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?

Theseus and the Minotaur

This week, Waterstone’s, the UK’s most significant chain of bookshops was purchased for £53million by the Russian tycoon Alexander Mamut. He has now installed the respected bookseller, James Daunt as the new Chief Executive. This is in the same week that the Minotaur, the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, was named as UK Bookseller of the Year. The former story is a lifeline to the sale of printed books in Britain, the latter is a disgrace.

James Daunt is the current boss of Daunt Books, a London chain of six bookshops, the first of which was opened in Edwardian Marylebone. He is now faced with a chain of over 300 shops in nearly every town in the UK, each of which is beaten down to selling wrapping paper, coffee and ‘celebrity’ biographies from people only half-way through their lives.

This does not distinguish it from other major Western chains, particularly in America. Battling the supermarkets (again – Sainsbury’s?) on one side and Amazon on the other has led to a complete loss of purpose at Waterstone’s. James Daunt, the Theseus of the hour, may be the person to rediscover this. Waterstone’s stakeholders seem to have spent too much time on the Internet and nowhere near enough time in real bookshops.

Entering a bookshop should guarantee a surprise. The reader must be delighted. The physical experience of the best bookshops can withstand the price-fixing of the supermarkets and the generalist appeal of the web. Bookshops and libraries are both part of the same industry and although I am not a bookseller, in a sense I am exactly that – a provider of books. The weakest libraries are those that replicate or surrender to the web. These are filled with sofas rather than shelves. The greatest libraries use what the web cannot offer – beautiful spaces to read, extensive collections of books the reader does not expect to find.

Yesterday, I walked into one of these bookshops. Topping and Company of Bath and Ely (I was in Ely), are precisely the kind of bookshops the previous Waterstone’s management forgot to visit. The shop itself is a labyrinth, which is always recommended when designing bookshops or libraries. Our minds act instinctively, as Theseus did when faced with the Minotaur, towards serendipity and interconnectivity within labyrinths.

Amazon tries to replicate this through the ‘People who bought this also bought this’ technology. It is dry, often laughable and frequently inaccurate. It also misses the point. People, whether in great libraries or in great bookshops do not want to be guided in this way. They want to find their own paths in the labyrinth. Theseus used thread given to him by Ariadne in order to escape. All bookshops and libraries need to do is publish their opening times.

Ely Cathedral sits amidst almost inconceivably large, flat fields. It is as if the 1000-year-old building has been transported to the American plains. The small city encircles the stunning cathedral and on one of these streets is Topping Bookshop. Inside its labyrinth each book is wrapped in cellophane. This shows care for the books, but also makes opening at home a special event. The depth in each section is full of surprise, including my own personal love of US editions, (perhaps we were in America?), and my purchase was the New York edition of Borges’ Non-fictions. A blog from another era, this book is its own labyrinth. Topping had both the UK and the US versions. I bought the more expensive US one because I love their shop.

Waterstone’s has a chance. If they release their managers in each store to make their own decisions and create their own labyrinths, then they will be using the one aspect of their business that cannot be replicated by the Internet: the freedom to wander the labyrinth.

New Guillotine of the Masses

Ai Weiwei

‘A society lacking individual consciousness is truly gloomy and cold, and widespread abandonment will cause the very last green leaf to wither; it is capable of extinguishing the very last candle.’ Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is the most significant living Chinese artist. He is also one of the world’s most influential designers, architects and bloggers. On the 3rd April 2011 the Chinese government arrested him as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong. The charges are typically opaque; ‘economic crimes.’ His studio in Shanghai was closed, computers and hard drives removed, his assistant has disappeared and many other staff and relations have been arrested. Only four days ago, on the 16th May his wife was allowed a brief visit for the first time.

Weiwei was contracted as the design consultant for the famous ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, the centerpiece of China’s Olympic park. His art works and installations have been exhibited in every major gallery in the world and both international governments and the art world have demanded his release from custody.

I am reading a collection of his blogs at the moment, published by MIT Press in the US. This is an interesting book for two reasons; firstly, his writing is vicious and brave on all aspects of politics and art; secondly it is an important book because it is a book. Weiwei is notorious for crossing standard boundaries, particularly when working as both artist and architect. This time he has printed the Internet.

