Designing Research 2: Infrastructure – The Inter(Nets)


What are you looking at when you look at a computer that is not switched on? It is the world, black and promising, but what if that world were never switched off?

Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the first browser in 1990. It was called WorldWideWeb. Berners Lee wrote the code for what was then the only way to see an Internet on a NeXT computer, designed in California by Steve Jobs’ company of the same name. This computer was 12 inches wide and was supplied with 8MB of memory; the current iPhone is available with either 16GB or 32GB. Increasing speed and decreasing size dominate recent computing history.

It is hard to imagine life now without the Internet. It is less difficult to recall it. The important aspect of being aware of computing history, by which I mean remembering what we could not do before the web, is to consider what we might be able to do in the future.

There have been pitifully few times in our collective history when life has changed so fundamentally, and it could be said that never before has such a scale of change occurred so quickly as is happening now. As late as 1998 I was studying information science at Sheffield University, and we were still being taught how to request information in lines of code via the Dialog system from the US. This is no detriment to the department at Sheffield, which was and still is the UK’s leading research base in information science. Those bright green letters on a dull dialup screen provided, even then the best available resource discovery tool.

The future of the web is likely to be an entity that can no longer be switched off. In most of our homes there remains a desktop computer. This will very soon be regarded as a period piece, as wardrobes have replaced linen presses or enamel and then plastic replaced copper and tin in which to lie and dream of summer.

Eventually, the more beautiful and rarer desktop computers will appear on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow – viewed on paper-thin screens around our wrists.

In the nearer future, something like a desktop computer is likely to remain in people’s sitting rooms. It will also be something like a television. The battle between TV and the Internet is likely to end in a single, powerful and most probably 3D device. I suspect that, like fireplaces, and the wartime wireless families will continue to enjoy gathering around a focal point. That the radio and the TV will be streamed over the web via vastly strengthened wireless signals is surely inevitable. The wireless wireless is only a matter of time. Just like the web-watch, most technologies will succumb to the dominance of the Internet, either through blurred lines or extinction. Devices will change. Content will adapt.

There have been very few positive global interventions into people’s homes. The first may well have been fire. Secondly, a great length of time passed before electricity blew out the gas. For many years, the rest were not infrastructural but content-driven; radio, television and even the early web. Already, we are experiencing the third in the form of wireless technology. This is delivered of course by cable or satellite but performs for us in our siting rooms like fire and voltage. It is alive and magical. And it is becoming omnipresent, or to use a term in common professional usage: ubiquitous.

Wireless technology appears advanced to us, but we are only at the beginning. It enables inconceivable amounts of content to be transmitted and it will soon remove the walls of homes and the rules of copyright. The structures, which we have built to protect a particular way of life, will inevitably become irrelevant to the dominant and all-pervasive Internet.

Currently, there are Wi-Fi spots in most homes, on trains, in public spaces, in coffee houses and of course, across universities. Although this seems obvious, the growth of wireless technology is advancing at remarkable speed. But what is its destination?

One of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of wireless penetration is South Korea. In 2009, Forbes produced a report on the country that still reads in 2012 as a relatively advanced state when compared with most of the US and much of Western Europe. There is strong vision in South Korea that is derived from the government’s insistence that the country will be a leading technology nation. It should be noted that such fervour is likely to be as linked to a real military threat as it is to business opportunity. Whatever the incentive, South Korea remains a step ahead of most developed economies in the technology race.

The cultural advance, if you wish to perceive it as that, made by South Korea is that its population expect, indeed embrace, all-pervasive technology. There is no sign of people complaining of a lack of downtime. No one wishes to switch his or her Blackberry off. No one seems to want to switch anything off. This combination of consumer demand and cultural acceptance has created both a market and a test base for all kinds of devices supported by wireless technology. Two of the country’s biggest tech firms, LG and Samsung have been locked in perpetual battle over the hands and minds of the consumer for a number of years. Touchscreens and wireless is a match made in heaven.

In 2009 in South Korea there were already smartphones being worn as wristwatches. Time will tell.

The two drivers for what must be seen as a fundamental technology shift in Korean society are a significant investment in broadband wireless and taking TV mobile nationally. This has provided an infrastructure upon which Internet usage can grow and also delivered popular content using the web. It is an attractive recipe and one that Western governments could easily follow. South Korea has a population of 48 million people in a country smaller than the State of Virginia. It is also a mixed economy, common in Asia of high-tech cities and low-tech rural areas. It is a nation of techies and fishermen. Or is it?

