Holding out for a hero: technology, the future and the renaissance of the university librarian.

Peter Murray Rust writes in his blog that he is “left with the overwhelming impression that the community is now past caring about the future of the library” and further that “If ULibraries wish to survive (at least more than book museums – which is important) they have to shout about it.” Gaynor Backhouse who runs the TechWatch horizon scanning service on behalf of JISC picks up on this theme and emphasises the important role of the librarian as an agent of change imploring them “to take control and set the agenda”.

One of the good things about working for JISC is that you often find yourself in interesting, but unexpected, places. In 2006 I found myself at a JISC Open Access conference in Oxford and as I have an abiding passion for libraries I inveigled my way into a group of librarians who were all talking about the changes facing their sector. At the time, TechWatch had just published a report on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and one of the surprising conclusions was that libraries’ position as early adopters of RFID put librarians in a unique position to have a positive impact on the long-term development of the technology. More than this, the report argued that this influence could extend beyond efforts to develop interoperability and data standards, to address more general issues that are ‘in the public good’, such as privacy. So at the time of the conference I was brimming with enthusiasm for what I saw as a kind of renaissance for the role and significance of the librarian.

Unfortunately, I was in a minority of one. The general consensus seemed to be that, by and large, librarians conform to what has become almost a personality stereotype: kind, gentle custodians of books. Certainly not the type to want to assume the billowing mantle of public sector superhero. This surprised and worried me. It surprised me because I had thought that the increasing importance of the role of technology would have shaken things up a little and challenged the more traditional view of roles; it worried me because if it were true, then the future would be a difficult place for librarians to continue to demonstrate the value of their professional skills.

Before I follow this tack any further, I should perhaps explain that ‘librarian’ is, for me, a bit of an all-encompassing term. This is partly because the application of information science has evolved so much over recent years, along with the terminology to describe it, and partly because of the nature of TechWatch‘s sallies into the world of all things library—I have a rough idea of what the terminology tools are for but I’m not expert enough to wield them. So for me, ‘librarian’ remains a catch-all term that encapsulates a kind of essence. More of a ‘journey’ than a job description.

On a professional level, my view on the change and evolution going on in libraries is obviously intimately connected with technology. Horizon scanning is a bit like doing a jigsaw you’ve bought from a car boot sale: first of all, it comes in a plastic bag, so there’s no picture to guide you. Secondly, you can see from the myriad sizes of the different pieces that there’s more than one puzzle in there and, thirdly, you know, even as you are handing over your money, that you won’t have all the pieces to complete any one, particular puzzle.

What’s especially interesting about the ‘libraries’ corner of our horizon scanning jigsaws is the way in which the pieces change before our eyes. As we work on TechWatch reports we see a bit that looks like a straightforward ‘libraries’ piece. When we slot it into place we see that it’s actually “libraries as adaptors of information infrastructure tools” (2005: TechWatch’s Semantic Web report) or “librarians as advocates of trusted computing” (2006: RFID) and even “traditional library skills and processes can be mapped to the development of Web 2.0-style applications and services” (2007: Web 2.0).

All told, the general conclusion is that, more than any other area of academic life, libraries are being forced to respond to deep and disruptive changes in both what they do and how they do it. Whilst this might not be welcome news in terms of the challenge these technologies throw down to established best practice and working culture, they do also open up new opportunities and provide a route to new power structures that need to owned and managed.

Mentioning power structures may of course be a mistake on my part, so perhaps I should demonstrate this in terms of one of my fictional librarian heroes: Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Head in the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By day, Giles is a mild-mannered school librarian and by night he is the eponymous slayer’s ‘watcher’, committed to training slayers in how to hone their superhuman powers in order to fight all things demonic. A member of the Watcher’s Council, Giles is a member of the demon-slaying establishment. What’s interesting about him is that although he starts out as a passive purveyor of knowledge, as the series progress he finds himself unable to maintain this position and ultimately ends up crossing over into slayer territory.

