Reading this year’s Times Good University Guide I was very pleased to see the library regarded as the most high profile service offered at university. Each University featured in the TH Guide contains positive and negative vox pops by the President of its respective Student Union. Despite what we are constantly told by expert panels, students still place the library at the top of their assessment of a University’s facilities. A respectful note to Vice-Chancellors – swimming pools count for a lot but promote the library and students will flock to your campus.
There are of course as many different kinds of academic library as there are universities. The majority of these are now exceptionally well-designed, welcoming places for large numbers of undergraduates to work either alone or together in groups, and most are filled with leading-edge technology. The candle-lit uyndergraduate library of the 19th Century is gone. So too are the many 1970’s interiors, which was the previous great period of academic library development in Britain. Now, unless the library provides frappe mocha cappuccinos (why is coffee now this complex?), free wireless and vibrantly coloured soft furnishings you might as well not bother opening the doors.
One of the large ‘learning spaces,’ to which these libraries are often referred professionally, that I managed at Nottingham University even had its own dress code. This was let slip by the Student Union President to me in a meeting, and went along the lines of, ‘On Level 1 of the Library you have to have a certain look.’ The students themselves undid all that work we did to widen access to an elite university for students from less privileged backgrounds. I pass no comment.
Regardless of whether a student shops in Hollister or Primark, the library is regarded as easily the most essential building on campus outside the lecture theatre (and more so by some students). Incidentally, although I usually feel left behind in style terms by students, despite immense personal effort, there was one area in which students may remain a little behind the curve themselves. Students do not want eBooks.
It does not matter how many times the argument is made that in order to provide collaborative learning spaces, the physical book stock must give way to technology, students still want to use printed books. An e-licence can provide multiple accesses to a single copy. It can be downloaded anywhere. It can even be bought and used on the most essential piece of equipment a contemporary student owns, their iPhone. None of this alters the demand for print materials.
The considerable achievements of digitisation, particularly of rare materials have transformed most libraries’ ability to support research. Indeed, colleagues working at a senior research level rarely enter most libraries. There are of course exceptions, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Senate House Libraries, University of London. These and a few others retain research and historic collections beyond the reach of current technology. It could be observed that for once, unlike the pervasive use of social networking tools such as Facebook, lecturers are more advanced than students in their employment of technology when it comes to eBooks and digital collections. Or are they?
Reflecting on national strategies in the UK of about ten years ago, I remember a phrase then in common conference use named ‘the hybrid library.’ This phrase has since fallen from professional favour and been generally replaced by ‘the digital library.’ In some cases this has progressed to simply describing a library containing both digital and printed collections as, innovatively, ‘the library.’
Having proposed that those of us of a certain age are ahead of our younger students in at least one field of the web, let me burst, sadly that one remaining bubble. No matter how we rebrand our services as Learning Resource Centres, Collaborative Spaces, Learning Hubs, Knowledge Cafes, Information Commons, Digital Access Rooms or anything else, students still say to each other, ‘I’ll meet you in the library,’ even if it is via Twitter on an iPhone.
For most students in the modern university, as is confirmed again this year in The Times Good University Guide, the library remains not only the most important building on campus (perhaps knocked into a close second by the Union Bar), but also remains a library in the traditional sense.
Of course, the information revolution has not halted, in fact we too easily forget that we are only at its beginning. The use of eBooks will rise in academia just as it has in commercial bookselling. Demand for fast wireless access will increase. Mobile devices will kill-off desktop computing. Social networking will become more academically useful. But all of this will happen in a future where printed materials remain a definitive measure of the value and intellectual status of a University and its Library.
Cambridge University students know that one of the greatest aspects of their university is its 100+ libraries. Everyone knows this. To deny or ignore this fact, repeated again by students themselves in the TH Guide, is to be blind to a future where the library delivers 21st Century technology alongside its high-demand printed textbooks and its medieval manuscripts.