Another fascinating aspect of the growth of technology in this (a)typical society is the importance placed on design by those leading the way. Samsung are well-known to regard their company has having undergone two ‘design revolutions,’ one in 1996 and another in 2005. LG have taken the concept of design even further into the corporate psyche and now use the word ‘tesign’ to describe tech-savvy design. Both companies have development processes that bring ideas to product launches in around two years and include investment in evaluating design from other industries such as fashion, art, furniture and cars. This openness to enquire into the ideology of other sectors is, for example, almost absent from discussion about customer service and experience in most universities.

Academia has an unfortunate tendency to consider itself superior.

Since the early to mid-2000′s there has been considerable effort to deliver information in attractive ways. Priority has for some time been given to how websites look as opposed to how they might be used. This has produced some great work but it has also, when scaled up through national funding, resulted in huge amounts of content that are unsupported by leading-edge infrastructure. The growth of the web as an organism, separate to people’s lives, or at best as an addition to them has been the story of a lack of vision. The web in the future should not be an entity people have to go to. It should be there anyway. The words associated with web usage; ‘click here;’ ‘visit www…;’ ‘Surf;’ ‘site visitors,’ are all too submissive for the future. The web’s true prospect is pervasive almost to the point of invisibility. And in the design of research environments there is potential for intuition to be carried to new levels of service quality. Scholars should be presented with paths less travelled without having to grapple with metacartography. It is likely that such developments will occur outside of universities, as despite the achievements of great institutions there is no doubt that the current driving force of the information age is to be found in commerce. The key for those of us designing research environments in universities is partnership with leading design and technology companies.

Presented in the right way, this could be mutually beneficial. Universities have, in huge numbers, precisely what these companies want – a user base to develop products with. Additionally, in the best institutions there are genuinely innovative intra-departmental research teams at senior levels that only exist in the academic sector. We need to be far more confident about approaching potential colleagues in industry.

Infrastructure-first services are rarely developed without content. For example, fibre-optic cables are not laid in cities without reason. They themselves cannot be sold, but TV content can be. The reverse is often the case with content-first services. How many digitisation projects are completed regardless of the absence of a preservation infrastructure? How many websites are built for the short-term? How many decisions are taken on corporate IT provision without accurate predictions on bandwidth demand?

We are working now at a critical point in the information revolution. There is the possibility of a wireless world; indeed it is a reality in many places. So much of our thinking though, in designing research environments is formed of old technology models. The important aspect of wireless technology is not the absence of cables. It is the inevitable shift from providing institutional hardware to providing infrastructure to support personally owned hardware. Touchscreens and wireless is a match made in heaven.

At the present time, wireless infrastructure in most countries, (and in most libraries), is constantly playing catch-up with hardware innovation. Few libraries are prepared each September for the uplift in bandwidth demand as greater numbers of iPads and other devices arrive. This is no longer a trend. It is a certain future. Addressing this will not be successful by scrabbling for funds to upgrade campuses building-by-building, node-by-node. To work more cleverly with the global shift in computing away from static devices, will require national engagement with international companies.

In South Korea no one has been omitted from this change. The Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, (KADO) is the country’s national body with responsibility for Internet penetration. Unlike many other developed nations, Korea has placed an equal importance on rural and underdeveloped areas’ bandwidth as it has for the large cities. As far back as 2007 over 55% of rural fishermen were online. There is a large national programme for those with disabilities too. KADO has cost the Korean government hundreds of millions of dollars but it is believed to be a good investment. In Korea, access to the web is regarded as definitive of quality of life. This is an ongoing process and is one being pursued in parallel with UK, (for example), public library closures.

The West has an unfortunate tendency to consider itself superior.

The infrastructure under continual development in South Korea is indeed breathtaking. The country already has the world’s fastest broadband connections, integrated into the vast majority of its domestic properties. According to a recent report in The New York Times, by the end of 2012 the Korean government intends to provide every home with I gigabit per second broadband. That will be a tenfold increase on the already world-leading speeds and average 200 times faster than web connections in US homes.

The domestic web policy is of course strategically linked to wireless technology. The cabling may for many, be delivering access via desktops but for as many it is not, and the near future is being prepared for mobile devices. This is the case in people’s homes but also in public and corporate environments. The future for Korea is, eventually going to be echoed in Europe and the US. In December 2011, President Obama unveiled an $18billion dollar wireless broadband plan for the US.

