'Wow' students to maintain the library's central position

Professor calls for radical rethink to give 'digital natives' what they need. Matthew Reisz writes

December 31, 2009

A senior librarian at Nottingham Trent University has called for radical thinking from her peers to ensure that the "ebrarians" of the future remain as central to university life as the librarians of the past.

Sue McKnight, director of libraries and knowledge resources, argues in a forthcoming book, Envisioning Future Academic Library Services: Initiatives, Ideas and Challenges, that campus libraries must "wow" their "customers" with new services and ways of working.

She warns that while the "Google generation" of "digital natives" may feel utterly at home in a digital world, they often lack deep information literacy or understanding of the crucial issues of plagiarism, copyright and accessibility compliance.

Professor McKnight has been researching what customers expect from library services in her native Australia and then in Britain for more than ten years.

She has now been appointed a professor at Nottingham Trent, the university's first from a non-academic background.

In an inaugural lecture earlier this month at Nottingham Business School, she presented some of her main conclusions.

"We are a business and have to think about customers and what they will want, even if they don't yet know it themselves," she said.

Library users may tell researchers they are satisfied with what amounts to a monopoly service, she said, but they often compare it unfavourably with the service they might get at the bank or supermarket.

The solution, she said, is to "let library users identify what an excellent service looks like and talk about their irritations up front".

Although academic libraries have been highly effective in supporting research, Professor McKnight said that they needed to prove equally adept at supporting learning and teaching.

This should include offering their resources to students in "virtual learning spaces" and via mobile phone as well as on site, she said.

Her comments echo the thoughts of Margaret Hodge, the Culture Minister, who has argued that libraries must radically rethink their role and identity.

Speaking at a recent Public Library Authorities conference in Bristol, Ms Hodge suggested that libraries could, for example, forge alliances with online bookseller Amazon, and seek more private-sector or philanthropic funding.

Since fewer than four in ten people currently use libraries, she said, she was all for "pushing our thinking to the boundaries and testing ideas to destruction".

One possible response comes from the University of Worcester, which recently announced a joint project with Worcester County Council to create Europe's first fully integrated public and university library.

When the £60 million Library and History Centre opens in 2012, it will bring together a children's library, 800 study stations, material now available on the university's St John's Campus, the Worcestershire Record Office and the county's Historic Environment and Archaeology Service.

In terms of library services at least, it will represent the total elimination of the traditional boundary between town and gown.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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