Time to shelve the book habit

Think digitally and steer academics away from their 'cravings', librarians are told. Hannah Fearn writes

November 4, 2010

University librarians have been told that they must change the behaviour of academics to "stop them craving books" as libraries shift their focus to digital resources.

The call was made at a debate about the future of university libraries, hosted by Times Higher Education at the British Library last week.

Debating the motion "Is the physical library a redundant resource for 21st-century academics?", Sarah Porter, head of innovation at the Joint Information Systems Committee, said she knew some scientists who had not set foot in a library for five years.

She claimed that in the current funding climate, the library as a physical archive of material was no longer a sustainable model and its function had to change.

Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, argued in defence of libraries, which she said were "infinitely more pleasurable in every possible way" than digital resources.

"Real libraries have librarians. Librarians beat a virtual help desk hands down every time," she said.

Libraries were also social places where she had been known not only to eat, but also to have sex and get drunk. A virtual library "just isn't sexy", she said.

Libraries also provided a space on campus to "think differently", and Professor Beard warned of the damaging effect on scholarship of the wealth of academic information available electronically. "The last thing that we want is to be able to read everything that's ever been written on (a subject)," she added.

But Clive Bloom, emeritus professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University, said it was time to accept that the library as we know it was obsolete.

"I don't love books for their own sake," he said. "There are an awful lot of things that are changing - the Walkman has stopped being produced...libraries have to move on."

He said digitisation represented the "democratisation of knowledge", as people who may be too intimidated to use the British Library could access information from home.

The debate was just one of a series of public events to accompany the British Library's Growing Knowledge exhibition, which explores the future of research.

Martin Lewis, director of library services at the University of Sheffield, told participants that campus libraries remained "effective" and provided spaces central to students' lives.

But he warned that space on campus was expensive and must be used intelligently.

Ms Porter said that campus libraries should provide a localised and specialised service to academics rather than storing as many textbooks as possible.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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