English university libraries will have 25,000 more seats soon, thanks to the Follett report, says Frederick Friend.
The report of the Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review Group, chaired by Sir Brian Follett, was welcomed by librarians as a serious attempt to help with the pressures on university libraries caused by rising student numbers and rising periodical prices.
Since its publication in December 1993, the funding councils have been working on the implementation of the recommendations, and, while no time-scale was set for implementation, much of the work is at a sufficiently-advanced stage to enable the academic community to see how much of an impact the Follett report will have made.
Making a United Kingdom-wide assessment is not straightforward, as in some respects the funding councils have acted together and in other respects separately. Implementation overall is in the hands of a body called, not surprisingly, the Follett Implementation Group (FIG).
The problem of rising student numbers appears to be most straightforward to resolve. In essence what is needed are more seats in libraries and more copies of undergraduate textbooks. On seating the funding councils acted swiftly to release the capital sum identified in the Follett report for additional reader spaces. For some institutions the funding councils acted too quickly; it is not easy to produce building plans at a few weeks' notice, especially when only 25 per cent of the cost of any project was to come from "Follett" money, so it was sensible to divide the money into two tranches.
The successful bids under the first tranche have just been announced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and when both tranches have been spent, an additional 25,000 seats should be available in English university libraries.
That sounds marvellous until you realise that it represents 25 per cent additional seating to cope with a growth in student numbers of 70 per cent between 1986/87 and 1993/94. It is unclear whether HEFCE has targeted the funds on those institutions which have experienced the greatest increase in student numbers, but if not that should be a factor in the second round of allocations.
Although the other undergraduate problem - too many students chasing too few books - does not appear to have been addressed directly by the implementation group, part of the funding of the electronic libraries programme is for on-demand publishing to support student course work where whole classes need access to the same material simultaneously.
The Follett report had recognised that the pressures on library material were not confined to student textbooks. The maintenance of research collections is also under threat from rising prices, inadequate staffing and poor storage conditions. Access to collections of great academic value has also been limited by lack of investment in the automation of catalogue records. Non-formula funding has now been made available for the next four years to support specialised research collections in the humanities, and this may prove to be the most successful of all the Follett initiatives.
Although bids had to be prepared with more haste than anybody would have wished, the results are by and large fair and will help scholars in the humanities to gain access to books and manuscripts not available in their local libraries. What has to be considered further is how this non-formula funding relates to the recommendations in the Anderson report on a national or regional strategy for library provision for researchers. If implemented this report could lead to a coherent policy for co-operation between research libraries.
The informal co-operation libraries have practised for many years will not survive the competitive pressures between universities unless it is backed up by a strong national policy on the availability of research collections.
Unfortunately such a strong policy direction seems to be lacking at the moment in the other main area of Follett-related activity, the electronic libraries programme, which the funding councils have given to the joint information systems committee to administer. Considered on their own merits the 23 projects approved are very worthy and doubtless will be successful in realising their own objectives. The programme as a whole, however, fails to take account of the realities in scholarly communication viz: * the total of all the electronic journal projects approved under the programme is less comprehensive than any one of the United States-based projects already under way; * publishers are quite happy to see the electronic libraries programme fund new ventures while they concentrate on the digitisation of their existing core journals; * the ownership of intellectual property in academic research will not be secured by piecemeal development of small-scale licensing models.
The UK can influence world developments in electronic publication but to do so the programme would have to take the risk of mounting one or a very small number of large-scale projects rather than dissipating its resources, and it is this strategic direction that appears to be lacking. For years the range of publications available to library users has been restricted by the relentless rise in price of scientific journals.
The Follett report, while recognising that there are no easy solutions, raised expectations of an opportunity to provide a better system of scholarly communication. The academic community will expect to be shown more than piecemeal activity from the Pounds 15 million to be spent over the three years of the programme.
Demonstrating excellence has to be taken seriously nowadays, so perhaps the implementation group should apply to itself the performance indicators for university libraries which are another outcome of the Follett report.
University librarians welcome these performance indicators, although at present they cope better with teaching than with research provision. If the implementation group were to be assessed in this way, they could demonstrate that they have performed well, despite the reservations outlined above. There is no doubt that the Follett initiative is benefiting users of university libraries, both for research and for teaching. We look forward to the completion of the work and to further improvements in library services.
Frederick Friend is librarian of University College London.