The man in charge of South Korea’s broadband wireless expansion is a 28 year-old government engineer, Choi Gwang-gi. As the NYT report says, he is preparing the country for how the Internet is likely to behave over the next few years. The word ‘behave’ almost personifies the web, and this is the key. It is going to be more and more personal and less and less visible. It is never going to be switched off. “A lot of Koreans are early adopters,” Mr. Choi says, “and we thought we needed to be prepared for things like 3-D TV, Internet protocol TV, high-definition multimedia, gaming and videoconferencing, ultra-high-definition TV, cloud computing.”

Cloud computing only works if you are always connected. Cloud computing is at its most powerful when delivered to mobile devices. Mobile devices demand wireless connectivity. The future of the web will operate and develop in this circle.

In South Korea, one of the highest uses of the superfast bandwidth is multi-player gaming. This is a country that likes to work hard and play hard – each on computer screens. However, there are enormous business benefits too, particularly in high-end videoconferencing and perhaps too, in business practices that cannot yet even develop until I gigabit per second wireless becomes common.

The risk for us, as designers and providers of research environments through library and IT services is that we lose sight of how far ahead others are thinking. In common parlance, this really is not a threat but an opportunity. The poorly designed web interfaces to token-gesture digital collections frequently seen in universities and national libraries are at risk, not just from a lack of preservation infrastructure. Academic research in the West is in danger of trailing commercial development in Asia. This is a moment for honest, even humble requests for new partners.

Sir Tim Berners Lee created the web in 1990. Apple still dominate the mobile devices market, but it is in visionary and socially inclusive countries such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan that the real next stage of the Internet revolution is now happening – a serious and well-funded focus on wireless infrastructure. This is an urgent priority for all research libraries in the West. Presently, the great university and national libraries of Europe and America provide slower bandwidth to researchers than South Korea does to its isolated fishermen.

The British Library and UK Higher Education

Changing landscapes

The British Library operates many services that support the Higher Education sector. It now works in a financial climate that is likely to alter fundamentally within the next three to five years as teaching funding for the arts and humanities begins to affect students’ decisions to progress with postgraduate degrees.

The student population is traditionally split into undergraduate, taught postgraduate and research postgraduate communities. Beneath this there are trends in both discipline numbers and concentration of students. In the most recent (January 2010) HEPI\BL report it is observed for instance, that the highest proportion of taught postgraduates are in 1994 Group institutions and are studying business and education courses. Also, that the highest percentage of research postgraduates are in the Russell Group, studying STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects.

The BL highlights its role in HE as one focused on arts and humanities fields, particularly as a named ‘Research Organisation’ status with the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). It should be welcomed that this is seen to be important to the British Library, but qualified that this is a small area in terms of emerging researchers, and one that is likely to be under increasing pressure. The BL role in supporting tenured academic research is perhaps obvious, but could be more clearly promoted.

The role of libraries and information services confirm reports on student numbers and academic activity. For example, the largest research collections and richest scientific information environments are also in the Russell Group whilst the most comprehensive e-learning infrastructures can be found in universities, such as London and the Open University that are delivering the highest numbers of distance-learning courses. Senate House Libraries is delivering both large e-learning content and research collections.

It’s helpful to split the HE sector into areas of engagement where the BL might continue or improve on its partnership with universities and their libraries.

Areas of engagement


· The physical access to the British Library by undergraduate students is welcomed, although it should be better regulated by collection need rather than additional reading space.

· The Hathi Trust in the US is digitising millions of books. Combined with Google this will transform access to standard texts. The BL needs to lead on a UKRR (United Kingdom Research Reserve) for monographs, or similar projects.

· Thematic guides to historic collections at undergraduate level are key to engaging students in considering further study.

· BL curators should seek to present collections and services directly in lecture theatres. Whilst this may seem daunting, it could at least be achieved in the major cities and online.

Taught postgraduates

· Further work should be considered on targeting support for business and corporate engagement, where large numbers of students need advice. The current Business and IP Centre is very valuable.

· The BL should be a presence within course materials where appropriate. A feasibility study could be performed with the OU.

· Technology should enable the Library to be perceived as accessible outside London. One method would be to market BL services inside university libraries and on their VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments).

· Social networking tools are often the ‘peer review’ at this level and the BL could provide greater support to libraries in targeting discipline areas, such as English Studies to create ‘groups’ on known sites such as Facebook.

· Integrating BL services into universities is weak. BL Direct, where journal articles can be ordered needs far more promotion.

· Training days in nations and regions, as well as London would be welcomed.

Research postgraduates

· The EThos service needs further investment, both financially and in purpose. A link could be made to other PhD projects, such as DART-Europe and additionally to social networking to create a community around content.