From curators to creators: librarians as the agents of change
A few years ago I was on a training course for something Web-related. I can’t remember the ins and outs of it now, but it took place at a university and there were a lot of librarians; in fact I suspect I was the only non-librarian. At lunchtime I happened to find myself sitting next to the university librarian who was telling me all about her job and the university’s collections, as you tend to do at lunchtime.  In return I confided a personal secret – I’d always wanted to visit the library cellars and see the secret stuff that ordinary borrowers were kept away from. I hadn’t meant it as a hint but my lunching companion immediately offered me a guided tour after the course was over. As I’m not the world’s best secret-keeper word soon got round and by the end of the day there were six of us lined up, waiting to go.

I can’t speak for the others, but it was certainly one of the most interesting evenings I have ever spent. I can still remember the thrill of rows of shelves lined with some of the biggest books I’d ever seen – some over three feet high and decorated with precious metals. However, many of these books were chained to the walls, and putting the obvious S&M connotations of leather and chains to one side, the feel was very custodial. No-one seemed to notice this other than me, certainly nobody commented, but I definitely felt we were nudging into the dark side of curation.

I mention this because of what I think the implications are for the future. If libraries are going to thrive they need to move from a custodial model to an exploitative one. Part of this is realising that library stuff is actually quite sexy and that librarians are probably best placed to point this out. Ultimately this isn’t so much about technology as understanding the beauty of the raw material. Software developers can build tools but they are not necessarily capable of re-imagining data as content: they don’t understand what the data is capable of achieving. For the end users who perhaps don’t realise just what the library ‘long tail’ has to offer, this is a critical point. What they need is a guided tour of the library’s digital underbelly in a way that demonstrates why it’s interesting, useful and also good fun.

Now if, at this point, the urge to retreat to the safety of the stacks overwhelms you, I would ask you to hang back, just a while longer. Being the agent of change, albeit a powerful position to be in and perhaps an unwanted responsibility, could have its advantages. Whilst it means that you have to take control and set the agenda, perhaps more importantly, for people with orderly minds, it means you get to do the job properly. In the library of the future this could be a key differentiator. Why, after all, should Google have a monopoly on organising the world’s information? But in order to flourish in an increasingly techno-political world it will be necessary for libraries and librarians to not so much defend a corner as come out fighting. Perhaps, like Rupert Giles, it might even be necessary to spill a little demon blood.

Gaynor Backhouse runs the TechWatch horizon scanning service on behalf of JISC.

Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education

The Schonfeld and Housewright (2008) report is published by Ithaka, analogous with ‘accelerating the productive uses of information technologies’, which may ring alarm bells with ‘electrophobes’ and those agnostic to the notion of an increasingly electronic environment. However such readers need not look away now; this is not a ‘sales pitch’ eulogising the magic Information and Communications Technology pill. On the contrary this report delivers practical information and advice of relevance and importance to all academic librarians and HE policymakers.  I have attached a short review of this report for any interested.

Ithaka’s 2006 studies of key stakeholders in the digital transformation in higher education, a report by Roger Schonfeld and Ross Housewright: A critical review and implications for UK higher educational institutions and the library of the future

Libraries of the Future Debate at the Bodleian April 2nd 2009

Where: Oxford

When: 2nd April 2009

As a part of the Libraries of the Future campaign  JISC and Oxford University Library Services are jointly hosting a public question and answer debate in order to discuss what information and library provision mean in these changing times; technology has had a huge effect on the behaviour of both information consumers and service providers. What is the library and what do libraries need to do in order to support knowledge, innovation and society?