Weiwei has been especially scathing of the Chinese authorities over their handling of the devastation following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. His blog was removed when he published an (incomplete) list of nearly 6000 children who had been killed by collapsing buildings at school because of poor flooring and ceilings built without any support. The Chinese government still denies that a lack of building quality in its schools is to blame. Following an interview for state television, where Weiwei repeated his claims, he was badly beaten. At an opening of an exhibition in Germany soon afterwards he was taken into hospital where German doctors discovered a cerebral hemorrhage. He has survived worse.

‘How foolish and obscene must a person be to lie to the families of the deceased, to bully parents who suffer from the loss of their children and their ruined futures? They cover eyes, stuff throats, wiretap phones, track whereabouts, and threaten, they buy people off, detain, beat and persecute the common people.’ Weiwei

It was to be expected that the move towards greater openness in China leading up to the Beijing Olympics would be restrained once the Games had been completed. The current crack-down on dissent is far stronger than anticipated though, apparently because of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts in the Middle-East and the Chinese government’s fear of a similar uprising in China. Weiwei is by far the most prominent person to be detained. There will certainly be many thousands more now in prison or dead.

As the West deals with the threat from al-Qaeda, the growing tension across North Africa and the complexity of an aggressive Iran it is astonishing that for the most part, except for press comment on Weiwei, China is reported as little more than a business opportunity. I have direct experience of this through Higher Education, but that is small-fry compared to the view taken by global commerce of the vast resource in manufacturing and retail presented to an economically-challenged Western world.

Google’s decision to leave China is its best and bravest decision since its formation. The trigger for this was a response to a series of web hackings dubbed ‘Operation Aurora’ by Western security agencies. It is proven that this extensive illegal activity originated in China, and was therefore almost certainly funded by the Chinese authorities. Google’s accounts were all hacked. So were Weiwei’s, his personal date stolen and bank accounts accessed.

Proof that the Internet is now the most important tool to humanity is that so much of it is banned in so many countries. In China, Twitter, the new guillotine of the masses cannot be accessed. If it were available it would be even more powerful than in the West, as 140 characters in Chinese equates to 140 words, not letters. Deeply profound statements would undoubtedly result from a Chinese version of social networking. Facebook, Google, YouTube and other websites are also banned or censored.

The ‘last candles’ in Weiwei’s China are still alight, but flickering. This country is a business opportunity beyond the dreams of most corporatists, but at what cost?

The Survival of Antiquity

The process of re-engineering the life of the book continues apace. There appears to be a defining of the future as purely digital. It is assumed that as a process has begun, namely the transfer of print to digital books, then that process must have a conclusion. There is inevitability about the dominance of the screen. iPads are objects of desire, and ones we thought we didn’t even need, until we held one.

I believe that my once treasured DVD collection is now dead. Over the last few years it has moved from pride-of-place in the sitting room to being further and further away from where I actually watch films. Even the core of the collection, an (almost) complete set of Woody Allen’s films is now slumped at the top of the stairs gathering dust. I am not proud of this because in a sense it was not intentional. I didn’t even notice the frequency with which my decision-making was being influenced by both TV film libraries and more recently, by the web. My DVD collection is dead and I may as well throw it out.

Why has the same process not happened to my CD collection? There must be a variable in there about age, but I think this is overstated in the media. I know ‘the kids’ no longer buy singles to the same degree that we did, but they do buy physical albums, more than ever in fact. My CD collection is 20% pop music and 80% classical music. I can honestly say that I can remember where and why I bought almost every single one. For instance, to raise funds in order to buy the 1993 Pet Shop Boys album ‘Very’ I had to paint an artex ceiling in Belfast. All those details are important, they were trying times and that was a difficult ceiling. More recently, I went to the wonderful Heffers here in Cambridge and bought a Boulez recording of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. This fantastic release is genuinely heavy with extensive liner notes and photographs. It is already a valuable object.

And so to my books. I have carried these across the UK in the course of my life so far. They have been sworn at, when boxed and waiting at the bottom of flights of stairs. They have been on far too many Ikea bookshelves in the days before decent salaries. They have been in the backs of cars and the bellies of lorries. They have been found in more bookshops than I can possibly remember, or recommended to me by friends… or Amazon. A few have travelled with me all over Europe, to America and to China. One; Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has been held at night like a bible, during times of difficulty. Another; Larkin’s ‘The Less Deceived’ has been read since I was at school, still having the power to transform an ordinary afternoon into something memorable.