· UKRR is one of the BL’s recent achievements in collaboration with universities. The opportunity to prove the value of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), investment here should not be lost – these are efficiencies despite high funding.

· The National Deposit Act, which allows published materials to be acquired by Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin and the National Libraries should be reviewed. This is needed to fully understand its cost, not least in terms of storage and to establish its relationship to mass digitisation projects now and in the future.

· The research landscape has always included cross-sectoral work. This could be made much clearer, even in London. An agreed strategy for research collections in libraries, archives, museums and galleries is urgently required in the capital to respond to diminishing funding.

· The research provision roles of the BL, Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, UCL, KCL and Senate House, as the seven largest ‘Golden Triangle’ libraries should be clearly and innovatively restated.

Academic researchers

· BL could be more vocal on the Affordable Subscriptions to Periodicals (ASPI) initiative through RLUK (Research Libraries UK). The UK HE sector spends 10% of QR (research) funding on journal subscriptions, but this is an international problem and would benefit from National Library support.

· A process whereby the major research libraries could bring BL curators in early on research proposals at their universities would be timely.

· The School of Advanced Study, Senate House Libraries and the five current nationally funded libraries (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, SOAS and Manchester) have roles beyond their institutions. A seminar towards greater coordination would be welcomed.

· Digitisation of materials is critical. There is little coordination on this.

· JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) is changing to a member subscription service. There is an opportunity for the BL to play a greater role in web developments.

Essential role

The British Library is already essential to the UK HE sector. Much of its work is recognised as innovative and transformative. However, despite the long history of partnerships between the BL and both libraries and researchers there is an equally long issue concerning the Library’s ability to move flexibly with the sector. The most recent example of this is the real difficulties in making EThos efficient and effective throughout the UK.

The most critical strategic question concerns the Library’s ability to adapt to a sector that will undergo a considerable period of change in 2012-2014. The undergraduate base will be more demanding, the postgraduate base will focus even more intensively on science in fewer institutions and the research postgraduate base will expect far richer content to be digital. Each major library will need to address all of these in a context of more commercial interest in the provision of information direct to readers, not least from Google.

The Russell Group libraries, the major libraries of the 1994 Group, the great heritage institutions and the NHS information services will all be asked to do more with less. The British Library is key to much of this new environment, not least as JISC and the European Commission shift both their business models and emphases to coordinated delivery of research content and away from investigative pilot projects.

I believe that although the BL needs to increase its presence across the UK, that the existing concentration of students, researchers and libraries in London offers a real opportunity to build new partnerships. Shared digital services and coordinated physical access policies will enable the BL to engage with HE and HE will help the BL remain essential to research in the ever-changing information age.

Dialogue for the humanities

I am finishing work on a piece for a national publication at the moment on whether it is possible, or indeed even wise to start a journal in the humanities that has a similar market profile as ‘Nature,’ the critical and popular science journal.

There are many other developments in humanities scholarly practice beyond the traditional model of journal publishing. Collaboration is taking many forms and the field is consequently shifting. However, there is still a central role in research dissemination performed by the journal article and this one considers how that role could expand.

In physics there is a strong culture of collaborative writing. Academics will often work on a paper communally, sharing drafts and early ideas with colleagues very openly. In recent years the web has further supported this very specific and I think, special form of research communications. There is still a peer-reviewed journal article at the end of the process, although in physics these are almost always provided via open access routes. This seems a good way to think, so I will think openly here too.

In considering a humanities journal of this kind it might be good to start with the characteristics of Nature:

Highest prestige of research and researchers

Weekly publications in print and online

Global public readership and subscriptions

Massive potential impact for reputations and funding

Broad discipline coverage but shared scientific approaches

To an extent, all journal editors would wish to have these characteristics associated with their publications. None of them are easy to achieve so to have attained all of them is very noteworthy. Nature balances quality research with a commitment, however tangential to the public understanding of science. This is a fairly recent term in its overt sense, perhaps most famously deployed by Oxford University in appointing Professor Richard Dawkins to a Chair of that title. The University of Warwick has also made an appointment to a Chair of the Public Understanding of Philosophy.

Nature is part of a movement to bring closer together the practitioners of science and those who have an intelligent interest in their subjects. It acts as a professional meeting place, where scientific terminology is used, but used explicitly. It is a lecture theatre with the doors wide open.

