I was pleased to see that JISC had put most of the content of last week’s JISC Conference 2009 onto their website. I’ve spent some time this week listening to the content and there’s quite a lot in there for university libraries, if you, like me, were unable to get to Edinburgh for the event itself.
Obviously, I selected the session entitled Towards the academic library of the future first. Sarah Porter from JISC introduced the session, sharing her perception that academic libraries have now reached a tipping point in terms of many of the pressures and issues we’ve all been aware of for some time. So bearing in mind the pressures she itemised, namely:
* the challenge to scholarly publishing that is Open Access.
* How to support research in the data deluge.
* The changing demographics and how to support the teacher in that.
… the question is, how can the academic library support the academic endeavour in a positive way?
With this in mind, Mark Brown from University of Southampton explored potential roles for the academic library, noting that increasingly they are acting as trusted curators of content as individuals and institutions collaborate. This gives the library a publishing role, around institutional repositories, curation of digital content and involvement with open content. David Kay from Project TILE pointed out in the same session that the library has some amazing business intelligence around activities on the network, and wondered whether it could perform a role of aggregating that intelligence. This is a vision that Talis certainly shares, with our developers working at optimising the value of user transactional data for applications such as Prism 3.
However, Mark Brown questioned whether the prevalence of information exchange made the role of the library problematic even if the traditional mediating role remained intact. There are so much activities and data that is now bypassing the library (and not just the old bête noire Google).
It was cheering to hear that Professor Derek Law, who has been working on the Libraries Horizon Scan, thinks that libraries have never been better managed, funded or staffed than at present. And yet, academic libraries are not engaging with the academy as much as they need to. Going back to the pressures that Sarah Porter identified, we can see that there are layers to this engagement – the lecturer, the researcher as well as the student. Law noted that the academy continues to build libraries, spending millions, almost as an act of faith, and it’s worth pondering why, taking into account the sheer weight of evidence about changing user demands.
The session Mind the gap: understanding the tensions between the institution and the learner provided a useful summary of the characteristics of today’s student. Rhona Sharpe from Oxford Brookes University described the complex lives that many learners are living. One student she spoke to has 3 part-time jobs and is only a full-time students for 2 days a week. So visible robust reliable resources are needed to enable them to access stuff any time they like and students are critical of complex applications that are difficult to navigate. Time is a huge restraint in their lives, and is particularly problematic for students with disabilities.
Going back to the Towards the academic library of the future session, listening to Professor Hector MacQueen from Edinburgh Law School served as a powerful reminder of the amount of change to which the university library has succeeded in adapting in the past few decades. Describing research at the start of his career as “very physical”, he recalled being highly dependent on the library, and indeed on a multitude of libraries around the country. He needed to get himself to far-flung libraries on a fairly regularly basis to access material that wasn’t available via inter-library loans. This was frustrating, expensive and tiring. We surely wouldn’t want to go back to subjecting our researchers to those experiences.
And yet, even though the imperative to manage those scarce resources has now gone away, we are still spending a lot of time managing legacy systems, as David Kay remarked. This reflects the fact that the local model of delivery has not adjusted to that change.
It was definitely useful to catch up on the adoption of eBooks in higher education in the JISC e-Books observatory project session. The project, as many of you will be aware, has been exploring in real time what students are doing now with eBooks and many of the findings are extremely interesting with regard to the academic library. 61% of students said they’d used an eBook at some point, but only 47% had used on that had been provided by their library. As Ian Rowlings himself pointed out, that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt because people don’t necessarily realise where stuff comes from.
Librarians were found to be very positive in a measured way, and the overwhelming consensus was characterised as being one of “cautious optimism”. The most cited benefits of eBooks were the need to support part-time / distance learners, and the ability to manage intense peaks of demand for materials, which has long been a problem for libraries and students alike.
The project found, for example, that male undergrads felt much less dependent on the library but happier with their own ability to go out and buy stuff. This reflects a broader reality – namely that printed and electronic books are currently enjoying a complementary relationship. There was no impact on circulation statistics with the availability of eBooks, and neither was there any impact on sales of printed books.
Another interesting outcome was that deep log analysis showed that the majority of users went through the library website and the OPAC to access eBooks.
The conference also had a session on Making the most of your physical learning spaces. Les Watson from JISC highlighted the importance of student opinion, wondering whether it will be more important one day than a visit from the QAA. It’s all about student satisfaction and happiness, and buildings and spaces are an important part of that. I recently visited University of Bradford, where I studied for my first degree. As is the case with many universities, extensive work has been carried out on the main university foyer. To the right of the foyer, back in the day, there used to be a carpark. However that has now been replaced by a gorgeous looking atrium. What really makes that space, which is used by many students as an informal learning space, is the quality of light. The roof is basically made of the same material as the Eden Project in Cornwall, and this gives a great feel not just of light but also of space. The provision of this space was seen as a priority by a university that has large numbers of muslim students for whom social spaces based on alcohol are wholly inappropriate. It’s a very popular space for all students, and even attracts students from Bradford College.
So although this session wasn’t library-specific, it said things that are useful for libraries to take on board. Brett Bligh from University of Nottingham warned against the tyranny of heavy use. These spaces are expensive so often usage is seen as the key justification. But we need to look more closely at how they’re being used. He said that we need to move from a top down approach to learning spaces, where people at the top spend vast amounts of money on learning spaces and students are expected to say how good they are. And we need to transition to a situation in which students might have some scope to design that space for themselves. From the floor, Penny Charlish-Jackson, Head of Learning Resource Centres and Teaching Accommodation at University of Hertfordshire, made the point that students, at the end of the day, will decide how to use that space, and so we should avoid over-evaluating. Brett qualified this, by saying that the less formal the space, the harder the evaluation gets.
In the same session, John Tuck, Director of Library Services at Royal Holloway described their newly transformed library space. The vision had been “a pilot development of a 21st century social learning, café-style space”, with a range of group learning environments from open plan to private (accommodating different styles from conversational to group learning)plus some silent study spaces, with varied seating, giving students the ability to shape their own environment as they work.
Students were invited to join a Facebook group called “Love your library” and were encouraged to post their likes and dislikes of the current library service. This generated significant interest and impacted plans e.g. led to a scaling down of the café element.
They were delighted to see that students moved in with immediate effect and adopted it as their space, which was wonderful, but formal evaluative mechanisms were put in place as well.
Students have mixed feelings about the change, although footfall has increased significantly at varying times of day and there is apparently a palpable buzz about the place at all times. Qualitative feedback is very interesting. One student said “If I were at a library in the future, I imagine that this is what it would feel like.” But others are less enthusiastic. There’s a feeling in some quarters that investment should be focused on provision of 24/7 ubiquitous good quality information resources, for example.
Derek Law had a powerful if painful message for academic librarians when he spoke of the need to move up to the macro level and stop navel-gazing. This resonated, sadly, as there had been much more focus on the library role than on the difference that libraries could make to the external environment. His statement “I’d rather channel the change than simply measure it” is something that we should all be taking on board. He recommended greater advocacy activities – talking to vice-chancellors and the other stakeholders who set the budgets, and asking them what they want to get out of libraries. I remember how hard this was when I myself was a Head of Library Services (in the special libraries sector). But if I’m going to be honest, I also remember one occasion missing a crucial point when presenting a business case for a new library system to the Managing Director. And this happened because I’d become over-preoccupied with internal library considerations, and the big picture (as well as my view of the impact of change on other parts of the organisation) had become skewed as a result.