Library chief berates selfish universities

October 31, 1997

"University libraries can't cope anymore," said Matthew Evans, chairman of Faber and Faber and head of the Library and Information Commission.

"The signs on the university library doors say 'members of the university only', but down at the local public library there are ranks of students who can't get what they need at their university. Students are flowing into and welcomed into public libraries, but there is no flow in the other direction."

Earlier this month Mr Evans called for a Pounds 770 million investment over seven years, to create an on-line public library infrastructure, in a report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

As National Libraries Week is launched this week, Mr Evans thinks it is time to put the screws on the higher education sector. He wants a slice of the higher and further education funding councils' precious cash.

Universities and colleges must start looking outward, he said, and they must take the lead in the lifelong learning revolution. The new library of the 21st century will be the spine of Labour's National Grid for Learning, the Library Commission report envisioned. It will provide the hub for the University for Industry and will be pivotal to widening access to education. University and public libraries must pool their limited resources for the greater good.

"It is the responsibility of higher education to make sure it does not stand in the way of this revolution," Mr Evans said. "The plans require a cross-sectoral approach and universities must adapt."

The first step in the "cross sectoral" age is for the universities to open up their closely guarded on-line information network, the Joint Academic Network (Janet) to public libraries. Mr Evans said: "The vice chancellors say there are a lot of barriers, but I don't know where the problem lies."

The universities' Joint Information Systems Committee seems to be split on the issue. Derek Law, former JISC member and director of information systems at King's College London, believes that Janet should be opened up to outside organisations.

"We know the reading rooms of many universities are the local public libraries. Public libraries are full of things academics could use. There is huge opportunity for sharing experience, staff, skills and content," he said.

Other JISC members have warned that the universities would lose control of the network, and that opening it to public libraries would open the way for commercial interests to take over. Others have warned that connecting other systems could prove impossible, and that cross-sectoralism would perhaps involve an illegal mixture of funds across government departmental budgets.

"Maybe there's a technical reason why it might not be practical, or maybe that is just a red herring so the universities can keep it to themselves," Mr Evans said.

But he believes that a new era of cross-sector cooperation will become inevitable as government lifelong learning policy unfolds.

"If the end product of the National Grid for Learning is to make access to education and information more widely spread through the population, then coordination is inevitable," he said.

Meanwhile, there are many activities planned for National Libraries Week. The City of Sunderland New Telematics Strategy draws together the university library with the city, the City College and businesses to "deliver information to those who need it". Sunderland university has already excited ministers developing the University for Industry with its Learning World project, a partnership with Gateshead College, where shoppers at the Metro Centre in Gateshead can access academic resources or link into higher education courses via computer.

The call for university cash should be seen as an opportunity, not a diversion, Mr Evans insists.

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