The question is; can this be done in the humanities? Let’s deal with the stumbling blocks when comparing the humanities to the sciences:

Less formal engagement with the public

Vastly differing research practices and disciplines

Fewer large grant-funding opportunities

Fewer collaborative research communities

Prestige exists primarily in monographs rather than journals

These are substantial issues. Nature’s own reputation is based on transforming those of its contributors, or at least its potential to do so. A groundbreaking article in Nature can help to attract millions of dollars in research grants. It will make headline news around the world and will be read by the most influential people in science and the person on the street – well some people on certain streets anyway.

Do we in the humanities have the desire to create something with this power in our own disciplines? Is it possible or even needed? My considered view is that the answer to both questions is yes, and that now is the right time to think about making this happen.

I think the three challenges in delivering such a journal are:

Ensuring the humanities matter (to agencies and the public)

Agreeing that subject differences are a strength

Promoting collaborative research projects and practices

In meeting these challenges it might be productive to imagine what the first issue of such a journal would look like. What tone should be set? One option I will work with for the moment is remarkably close to the next Digital Resources for the Humanities and Arts conference, hosted by Nottingham University in China.

In terms of the pubic understanding of the humanities, a powerful ‘way in’ is cultural exchange. We live now in a time of massive global communication (might we call this journal ‘Dialogue.’) This embraces the creative arts, performance, historiography, genealogy, fine art, sociology, economics, philosophy, languages, literatures, film, archaeology and almost every other academic discipline in the broader humanities. Set in the contexts of cultural engagement between the West and China, or between Western Europe, the US and Russia, or within the Americas or the role of Asia in the contemporary world or the importance of Europe and the US in its inception, surely there are stories here.

There is also the ironic theme, in a discussion about producing a print journal, of the digital revolution. This is an aspect of contemporary humanities research shared by all disciplines and the public. Indeed, most academic comment on the digital world broadly comes from these disciplines.

If we cannot create a journal founded on the principles associated with the study of the humanities, namely the sighting of things past to inform our present and influence the future, then we may stop the shift towards interdisciplinary research now. If we cannot find a way to communicate this body of knowledge to the public, then it has no real purpose other than academic curiosity – and why should government fund us to perform that?

Let’s not let science dominate the dialogue between academia and society.

It is clear that the only way to achieve a journal in the humanities that reaches both academia and the public is to work through conventional business models. If the aim of ‘Dialogue’ were to enable academic navel-gazing then an open access journal would be suitable in this very specific case. The fact is that although it is likely that more academics would read it, without the marketing budgets associated with commercially produced journals, no one else would.

The defined question of whether a journal for the dissemination of humanities research is needed at all should be answered in the affirmative. The only way to ensure it is on the shelves of research libraries as well as newsagents is to release it as a commercial product and the only process of guaranteeing sustainable high-quality content is to appoint an internationally regarded editorial panel.

In this way there might be a chance of the opening and continuing of a dialogue between humanities disciplines and the public. If its reputation is carefully nurtured perhaps even policy makers and funders would see the importance of the humanities. If so, we’d all be the richer.


thanks to Lisa Spiro at Rice University, USA for use of the opening image. Visit her great blog.

The Future of Libraries







Senate House Library, University of London


Librarians who began practising in the last ten years have had the phrases, ‘the death of the book,’ and ‘the end of libraries’ ringing in our ears for much of our careers. Yet, relegate a book to the store and you invite letters to national publications. Reduce opening hours and be prepared to sit through aggressive student committees – and in both cases, sometimes rightly so. If libraries are dying, a lot of people haven’t noticed.

Libraries in all their forms are organisations managing the delivery and care of intellectual content to all disciplines and to all aspects of society. They are multi-million pound services, often with hundreds of staff serving tens of thousands of people, and they are linked across the world as the ‘global library.’ Individual libraries have never been the only source of information, but they have always been the most significant point of access.

One of the finest characteristics of humans is our ability to share. In the academic library context this has meant, and is still defined by libraries’ contribution to the archiving and rediscovery of human action. This has allowed us to provide access to quality research through the global library and to offer help, space and time to students in traditional reading rooms and collaborative learning centres.

At the heart of all universities, the library in its many facets continues to balance tensions between print and digital collections, between the demands of teaching and research, between the arts and sciences, and perhaps most importantly, between the commercial supply of research information and support for its creation in academic practice.

Libraries are present at the generation of ideas, in delivering content to the desktop and the desk top. They deliver in perpetuity for results and theories. Libraries bring people into contact with innovation, with innovators and with each other. They draw an inconceivably long line of thought in every discipline to the minds of current thinkers. Libraries are critical in our need to share and to discover. They are vital in allowing access to our recorded thoughts by those who follow us.

Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science are principles upon which the practice of librarianship still rests:

I.Books are for use.

II.Every reader his [or her] book.