Aby Warburg, the great German bibliophile said to his younger brother Max when they were both children, that he would give him his birthright to the family fortune if Max would agree to buy him all the books he wanted for the rest of his life. Max agreed and over the decades, Warburg created something remarkable. The University of London now cares for his library, but the original library building, from which Warburg fled the Nazis, was more than books. It was a comprehensive and unique view of life.

Built in a circle and with oval shelves, the books were classified purely on how Warburg believed they contributed to his core beliefs; that humans rediscover aspects of the past, of tradition for themselves in every age, and that libraries should be anti-linear in order to aid that discovery through serendipity. Defining characteristics of the age of Enlightenment and of the Renaissance for example, were provided by the reuse of Classical forms, structures and intellectual ideas. Warburg called this ‘the survival of antiquity.’ The circle of ideas.

Change is inevitable, indeed welcome but it must be observed and monitored as well as absorbed and enjoyed. As the world moves to ever more pervasive digital culture, we should remember that the physical still has meaning. As a librarian, my instinct is the same at home as it is at work. I accept that my DVD collection is of the past, but I respect the origins and remaining authority of my CD and book collections. Warburg continues to show us through his library and its remarkable, almost corporeal presence that the future is not defined by the digital alone. All libraries, like life are circular.

Code Making

A couple of weeks ago I saw a book in a bookshop. Not a remarkable coincidence, I know but this one was special. It was not born analogue.

Libraries are now concerned with storage of many types of media. Of course, we still care for and collect millions of printed books, and to a lesser degree journals. But we are also acquiring digital collections, datasets and surrogates that can only be accessed online. There are occasional attempts to take a ‘snapshot’ of the entire Internet by some national libraries as well. Most of what is on the web is referred to as ‘born digital.’

Additionally, many materials are being digitised. This transfer of analogue materials; printed books, television programmes, films, music recordings and art works, is creating vast new collections. Storing them is one problem. Searching through them is another. There is a web within the Web. This is sometimes referred to as semantic. Effectively, it is the equivalent of looking into a library and running your eyes across the shelves, then looking into the library catalogue. The catalogue is the semantic library.

Many attempts have been made to discover a way of cataloguing the Internet. By far the most successful to date has been Google’s much-vaunted ranking system. The specific technology behind this remains a corporate secret but it is certainly active, rather than static, as is the case with most catalogues. This means that automated web robots, or computer programmes that constantly roam the web sending back data to Google on word usage within websites and on access statistics. Library catalogues are created at some point by human intervention. Most records are fairly simple; author, title etc but for rare materials or historic items expert description is required. Either way, both Google and libraries are using a form of cataloguing. As the act of collecting, (another way of describing librarianship) moves further into the digital world, more of the semantic information will simply be termed metadata.

For many years, we have heard alarms concerning the future role of print in culture, society and education. I think we are now at a point of coalition. Television, radio, film, music, photography and many other previously analogue processes are now almost entirely digital. Most of these also had physical presences, as the devices that captured them required objects. Tapes, paper, CD’s, DVD’s, LP’s were all results of analogue processes. As an aside, these have always resulted in multi-media libraries. That term is not the monopoly of the Internet.

None of these, with the exception of photography are print-based forms though. Of those, the book seems the most robust. Journals and newspapers are already either in digital form, or made redundant by digital forms. This was the case anyway, but the dominance on the web of social media has surely finalised the process of change. Twitter is now more important than television news in its ability to spread the word. Facebook and Google have more power in their control of advertising space than any newspaper in the world.

The printed book, although now not alone as a form of secure information sharing, remains the most potent method for humans to communicate. Perhaps this is because the physical object still has force for us. Contacting a real person is still the principal reason for typing something into your computer. A work of art still moves us differently when it is seen, or can be touched. The Holy Grail is unlikely to be pure data – we would have to hold it.

For these reasons, the printed book will adapt to the digital world rather than be fundamentally altered by it. Authors still want to have created something. Publishers still want to design something. Readers still want to hold something.

All printed books, even that wilting collection of paperbacks on your shelves, can be called codices. The word ‘codex’ comes from the Latin ‘caudex,’ meaning block of wood. When collected with quires; either paper or vellum stitched and folded into pages and bound between covers, a book is created. In this sense, the act of collecting applies not just to libraries but also to books themselves. Every book is a micro-library.

Initially, the codex was in competition with scrolls. It was quickly seen to be better. A scroll is sequential access. A codex is random access. So the codex and scroll were the precursors of much of the debate between print and digital. The difference is that although the Internet may have comprehensiveness as a main characteristic, the book has beauty.