This event represents a partnership between JISC and Oxford University Library Services. JISC manages research and innovation programmes in the use of information and communications technology in teaching, learning and research to build knowledge; it develops services, infrastructure or applications; and it provides guidance and leadership, Oxford University Library Services is the integrated library service of the University of Oxford. It comprises over 30 libraries and its combined collections number more than 11 million printed items, in addition to vast quantities of materials in many other formats, including over 28,000 e-journals. At its centre is the Bodleian Library, which is the main research library of the University of Oxford.  It is also a legal deposit library whose priceless collections are used by scholars worldwide. The goal of Oxford University Library Services is to provide the most effective university library service possible, in response to current and future users’ needs; and to maintain and develop access to Oxford’s collections as a national and international research resource. Together we will be exploring some of the key challenges that will shape the libraries of the future. These include: the new skills that are required for libraries to remain relevant and visible; fostering partnerships between public and private as well as working across the organisation; meeting the needs of the changing user base and their increasingly diverse needs, (for example what should the citizen expect, what are the future information needs of researchers as we witness changing models of scholarly communication, what skills does the librarian of the future need?)

These issues will be examined from several different perspectives through a range of high profile speakers, who will present their vision for the library of the future. The audience will also have the opportunity to ask questions which will be put to the esteemed panel.

The event will consider some of the key challenges that will shape the library of the future if it is to survive. These challenges include:
•    Skills – considering the skills that are needed to meet this challenge. These skills range from IPR, preservation and data curation to marketing, branding and business planning;
•    Partnerships – fostering partnerships between public and private as well as working across the organisation;
•    End users – a heightened understanding of the changing user base and meeting their increasingly diverse needs; what are the (future) information needs of researchers and what will they need to undertake their research? what should the citizen expect?;
•    The role of the librarian – Libraries are increasingly signing up people with skills in non traditional library fields, does this mean that the librarians are becoming obsolete or do they have a changing role that involves overseeing all these specialisms or should they endeavour to develop these skills themselves?

These challenges will be examined from several different perspectives through a range of speakers who will present their vision for the library of the future. These include:
•   Sarah Thomas Bodley’s Librarian and Director, Oxford University Library Services – how is the library changing and what will it deliver;
•    Santiago de la Mora who heads Google Book Search’s European partnerships, asking how does Google meet the library, use the library, is the library;
•    Chris Batt OBE- a perspective on the public sector needs and the library offer;
•    Professor Robert Darnton,  Director of the Harvard University Library – to present on the needs of the citizen in our democracy and what the library of the future needs to offer them;
•    A media/publisher perspective, what are their information needs, how are they changing their provision ;
•    Professor Peter Murray-Rust presenting a research/scientific perspective, what are their information needs (how do they undertake research) and what will they need to remain relevant and to produce new and innovative research.

The event will be chaired by Professor Vincent Gillespie J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language.

The conference Tag is #LOTF09.

Places are free of charge and  will be available from Tuesday the 24th March 2009 by registering at www.jisc.ac.uk/librariesofthefuture

Librarians’ lives made easier, reports the Times Higher

The Times Higher Education reports this morning on a new initiative by JISC TechDis, in collaboration with the Publishers Association, to provide resources to support the delivery of learning materials to disabled students and staff.

One of the resources – Publisher Lookup UK – will enable education providers and publishers to source electronic formats of textbooks for students with disabilities more quickly and efficiently than existing processes allow. Currently publishers generally provide one of two digital formats – either an e-book or a PDF – but sourcing more accessible formats can be a complex undertaking both from the publishers’ and the users’ points of view. Publisher Lookup UK provides mechanisms for simplifying request, delivery and access processes between the education and research sectors and
UK publishers. The site currently provides links to over 150 imprints and additional guidance on making PDFs accessible to users with a range of disabilities. 

The second resource – Guide to Obtaining Textbooks in Alternative Formats – provides guidance to teaching, learner support and library staff or anyone who needs to provide text books in alternative formats for reading-impaired learners. Disability law protects disabled learners by requiring institutions to make adequate provision for disabled students, including the provision of alternative formats in a timely manner. People with a range of disabilities benefit from alternative formats and many learners with disabilities are struggling with traditional printed texts despite alternatives being available.

Look out for a range of podcasts highlighting these resources and some of the issues faced by disabled students and staff, librarians and others in the coming weeks.

