarians have been in the vanguard of the open-access movement and moves to make scholarly articles available more rapidly and freely. More than a hundred higher education institutions in the UK now have repositories, established with that aim primarily in view. But while librarians and others have made huge efforts to promote open access and the use of repositories, most researchers have yet to hear the message. Most repositories are as yet short of content and little used by researchers. There is a long way still to go on the road to open access.

Researchers devote much time and effort to finding, using, creating and managing information resources. Making sure that they have the support necessary to perform those tasks effectively is critically important to the health of UK research. The Research Information Network has been set up to help achieve that end by gathering and analysing evidence about researchers' needs and bringing partners together to promote improvements.

No individual library can meet all needs, and we must explain to researchers how libraries are working together to improve their services. Behaviours, roles and responsibilities will continue to change; and we have hardly begun to think through all the implications of researchers' growing use of blogs, wikis and social networking services - as distinct from conferences and journal articles - to communicate about their research and its results. As these changes continue, we need a more productive dialogue between researchers, librarians and senior managers to develop a shared understanding of how libraries can best serve researchers' needs into the second decade of the 21st century.

Michael Jubb is director of the Research Information Network.

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