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.

National Admissions Policy

The current state of universities is intriguing. For the first time in around fifteen years a purely intellectual education for everyone is being aggressively questioned. Or at least it is in the UK. France and Germany are increasing state funding for young people to learn at the highest level and although there are difficulties, the US system is still healthily based on personal financial outlay.

In the UK for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in some cases long before that, it was accepted that knowledge of classics, philosophy, music, history, art, theology and literature was only required at the summit of society. We have lived for brief periods during widening access initiatives. These are now again narrowing.

Despite many top universities offering bursaries, far more are not doing so. Education in the humanities is returning to the ‘halcyon days of Oxford,’ to appropriate Monty’s recollections in ‘Withnail and I.’ In other words, unless you are relatively rich, in the near future you will be unlikely to attend a good university with top-flight lecturers to learn about something other than science.

In an unexpected twist the UK government has also recently announced that it will be rewarding universities financially for admitting students with AAB or above at A Level. This will make the lives of those students, I understand from any background much easier. They will be gold dust for gold diggers. The reward should be passed to students and will be an enormous incentive to work hard during sixth form or college.

The national admissions policy, (and yes, that is what all these strategies amount to) is being rewritten almost by the week. It is as if, shall we say, the government does not know what it is doing. Surely this cannot be the case? To drop the sarcasm for a second, I do not think it is the case. Government does not purely consist of elected officials but also of unelected ones. If the distracting political wing of government ducks and dives in the firing line of student and professorial snipers, then the administrative advance of the Civil Service is cleverly covered.

What is being created is a university system based on access by achievement. There is considerable support for teaching and research in science, technology, engineering and medicine anyway, and almost all of it goes to the Russell Group of top universities. Over 60% of research funding in these disciplines goes to only those 20 universities from a pool of over 200 institutions. The Russells also account for over 70% of doctoral students, and of those, over 80% are researching in the sciences. It is easy to forget just how much design has already been implemented in UK higher education.

For about ten years a phrase has been used to describe good departments in poor universities: ‘pockets of excellence.’ For the humanities, these pockets are to be expanded in the great institutions through elite admissions policies and closed everywhere else. This for instance, will protect at least in principle, the Department of Music at Queen’s University Belfast and render unsustainable the infamous ‘Meja’ departments in the new universities. The Civil Service has always wanted to do this. It was never comfortable with Blair’s ambition to send 50% of the population to something called a University, regardless of quality or its ability to deliver real prospects for its students. In the coalition it has found a natural partner in the Conservative Party. As a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Democrats I will leave further comment for another post on them. It is ironic though, that the Conservative cloak over Civil Service strategy is to be ‘explained’ (defended) by Simon Hughes MP, a member of the Lib Dems who is forced to act as if he really believes in what the coalition are doing.

The national admissions policy will, as has already been the case be introduced very slowly. It is a drizzle not a thunderstorm. The issue this year concerning the removal of the cap on student fees was a mistake not only because of the policy but because so many people noticed it. And so, many for some time will perform the delicate pirouettes that are also U-turns, such as the AAB initiative.

There have been strong political figures that have managed to steer, or temporarily change the view of the Civil Service. Blair managed it. Thatcher agreed with it but took all the criticism. This is precisely what Cameron is doing, except unlike Thatcher he is chary of attacks. He is the perfect Prime Minister as the Service gets what it wants but avoids the shots.

So what does it want? I think the national admissions policy, which is now free of social inclusion targets, is designed to return the UK to its two-tier education system. There will be a small number of elite universities teaching and researching across all disciplines (ideally for most in the Service this only means two institutions which enjoy rowing – but there are some modern thinkers who accept there might be at least twenty). Beneath these, in every conceivable sense from dining rights to student prospects there will be many more vocational institutions without research but with high student numbers.

The national admissions policy is intended to allow the UK to deliver very high quality research in science and in the humanities in a focused, well-funded environment. Students from poorer backgrounds with strong academic ability will have a place in university, and they are likely to be better supported even than now. Other young people will study trades or increasingly, creative subjects such as design, writing, journalism and art in environments that mark their progress more intuitively than is usually performed in universities by exams.