So, the book I saw in the bookshop started me thinking because it was bucking a trend. Digitisation is the single most important aspect to the current development of human knowledge. The growth of the web and the transfer of analogue to digital will enable progress beyond anything we have yet seen. But the book in the bookshop was a stunningly produced printed blog.

The entire text is written by a famous artist. I’ll let you use the semantic web to find it. What he has produced is a process currently without a term. It is the opposite of digitisation and a fascinating glimpse into the future of the book. Not only will the printed media always be first choice for many authors and readers, but it will also find a new role. The object means more than the byte.

The process of turning, for instance a blog into a codex might be called ‘to codify.’ A new definition for this verb, which currently can mean to arrange in a systematic manner. Codification means to reduce to a code. The blog, pulled from the active web and redesigned to reflect and mark one person’s world is this reduction.

This process might just catch on – the act of collecting, the art of bookmaking.

A room of one’s own

‘And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I

am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me

like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him

back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom

I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is

death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with

my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like

Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my

horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and

unyielding, O Death!’

The waves broke on the shore.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

In the spirit of the holiday I thought I’d write a little about reading. My own writing takes up much of the day at the moment, but I’ve never been a writer who doesn’t read. They do exist, almost as a point of principle. I think that creating a novel from blank pieces of paper (or in my case Apple products), is hard and lonely enough. Writing inevitably means being away from people. Other’s books are as close as they can come to you. It means the study; the room of one’s own need not be a place of complete isolation.

So, I have a number of books ‘on the go,’ you might say. I have decided not to use links in the text here because I always find web browsing more surprising if I am not too directed. I hope you don’t mind:

Poussin’s Humour by Tony Green

A series of essays on the great French painter written by an acerbic Scottish art historian. Brilliant interpretations of key works, in particular a new reading of ‘The Judgment of Solomon,’ Poussin’s masterpiece of truth and falsehood. I find Tony Green relatively accessible, as art history is far from my own field. He succeeds in bringing centuries of debate together with his modern view of Poussin’s importance as a philosophical and political artist.

With Borges by Alberto Manguel

When Borges became Librarian of the National Library of Argentina he also lost his sight. He discovered Manguel as a boy on the streets of Buenos Aires and asked him to read to him. This created a lifelong friendship and turned Manguel into one of Argentina’s greatest writers. This tiny book is their story.

Ravel by Roger Nichols

The new biography of Ravel, by the composer’s most insightful researcher. Just when you thought it would not be possible to write something previously undiscovered about Ravel, Nichols does precisely that. This is a big book filled with detail, almost a Ravelian ballet (pretentious remark award of the day!) but essential in further understanding this most enigmatic of great composers.

The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh

All families have talent, trouble and trials. The Wittgensteins exaggerate every possible facet of life. Paul Wittgenstein, the one-armed concert pianist, his brother Ludwig, the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century and a backdrop of billionaire parents, Nazi payoffs and constant arguments make this book genuinely important. Ravel is in here too. I stood looking up at Wittgenstein’s rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge before reading it.

The Less Deceived by Philip Larkin

I think Larkin’s finest collection of poems. I bought this copy, a first edition in the wonderful David Moore bookshop here in Cambridge. Typically slim, it is inspiring to read through a complete collection by Larkin. His care between poems, how the reader moves through the book, is a characteristic and shows his less well-known understanding of music at work in literature.

Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

A ‘bible’ for anyone in love with language. This book is about many things, indeed perhaps it is about everything, and Wittgenstein certainly thought so. Initially intimidating, the clarity of thinking soon lifts the reader into real contemplation.

Lambeth Palace Library ed. Richard Palmer and Michelle P. Brown

A stunning book on the great collection of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Edited by its previous librarian and also one of my colleagues at London. I am working on a monograph on our own historic collections soon and if we get anywhere near the quality and depth of this book I’ll be pleased.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The most astonishing novel Woolf ever wrote. It is more original in literary execution than Ulysses, more fluid than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, more assured than The Satanic Verses and more important than Being and Nothingness. I pick these books carefully because they are all significant for me in terms of landmarks in literature, but Woolf, in this novel rises above them all. Every time I read it I am left thinking her to be the greatest novelist in the English language.

So, there you are, a glimpse into what space is left in the brain beyond writing. Of course, they are all interlinked and influential on the writing process, either in literary or biographical senses. Not everything is here on the web.