III.Every book its reader.

IV.Save the time of the reader.

V.The library is a growing organism.

These typically succinct compressions of what it means to manage vast quantities of information for an immeasurable number of readers, have carried the world’s library services through some unsettling times. The question is, are they still relevant in a world where so much content is beyond the library walls?

The Internet is the railway of our generation. It has transformed life, at least in the western world. The library profession took a while to realise that it, unfavourably caricatured as it often is, had found itself in the midst of the greatest shift in human society for generations. Librarians, once guardians of knowledge had become its inertia. Or so it has been alleged by parts of academia.

I have heard keynote speakers at conferences challenging the profession to wake up (in the early years of the web) or give up (more recently). We have all read statements by people critical of libraries who are not themselves criticised for collection management decisions, (affectionately referred to as ‘the bin’). People who do not sit in student union meetings trying to find an answer as to why it’s no longer possible to read D.H. Lawrence at 3am in the library. People, in summary, that do not actually manage libraries, or perhaps people (and this includes many in government), who seem to think that all libraries are the same.

It is perhaps not fully comprehended that for the most part, the use of one library is in fact the use of all the world’s libraries. The systems of Inter-Library Loans and now, shared digital resources allows access to quantities of books and electronic content across countries and continents, halted only by licences and local laws. It is also not fully recognised that librarians have been at the forefront of challenging commercial practices that are detrimental to students and to the sharing of ideas, indeed to society.

The open source movements in the field of information technology have had substantial impact on the development of applications and on the growth of the web. They still face obstacles in corporations who see the Internet as the next opportunity to control information. Media tycoons are becoming multi-media tycoons. In libraries, relatively small initiatives such as institutional repositories have questioned the business models of corporate publishing, but not critically. It might be observed that in both library and IT departments, it is possible for ideas to flourish in small environments. Competitive marketing is another matter.

Libraries, and indeed university IT departments have, at their best sought to provide a setting for experiment without cutting the cord to commerce. However, predictions about national data management infrastructures have met obstacles in both financial limitation and research competitiveness that will be difficult to overcome in the foreseeable future.

In the contemporary environment it is now accepted that the web must be engaged by IT service providers, resulting in far greater out-sourcing of services than previously planned. This will increase as cloud computing draws over some aspects of traditional IT practice. In libraries, the cloud has always been there, as the cumulative global collection. 

Commentators, who use the term ‘the future of libraries,’ do imply an understanding that all libraries are in some way linked. What is missing, in defining the future of libraries in this way, is that not all libraries serve the same purpose. Even in higher education the differences are stark.

The twenty-five or so libraries which form Research Libraries UK hold data and physical collections on a scale not replicated in other parts of the sector. Even where these libraries have modernized their appearance to encourage collaborative learning, most markedly Warwick, Nottingham, UCL and Imperial, they still hold millions of printed books, journals and ephemeral materials of considerable research value.

This is derived from age. Collecting takes time and enough time offers breadth and depth. In the UK sector this is most notable in Oxford and Cambridge, but other large print collections exist at Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Senate House Libraries, SOAS and the LSE. In these cases a combination of investment, attraction to benefactors or even geographical location serves to increase the scale of collections.

In the past size has been important. Universities have used their libraries not only to appeal to students but also to researchers, who in turn have added depth to the collection. In this way, libraries have been major contributors to the formation of hierarchy in British universities, not only in themselves but also in what they support and whom they attract.

Google holds the cards to the ability of these institutions to continue to think of their libraries as special in this way. When Google extricates itself from the courts they will be able to release ten million (and counting) digitised books onto the Internet. In the UK this has the potential to level the playing the field between the Russell Group, those with important but smaller collections in the 1994 Group and those with very different libraries in the rest of the sector. Google will mean, if not immediately then certainly soon, that all universities will have similar library collections.

However, despite its current position, Google is only an example of how the world is changing around our libraries. Very few companies exist forever, or survive unchanged and unchallenged. Many of the materials in research libraries will outlive us and will need care long after Google itself becomes a footnote. The content of libraries teaches us much, but the most important lesson is that change is constant.

With or without Google, mass digitisation of books and journals will be a strong trend in combination with pervasive computing. The legal implications of these developments are yet to be resolved. Google’s mass digitisation programmes, now including languages and cultures beyond the English-speaking world, are the largest single transfer of knowledge from one format to another in human history. However, they are also only part of that history, not its conclusion.