The policy has been in development since the 1970’s with only the occasional lurch in direction. It has its merits. Only those of strong academic ability will achieve a place at University. Those with equal but different abilities will begin their careers in tailored environments, but without being handed a worthless degree at the end of it.

The question for the political side of government is can they ensure that this is properly funded. France and Germany already have these structures and are increasing investment. The days of social tokenism are over. The national admissions policy will adapt as it always has done. The class issue associated with access to university must be dismissed as irrelevant by support for bright, disadvantaged students. This is an opportunity?

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.

The Final Piece

The future university is often termed in the singular. Similarly, the future of libraries assumes a common destiny, as if all libraries, all universities were the same to begin with. This of course, is not the case. Each one is a different piece in the jigsaw that forms the education sector.

Universities in the future will perform in many different ways. As now, there will be institutions focused on teaching and others where research depth, both in terms of staff and income, is the principal aim. In each, the supporting services will reflect these priorities. In particular, libraries and information services will consist primarily of intellectual content (what used to be called books), or large digital teaching platforms. In a few cases, institutions will deliver both teaching on a large scale and research in most disciplines. These ‘dual’ universities will be the most expensive to attend, the hardest from which to obtain the offer of a place, and will be the strongest international brands.

In other words, not much is likely to change at the institutional level except for a considerable increase in pervasive technologies for both research facilitation and teaching. The impact of this on both original academic output and on the student experience is that the future, if it is to be defined at all, will be defined as collaborative.

The greater change, certainly in Western countries will be a reduction in the number of institutions capable of awarding degrees, especially higher degrees. The international university sector will alter dramatically over the next ten years, as a natural effect of the greater concentration of research funding in a smaller group of institutions. These universities will also become more adept at using their research culture to attract and retain students. This will mean they will be more expensive to attend, but the degrees awarded will consequently be viewed as valuable. Many more students will also choose to study further for Masters and Doctoral awards.

The larger body of teaching-led institutions will see mergers and closures. In the UK, there is an astonishing disparity of quality and resources between universities currently planning to charge the maximum £9000 per year at undergraduate level. This will have to be resolved in order to make any sense of choice for students and to ensure that higher education can be clear to employers. Presently, commerce must think that many universities have lost their minds.

In terms of disciplines, the ‘grand’ humanities subjects such as English, History, Classics, Philosophy, Music, Art History, Archaeology and Modern Languages will retain their status at the heart of the research-intensive curriculum. They will though, gradually become ever more interdisciplinary at the higher research level. Again, technology, in terms of the digital humanities will shift from its current position as a quirky sub-discipline to a dominant role in all core fields.

Science, often viewed as more innovative in its use of technology will need to be more radical with its students. Science research is leading edge but much teaching and staff-student contact is very traditional. Students often have to wait until their PhD before they are fully immersed in new work. Many of them never see it. I have seen evidence of this in large institutional surveys, where undergraduates in science are frequently underwhelmed by their experience of teaching. This must and will change.

With greater clarity over the roles of differing institutions, rather than, as is the case now, all universities claiming world-class status, will come a better relationship between education and the wider world. The employment sector will seek out talent from both vocational and research institutions. Universities in the future will also be able to carve out new roles in international relations and politics; a natural development of stronger brand recognition.

Technology partners, such as Google and Apple will be more attracted to universities with an intellectual brand to match their own in retail. This has already begun. iTunesU is usually promoted using Stanford, UCL and Oxford. Marketing of research culture will increase.

Whatever the future holds for our sector it is likely to be an improvement on the current state of affairs, as long as universities themselves are given a strong, open voice at the table of government. That is the one piece of the jigsaw I cannot find. I wonder if anyone will discover it?


It is difficult to see the truth when it hides behind well-groomed intelligence. David Willetts, the UK’s minister for universities is the considerate, clever face of a government which either does know what it is doing, and if so should be honest about it, or doesn’t know what it is doing, and if so should be stopped.

The sixth form student, Padge, above is part of a BBC interview concerning young people who wish to go to university but are put under pressure by their families to get a job instead. Padge did better at his GCSEs than even he expected. He wants to study biology at university, but his builder father is discouraging. Not least, because he himself always avoided debt.