For further information:

Publisher Lookup UK

Alternative formats guide

Times Higher news item

Enriching digital resources

Far from becoming redundant libraries are playing an increasingly important role in institutions in an information age dominated by Google. This includes providing access to a wide variety of content through the digitisation of special collections which would otherwise remain hidden, not easily accessible to users and in danger of being lost – and not the ones that Google would seek to include in their digitisation activity.

One of the key assets that libraries bring to the table when mediating the provision of digitised resources is their specialist knowledge of the material and their curatorial input, which constitute great added value for teachers, researchers and learners engaging with the material.

A recent JISC Circular invites HE and FE institutions to apply for funding for “Enriching Digital Resources”. The funding is of particular relevance to institutions that wish to maximise user engagement with their resources as well as capitalise on previous or current investment in digitisation of collections. It focuses on three strands:

1. Pilot and small-scale digitisation. Proposals may focus on undertaking pilot digitisation, small-scale digitisation or a smaller feasibility study prior to larger scale activity. Alternatively, proposals may focus on completing or adding to a digital resource where there are some gaps in the content or room for expansion.

2. Enhancement of existing collections. Funding under this heading would be targeted to help promote and further develop collections that have already been digitised but are currently underused or could benefit from extra development.

3. Developing Clusters of Content. Proposals under this heading will focus on bringing together related digital resources.

More information about the call is available on the JISC web site

How flexible are the new generation of ‘flexible library spaces’?

With the massive investment being made in new and refurbished college buildings – including library and learning resource centres – those responsible for seeing through these projects are clearly learning a great deal from the sector’s collective experience in this area.

An RSC Eastern event on Thursday was a case in point. It brought together librarians and others to share knowledge and experience and showcased plenty of exciting work in the region. One delegate spoke of a huge new build project at his college which is effectively doing away with the need for a learning resource centre (LRC) in favour of more flexible and responsive spaces.

Another spoke of a refurbishment which is following similar, although less radical, principles. But, citing the Google Generation report, this delegate questioned whether more traditional approaches were also needed to ensure that libraries could deliver on their mission to support information literacy. He even questioned whether, if a backlash occurred in five or so years’ time, calling once more for more traditional approaches, whether libraries could adapt back to earlier methods. For all their flexibility, he seemed to ask, are the new generation of learning resource centres flexible enough to revert to those more traditional approaches should these be needed?

In her article in this week’s Times Higher, Tara Brabazon (see post below) looks at school libraries and reports: ‘A case has been reported to me of a new head teacher in a Newcastle-based school that is about to enter the Building Schools for the Future programme. He is questioning whether a library should be part of this “new build” because the goal of the programme is to “transform learning”. As the man who decides where the money is spent, his attitudes towards reading, research and scholarship are crucial. Other correspondents confirmed that new school buildings – including cybercafés – are being designed, but no library is in the plans.’

Of course, there are important differences between such developments as these and the design of the kind of responsive and technology-rich learning resource centres we heard about last Thursday, but there is clearly a debate to be had about the place of ‘information literacy’ in the design of learning and library spaces and about how flexible ‘flexibility’ might be should tastes and approaches change in the near future…

Britain may have talent – but its libraries are in danger, says Tara Brabazon

Libraries are the cranium of our culture and librarians are the custodians of knowledge, writes Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at Brighton University in this week’s Times Higher.

But that knowledge is in danger as Google is increasingly used in the schools sector as a cheap replacement for library services, she claims. Professor Brabazon hit the headlines earlier this year when she called Google ‘white bread for the mind’; in this article, she goes further and attacks the use of Google and the internet by policy makers and others keen to make savings on apparently expendable library services.

‘We have accepted the metaphor of the internet being a library for a decade,’ she writes. ‘It was always an odd and incorrect affiliation, but we are now seeing the consequences of this metaphoric misalignment. If the internet is a library, then librarians are redundant.

‘“Reformers” have been endlessly disappointed by the behaviour of teachers and librarians who aim for efficiency in practice rather than a celebration of new media without context or application.’

