I was privileged to attend the NAG conference in Manchester on the 7th and 8th of September. I brought home one main impression and three subsidiary ones.
The main impression was the speed of change. It has been well said that change often takes longer to arrive than expected; but that once it starts, it occurs faster than expected. We have been telling each other for years that change is in the wind for libraries but the reality on the ground is that much the same patterns of behaviour have prevailed. For years library conferences were attended by people playing in the same positions and doing much the same thing as they always had. The NAG conference this year felt different. Here are the three straws in the wind:
The pace of change in academic e-resources
The move to e-resources from print has been gathering pace, but for me this was crystallised by a chat with the Head of Service of a university library. They are creating a “digital library” with a very limited quantity of physical stock. Instead of a book-repository-with-PCs, they appear to be creating a learning space based on digital resources with a few books on the side.
Changing business models
- Firstly, (although almost the last chronologically at the conference) was an enthusiastic and engaging presentation by Darren Taylor, (Worcester University Library) and David Pearson (Worcestershire Libraries) on the Hive project. This is a major new build project, but in one sense the striking new building is not the most significant aspect of the exercise. The Hive will be one of relatively few joint public/academic libraries but appears to push new boundaries in that it goes beyond merely the sharing of facilities, by removing most of the distinctions between academic and public patrons.
- Secondly, I attended a workshop ably run by Luke Burton of Newcastle Public libraries on e-books in public libraries. The workshop was nominally about the different formats available (epub, pdf, azw etc) but the discussion at the conference and subsequently on the LIS-PUB-LIBS email list seemed to me to raise more fundamental questions: should public libraries be in this market at all? If so, how are the publishers to be persuaded to provide useful, timely and stable content? Should it be a chargeable service, and if so, how should it relate to the forthcoming Amazon e-book rental service? Do libraries loan e-book readers as well as the titles themselves? Should it be a national service?
The use of Open Source software
For some years, in many different domains, there has been greater and greater use made of Open Source software (software written by a community of users and freely available) . Much of the World Wide Web runs on Apache. Many servers in large organisations use the Linux operating system. Many Universities use the Moodle VLE. All of these are commercial-strength open source software (the Open University Moodle implementation supports almost 0.75 million students), but whilst the software itself is free, implementing and running it isn’t; the original budget for the Open University project was almost £5 Million. You either pay installation and support costs through your payroll, or engage a third part organisation to provide the support.
At least two large scale open source Library Management Systems (Koha and Evergreen) have been available for several years, but there have been few implementations in major academic or public libraries in the UK. One of the first UK public libraries to adopt Koha was Halton Libraries and that was only about a year ago.
At the NAG conference, there was a very interesting presentation by Staffordshire University and PTFS Europe about an implementation of Koha for the University. As someone remarked, we are past the point where vice-chancellors either dismiss open source software on the grounds that “if it is free it cannot be any good”, or ask plaintively why free software costs money to install and run.