There are few things that make me angry (any more), but the current government policies on education certainly account for many of them. Without going into detail, I would not have been able to go to university, in my case Queen’s University Belfast, unless the government had helped me. It did, and although I supplemented the grant with performance fees (I studied music), I did live on just over £1000 per year. I managed this of course with family help, but the grant was essential. I also left Queen’s without student debt.

The problem that the coalition government is trying to fix does exist. There are too many universities, which are devaluing degrees and forcing employers to make distinctions that once were made between people with or without a degree. The truth is that degrees from some universities in the UK are viewed by employers as no better than being without one. Not only have students wasted time they have also begun life in debt for something almost worthless.

At the same time, the government is allowing the cost of degrees to the individual student to soar. Even the basic economics is not logical. The product is becoming devalued, so rather than improve the product, it is retailed at a higher price. Who in government is responsible for this thinking?

There are 20-30 universities in the UK which will always be at the top of the national league tables. There are two or three, possibly four which will also be ranked at the top of the international tables. There are another 30-40 universities which, whilst not possessing the vast research depth of the top 20, remain very strong institutions. They should be supported to become more focused on quality in fewer areas and discouraged from competing with the larger research-intensives. Additionally, the UK has some of the world’s finest art schools and music conservatoires. These should be protected and promoted.

The government misunderstands the sector fundamentally, perhaps even willfully. If you take these policies to their logical conclusion the UK would have an entire university sector made up of institutions like Imperial College London, and very few of them. We would be excellent at producing a low number of science graduates. These would go on to superb jobs in the US or Asia and never come back.

For everything else, mediocre would be acceptable. Second-rate humanities departments would produce debt-ridden, unemployable graduates without ambition or learning. And this would be fine because in the eyes of the government the humanities ‘don’t really matter’ anyway. Who would care that currently one of the world’s most creative and historically rich nations had lost its ability to reflect on its place in the world?

Well, many people care.

The solution proposed by the government to a problem defined as financial, is to pass that problem to young people. It does not solve anything. It just spreads the difficulty further. One of the most destructive drivers for student fees rises is that those in power tell us the nation cannot afford to run higher education anymore. That is half true.

A successful university sector in the UK would consist of around 100 institutions of differing kinds, all offering free places to the best students. Padge would realise his ambition and there would be less waste. Padge is a UK student who even wants to study science for heaven’s sake. Why is he not being given every possible support, every opportunity?

An equivalent rate of return

‘Oh that Tony Blair. He’d stick a poem on a bus shelter and call it a University.’

Victoria Wood

I think I’ve heard just about enough of government cuts. The entire topic is misrepresented by both Parliament and Whitehall, and oddly accepted by the press. It is clearly an opportunistic attempt to re-engineer much of UK society, and even where I agree with the changes, I wish people would be more honest when talking about it.

One area that I find particularly sinister is the combination of raising student fees to £9000 and withdrawing almost all teaching grants in the arts and humanities from the academic year 2012-2013 onwards. There has been an outcry that places such as Lincoln University and University College Falmouth are proposing to charge the same as Cambridge.

I believe that there are three tiers of higher education institutions in this country:

1) The top 20 Russell Group and the smaller research intensive 1994 Group, also the Conservatoires and other elite colleges.

2) All the other universities.

3) The small specialist institutions, mainly in the arts (about 30).

There can be no doubt that the government (by which I mean the Civil Service) saw an opportunity when the Tories entered Number 10. Finally, they could move to close the many, second-rate universities that were simply producing arts graduates without the clout of a Russell Group degree or the elite entrance criteria of, for example the Royal College of Music. Although prospectuses across the sector all use the phrase ‘world-class’ this only genuinely applies to Group 1.

The problem; we have too many universities. Labour believed that by allowing 50% of the population to obtain a degree, that employers would suddenly equate a degree from Oxford with one from Coventry. How could they have thought this? The word ‘elite’ has been expunged from discussion of Britain’s universities. I want to bring it back. I obviously do not accept a system that allows entrance to Cambridge simply because of attending Harrow School – surely this is less pervasive than in the past (ha!). I do accept that a university or college can describe itself as elite if it selects its students on ability or talent. That is not a social judgment but an academic one. For instance, it is not possible, it is simply not achievable to be awarded a place at the Royal Academy of Music if you are anything less than a brilliant musician. Not only that, but to win such a place you are performing (in this case literally) against other exceptional players, from all over the world. There are usually more than 30 applicants per place.