Additionally, printed or digitised, Ranganathan’s laws remind us that the library is made up of more than books. A library is space – collections – readers – librarians. Google is focused on collections, as is the case with almost all technology. As an advertising company it is not surprising that it wishes to use content to attract advertisers to its services, in fact we could learn a lot from them. What might be learnt reciprocally is that the library as a space filled with people is part of Google’s future. It is not closed by it.

I remember two things most clearly as a trainee librarian: the unpredictability of questions at the Enquiry Desk: the demanding queues at the Issue Desk. I still see both in libraries. Even with many services available online and self-issue now ubiquitous, readers continue to visit the physical library and they still expect to find librarians inside it. This is especially so for subject specialists in large research libraries. The web has greatly improved our ability to communicate but, as with dating sites, it is a tool for actually meeting people rather than a substitute for human contact. Libraries in the future will continue to embrace technology but only to enhance existing services, not to replace them.

In the late 1990’s, as the Internet was beginning to impact on academia, we began to use the phrase ‘the hybrid library,’ to describe the emerging environment of print and digital collections. The term has been out-of-use for some time but may be appropriate now, not to describe the collections, as such a fusion is now common, but to describe the readers’ future experience of the physical library. A reader still wishes to work in the library but will increasingly work with greater access to digital collections via mobile devices. The library will continue to provide suitable environments for both solace and collaboration, but will be enhanced by the web. Reading rooms will increasingly merge with websites.

Of course, there are discipline variations for the academic library. Its physical use is less important to science than to the humanities, although content is still managed in both fields by the library. This too will continue. Google’s digital book collection will be a subscription service, not the beginning of the information ‘sunlit uplands’ that is often predicted. Information has never been freer than it is now, but it has also never been free. Freedom on the web will decrease as current tools used by intelligence agencies filter down into our own web experiences.

There are also the differences in libraries. For most academic libraries, electronic resources have been transformative. ‘Early English Books Online’ put the Bodleian onto the shelves of universities that could never acquire the original materials. For the large research libraries, the opportunity to redefine historic and special collections as the heart of their service is the next iteration of the hybrid library. The web encourages physical meetings. Digitisation of manuscripts brings greater demand to see the original.

The near future for all libraries will depend on genuine innovation in their web presences. The distant future for research libraries will be defined by an acceptance that size is no longer everything, but that close collaboration between librarians and academics in exploiting the complex scientific research web, in parallel with dynamic access to historic collections (some of which are already born digital), will be what readers want. In the future the library will continue to be a ‘growing organism.’


Stars of Page and Screen

I have been working on an idea concerning the sociology of libraries over the last few weeks. John B. Thompson, Professor of Sociology at Cambridge University, published a book recently, called Merchants of Culture. It is the most important modern work on the publishing industry and follows his equally essential Books in the Digital Age. Both studies deal with the commercial publishing industry and where it is heading, but also with the production and dissemination of new research, particularly in the UK and US. These are challenging books about challenging times for books.

Thompson’s work is founded on the idea that the book itself has played a critical social role. It struck me a while ago that this was also something I frequently write about, but rather than a publishing focus my attention generally turns to libraries. To make some sense of this it is helpful to look at some overarching concepts with regard to knowledge. The book is at the centre of a number of relationships that bring it to life and sustain it. This is the case whether as a physical object or as an electronic text.

Books move in four key environments;

1. Education – schools, colleges, universities

2. Public life – public libraries, hospitals, prisons, national institutions

3. Workplace – government, business, law

4. Market – bookshops, Internet, auction houses

Thompson argues that the book has been the major source of recorded knowledge for millennia in all these sectors but that in some of them, there are now questions over its future as a physical object. I agree that there are fundamental changes happening in our time, and also that because of their speed are still able to surprise us. For instance, Amazon’s ebooks outselling printed books was not something in all honesty that I expected last year.

There is of course more to books than paper. As objects they are definitive of their owners, passed though generations, held as historical evidence, communal and private. No other media has such immediate power and converse longevity. What these characteristics show is the ability of the book to interact with people. Thompson’s sociological approach to the commerciality of texts seems important because it brings the prospect of the book in line with our own futures.

One aspect that I believe could add to Thompson’s work is the role of libraries in this relation between humans and bound printed volumes. In the four environments above only the last one, the commercial market operates without libraries as part of the story. Even there, libraries are present as purchasers but they are not essential. In the other three landscapes though, libraries are both depth and perspective. The relation between libraries and books is still the most important in the printed (and digital) media’s life. In numbers 1 – 3 the acquisition rate for books is always at its highest in the library sector. For example, a large university will usually spend around £1.5million per annum on books. In the Russell Group of UK research-intensive universities this amounts to around £30million to £40million every year. For the record, the same universities spend around £80million to £90million per annum on journals. In both cases this is a combined figure for print and digital collecting. The division between page and screen in libraries dissipated years ago. It should also be noted that these figures only include 20 of the UK’s 180 higher education institutions.