The contribution of librarians to information literacy, particularly, she says, to the disadvantaged, is crucial, but so is it vital to ‘the development of informed citizenship’ and social justice which depends on ‘the availability of information to build knowledge and create informed decisions’, she suggests.

But the effects of all this are not confined to schools: ‘If a generation of students in primary and secondary schools, particularly in the state sector, are “managing” education without a properly funded library and the help of qualified librarians, then not only will literacy levels and examination results suffer, but so will our universities and workplaces. Without an ability to read, interpret and think, citizenship and democracy will be traded for consumerism and voting contestants off Britain’s Got Talent. We may discover some great singers, but we will “restructure” and lose committed and inspirational librarians.’

Citing the Google Generation report, she continues: ‘Google has not caused this disrespect for librarians. The key problem is “the Google effect”, where head teachers have assumed that a search engine will – intrinsically – teach students how to find, manage and interpret information. What we learnt from the study commissioned by the British Library and JISC and released in January this year about the Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, often called the Google generation report, was that “the information literacy of young people has not improved with the widening access to technology: in fact, their apparent facility with computers disguises some worrying problems”.

But, in spite of this strong attack on what Tara Brabazon sees as the steady devaluing of libraries, it isn’t, it seems, too late to ‘change our present for a better future.

‘Those of us who believe in education have one decade to respect and deploy currently employed librarians to train and shape the next generation.’

Click here for the article

‘Libraries of the Future’ can support resource allocation decisions, suggests D-Lib editor

Editor of D-Lib magazine Bonita Wilson welcomes ‘Libraries of the Future’ in the latest issue of the magazine, and welcomes in particular its aim to address the needs of future information users.

She quotes the campaign’s ‘essential question’: ‘In an information world in which Google apparently offers us everything, what place is there for the traditional, and even the digital, library?’ – but suggests that the campaign may already have its own answer, saying that ‘the authors tip their hand by almost immediately stating that “libraries will continue to be essential to acacdemic success and the future of education and research…”‘

Bonita Wilson may well be right that there is an implicit assumption involved here and she reminds us of the need not to take anything for granted when she writes: ‘Only time will tell whether that is true or not, and whether this particular approach to focussing activity and discussion will or will not be successful…’ But, she continues, ‘D-Lib applauds the efforts.’

 She continues: ‘Envisioning how libraries will be affected by the development of new technologies, and the changing needs and expectations of users, is more than an intellectual exercise. What libraries anticipate as necessary to provide users’ future information needs affects how they choose to direct their resources today. The Libraries of the Future web site could be of significant value to library administrators making those resource allocation decisions.’

 For the editorial in the latest issue of D-Lib, please go to: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/may08/05editorial.html

Podcast highlights challenges of integrating library systems

Rachel Bruce of JISC and Anne Bell of SCONUL feature on a new podcast on the Panlibus site, talking about the recently published Library Management Systems report, commissioned by JISC and SCONUL.  

The report, published last month, recommended that libraries should look for increased value from their library management systems (LMS), ensure that they are integrated with other institutional systems and that they should look to break down barriers between library users and resources. 

For Rachel Bruce, one of the messages from the report is that the library management system ‘needs to be more flexible, it needs to integrate with other core library systems…’ For Anne Bell, the report provides ‘expert consideration which the community can determine how to take things forward.’ She goes on to ask: ‘If we were starting from scratch, where would we start from?’ The problem of legacy systems was a difficult one, she said, but the report was beginning a dialogue between librarians, vendors and national bodies such as SCONUL and JISC about the possible ways forward. 

Both talk about an event to be held on the 27th June where the report and the issues it identifies will be addressed. For further information, please go to: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/events/2008/06/lmsworkshop.aspx  

For the podcast, please go to: http://blogs.talis.com/panlibus/archives/2008/05/jisc-sconul-talk-with-talis-about-library-management-system-study.php  

For the LMS report and a JISC/SCONUL briefing paper on the subject, please go to: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/publications/librarymanagementbp