In the Russell Group, candidates are on average applying against 15-20 people per place. In almost all of Group 2 above, which amounts to around 120 of the UK’s 185 universities, there is no competition. Some ask for higher ‘A’ level results than others but hardly ever are candidates truly in competition to gain a place. In around 20-30 of these institutions, those at the bottom of every league table, students are accepted regardless of academic ability, often without any ‘A’ levels.

At the same time as the country is dealing with a massive overproduction of graduates in, say media studies or even English Literature, the UK also suffers from a shortage of highly-qualified trades. The universities in Group 2 used to provide quality vocational qualifications. Now they neither produce that or arts degrees that offer their students a real chance in life. I am passionate about education’s ability to provide opportunity, but not all education should be based on an understanding of Macbeth. For many young people, life chances could be transformed through properly funded, ‘world-class’ vocational qualifications. Most plumbers earn more than professors anyway.

On the research side, as opposed to the teaching side there are delusions too. Research in the UK is funded by the four national funding councils and by the subject-based research councils. Peer-review processes split this, across every university in the country. Or that is the theory. In reality, the Russell Group of 20 elite universities receive over 70% of the money and produce (an important benchmark for research culture) over 85% of PhD students. So the money is spread ever more thinly between the great research institutions and the crumbs from the table go to ‘pockets of excellence’ in Group 2 who are not fundamentally driven by research in the first place.

Group 3 is interesting. It includes many small arts institutions without either the legacy or endowments of places such as the Royal College of Art. These are typically of about 1000 students, non-selective (anyone who applies gets a place) and very vulnerable to cuts in arts teaching grants as almost no research is carried out. I worked at one of these, Dartington College of Arts and it gave me a fascinating perspective on education. I have spent almost my entire career in the Russell Group but am eternally grateful to have worked outside it (and for the record to be back inside).

The only real answer for these institutions is not to charge students £9000 (as Falmouth will do), but to merge successful courses with sustainable institutions who would genuinely benefit from targeted arts specialism. Falmouth is a good example. £9000 in Cambridge buys you a valuable degree, but also access to the world’s greatest academics and one of the most important libraries on earth. I do not believe that the same amount of cash can seriously be said to offer Falmouth students the equivalent rate of return.

The answer for Falmouth, which has a justifiably famous heritage as a fine art school, should be to merge all non-academic and constitutional functions with Exeter University, a strong 1994 Group institution which would benefit from a ‘bit of art.’

The Labour government believed that extending access to University for half the population of young people would give more opportunity. Instead it put hundreds of thousands of students into debt, and with no career prospects owing to poor quality degrees.

The Tory government wants to close many of Britain’s universities, particularly those in Group 2. Rather than close, it would be better to accept that the polytechnic \ university difference still exists, it’s just that everything is named ‘University.’ If these were reopened as successful training colleges, students would be able to achieve qualifications suited to their talents and find work.

What is happening now is a slow death by a thousand cuts, where institutions such as Falmouth are forced to raise student’s fees and their expectations. Only the former will be achieved.

The UK would be better placed internationally with around 30-40 elite, well-funded universities. Places in these institutions should also be free. For the exceptionally talented, the conservatoires and quality colleges of art would provide the necessary environments. If the government is intent on suffocating underperforming universities by cutting arts teaching grants, it should at least have the decency to let their students know this before they write cheques they regret.

I believe in the power of education to transform lives. It happened to me in a Russell Group university I had to work hard to get into. I could not have gone to Queen’s without a grant either. This is essential. Elite universities should be in a position to seek and support talent. But not going to university should be seen as an achievement if your talent lies elsewhere. I know a lot about music but was at a loss when the pipes burst last winter.

Variety is not only the spice of life but also the backbone of a strong country. The UK is in danger of being dulled and weakened by dishonest and poorly considered cuts driven by an agenda that thinks elitism is decided by a student’s background. I reject this government’s view of my professional sector even when the outcome might be one to which I adhere.

