Tara Brabazon: The start of a new chapter

We may be losing printed materials, but let’s not forget we’re also gaining useful digital resources, says Tara Brabazon

February 16, 2010

This story begins in a skip. My students rushed into their Monday morning media literacies class to show me a selection of photographs they had taken with their mobile phones. They had noticed some unusual items in a large university bin. As I looked more closely at their images, I saw that the skip was filled with books – periodicals – no longer required by the library. It was depressing to see them discarded in this way, but I knew that it was too late to sigh, shake my head, protest, complain and ask why journals were thrown in a bin. We are in a time of fiscal restriction. We attend meetings with tightened muscles, preparing for phrases like voluntary redundancy, involuntary redundancy and a freeze on appointments. Now is not the time to look back in (inspirational) anger to Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold and protest about the loss of books. Many universities are losing entire departments.

Instead of fist banging and hand wringing, resigned despondency greeted the disconcerting photographs of periodicals discarded in a dumpster, peppered by large raindrops that dripped in sympathy. What was interesting is that my students – instinctively, it seems – knew that there was something wrong with the binning of books. They stopped, looked, photographed and shared. Two of them started assignments later in the semester using their images.

While this photograph is disturbing, it is easy to become lost in the emotion of imminent doom cloaking our institutions. The joy of academic life is in the surprises. With so many of our weeks scheduled, timetabled, ordered and audited, there are still many moments of enthusiasm and pride in working in education. Indeed, I have always thought that the day we lose the simple pleasure of curiosity, it is time to retire.

A few weeks after seeing the skip photographs, I was checking the Directory of Open Access Journals to find new material for postgraduates studying city imaging and for my own research paper on wine tourism. An unexpected journal title appeared on the screen. Not only had I never come across these articles, but the entire journal was unknown to me. It was a rich blend of librarianship, community media and activism. This surprising publication created, captured and extended a future of libraries that may be online but has an impact far beyond a screen, keyboard and hard drive. The articles exhibited a rare and powerful combination of intervention and application, case studies and transferable projects.

The Urban Library Journal is a gift to the academic community, particularly those of us trying to think about how to connect quality research with new and emerging audiences. Formerly known as the Urban Academic Librarian, it is the official journal of the Library Association of the City University of New York. Its online, open access and full text articles are available going back to 2002. The topics addressed include information literacy, mobile services and a range of strategies to create a library as – to borrow from Melissa Canham-Clyne’s title from a recent article – a “community organiser”.

These publishing discoveries are becoming rarer in a commercially aggregated age. Even with the most generous financial package to purchase journals, most scholars regularly experience the pattern of searching a database, finding a great article for our research and then discovering that it would cost £10 or more to order. We baulk at paying it personally and are reluctant to bother our librarians during a time of budgetary restriction. We continue our search without the article.

To avoid such disappointments, I start my research projects these days at the Directory of Open Access Journals. I may not always find the articles well cited in the mode validated within our emerging research quality frameworks. But I do find the words of new and underrepresented writers and thinkers, working beyond the United Kingdom and North America. I learn about extraordinary international examples that were not even in my consciousness or experience when entering a keyword into a search engine. It is part of lifelong learning and international education at its best to commit to reading new histories and innovative policy development from formerly colonised nations.

These trajectories, differences, possibilities and surprises matter at the moment. Currently, Curtis + Cartwright Consulting, in partnership with the British Library, the Joint Information Systems Committee, the Research Information Network, Research Libraries UK and the Society of College, National and University Libraries, are conducting a project to explore and manifest the “Libraries of the Future”. Their goal is to ascertain the type of information services that academic libraries, students and researchers will require. Predicting the future is always risky, but libraries are so important to education that it is necessary to be courageous, to take the chance that we may be wrong, but offer possibilities, a pathway and a trajectory for our future learning cultures.

My article this week started with books in a bin. It finishes with a plan to build the libraries of the future. In the middle are courageous librarian academics creating an urban, outward community project for schools and universities through open access, empowered and empowering research. While so many of our institutional emails and policy documents are filled with words such as partnership and collaboration, it is important to celebrate the innovative leadership provided by the international librarian profession. These writers, thinkers and practitioners not only manage the material culture of the past but enliven the present. They may also give us a catalogue for – and to – our future.

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