As in most aspects of life money is a guide to both activity and priorities. Even in universities led by Vice-Chancellors who believe ‘the library’ is entirely on the Internet, (yes, such people really do exist), there is an acceptance of a business model that places the library service at the heart of the discovery, dissemination and archiving of research. In academia, the library fulfills a clear role in research and in teaching. Large libraries are still the busiest buildings on most campuses. Students rarely talk of ‘the death of the book,’ but more commonly that there are not enough of them to go around.

In public life and in the world’s workplaces, libraries are equally essential to the business of producing books. At least two of the UK and US principal libraries are Public: New York and Birmingham. This is not to mention the Library of Congress and the British Library. The metropolitan services and the smallest community libraries serve to act as physical communal spaces and also as a link to what I refer to as the global library. Even the most remote library, perhaps only used by a few dispersed communities is linked via the web and inter-library loans to every other world library. This is a fact often bypassed by policy makers.

In Britain recently there was a day of protest in support of the country’s public libraries. Most acutely in Manchester, swathes of financial cuts have seen many services reduced or axed completely. At the top of most of these lists come libraries. It would seem that many local authority Chief Executives share the views of the type of Vice-Chancellor mentioned above.

The complex and multifarious world of work, from legal firms, to government departments (ironically) to the global span of the UN and UNESCO also depend on access to recorded material. They are also in many cases, positively using the social power of libraries to deliver education and transform communities.

As Thompson observes changes in the publishing world so I observe a need to voice real purpose in the global library. As a profession, librarians have been very successful in redefining our role in the Internet age, but far less successful in showing why that role is so important to education, the public and business. These are initial thoughts towards an approach for a major piece of research I would like to undertake in the field of the sociology of the global library. There is an opportunity to discuss in depth, how the converged web and library acts as an essential part of the future of the book.

In universities there is a triangle formed by researchers, publishers and librarians that is interdependent. I will leave aside the issue of open access publishing for the moment. In public life, the library is a precious part of the accessibility and delivery of books and information between the population, authors and publishers. For governments, libraries play a key role in determining their ability to achieve equality and opportunity.

The future of books and libraries is shared, and as has always been the case, their sociology is also one that will develop in parallel. Books are stars however they are viewed.

Free Humanities

Sage publishing has launched a new open access (OA) journal called Sage Open that includes the whole of the humanities and social sciences and seems to be setting itself up as the PLoS ONE of the humanities. Here is their press release: open.sp

I think this initiative should be welcomed as it is an attempt by a major publisher to provide choice for authors in the social sciences and humanities. There is a role for commercial publishing in the support of open access research at point of use, and Sage are correct to be targeting OA funds and mandates as a source to provide a financial base to this business model. The move will provide a trigger for higher-profile debate concerning OA models in the humanities, where understandably the majority of discussion until now has been around Science, Technology and Medicine. It will be essential for funding agencies and institutions to respond creatively to this opportunity and to support, in practical ways, researchers in these fields to adopt OA practices. There are already other options.

More broadly, OA in the wider Humanities will allow the public and developing nation communities access to a body of knowledge which is as important to their lives as access to scientific knowledge. The humanities and social sciences are concerned with the record and understanding of human action and have an enormous contribution to make to global society. This initiative from Sage will not fundamentally define how OA engages society with academic discourse in the humanities, but it is an important and helpful step forward.

Additionally, there has been very little focus on the humanities in relation to Open Access in recent years. My own view is that it is not really about OA but rather about the humanities as research disciplines. There is an underlying assumption, evidenced by levels of grant funding, debate on scientific scholarly communications and most recently the targeting of teaching funding in the arts and humanities subjects, that scientific knowledge is simply more important than knowledge derived in the humanities.

This is frequently reflected in public debate and the Press by negatively referring to arts subjects in new universities. There is also frustration that ‘impact’ cannot be proven in disciplines which operate without scientific practices. This assumption, which I feel is shared and cumulative over many years, although never stated overtly, has meant that the OA movement has been forced into discussing science because that is seen to be the only thing worth talking about. I don’t feel this reflects the importance of teaching and research in the humanities, and their consequential impact on society, culture, the creative industries and indeed Art.

I believe that science may extend our lives, or sometimes even save them but that the humanities and arts make it worth being alive in the first place.