Times Higher Education – Research Access

I wanted to post a copy of an interview I did with the Times Higher Education Supplement last week on the blog. The text is by Paul Jump at the THES and it raises some interesting angles on the future of institutional repositories, the international infrastructure in place for the deposit of open access articles outside of library journal subscriptions:

The recent launch of several high-profile open-access journals by commercial publishers including Nature Publishing Group and SAGE elicited cheers from veterans of the open-access movement.

Here, they thought, was evidence that their ideal of making research freely available online, as expressed in 2002′s landmark Budapest Open Access Initiative document, was finally gaining mainstream traction.

But according to Christopher Pressler, director of research library services at the University of London, the enthusiasm for “gold” (journal-based) open access is relatively recent and amounts to a “fundamental compromise” necessitated by the open-access movement’s failure to plan for the financial sustainability and academic appeal of “green” open access, which is built around self-archiving papers in institutional repositories.

He contended that librarians’ original goal in pushing for open access was to take academic publishing away from the commercial enterprises they perceived to be making unjustifiably large profits from charging universities for access to their own research.

Mr Pressler told Times Higher Education that the rise of gold open access could lead to an even greater drain on university budgets due to some publishers’ alleged practice of “double dipping”: charging authors for open-access options without reducing subscription prices proportionately.

Institutional repositories have been established in their hundreds by institutions worldwide, including around 150 in the UK, but by common consent have attracted disappointingly little content.

“Setting up repositories was one of the major strategic ambitions in the past 10 years, but we have to face the fact that they have not transformed the research landscape in the way we had hoped,” Mr Pressler said.

But not everyone is ready to write them off. Neil Jacobs, acting programme director for digital infrastructure at Jisc, the UK higher education IT consortium, pointed to considerable activity around some repositories. The University of Glasgow facility, for example, records 20,000 downloads every month.

He said the growth of repositories’ contents could be boosted by projects to automate the deposit of papers into repositories after the specified embargo period – typically six months – has passed.

Other defenders point to repositories’ suitability for hosting non-traditional academic outputs such as videos and datasets, and for helping universities to showcase their research and prepare for research assessment programmes.

No quality control, publishers warn

Michael Mabe, chief executive of the International Association of Scientific, Medical and Technical Publishers and a visiting professor in information science at University College London, said that publishers were increasingly uncomfortable with the threat posed by repositories.

He noted that even cutting-edge science papers see only half of their total downloads within six months, meaning that publishers who allow papers to enter a repository after that period are giving away large numbers of downloads.

Professor Mabe also feared that once repositories contained a significant volume of material, libraries might no longer feel the need to subscribe to journals at all, leading to their demise.

This would be disastrous, he argued, because repositories are essentially “electronic buckets” with no quality control. He also expressed doubts that the academy would be able to successfully introduce peer review to such repositories, partly because it would be difficult to attract reviewers who had no “brand allegiance” to the repositories.

Mr Pressler agreed that repositories in their current form are no substitute for high-impact journals, as association with such journals – as an author or editor – conferred considerable professional benefits.

He said the open-access movement had been misguided to push for institution-based repositories when academic communities were built around disciplines. Instead, he argued, advocates should have tried much earlier to convert research funders to the open-access cause and ask them to organise funding and peer review for repositories in their subject areas.

But Mr Pressler argued that it was not too late to recast the existing infrastructure in the form of international subject repositories or e-journals that would replicate everything that existing journals did.

Cameron Neylon, an academic editor at peer-reviewed open-access journal PLoS ONE, agreed that getting the most out of repositories would involve thinking of them as a mechanism for publishing as well as archiving. But he said that enthusiasts were held back by their “terror” of a publishers’ backlash.

Professor Mabe pointed to the history of public sector IT projects running over time and over budget and accused librarians of employing “voodoo economics” to demonstrate repositories’ cost effectiveness.

But Mr Pressler said he was very surprised that it had not occurred to cash-strapped governments and funders that huge savings could be made by taking publishers’ profit margins out of university budgets.

He argued that however loudly academics and publishers might protest, it could be easily achieved with enough political will. “If the combined journal invoices of the Russell Group were redirected to create a properly governed, peer-reviewed open-access landscape, it could be achieved collaboratively,” he said.

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.