The future of library consortia is a major question for libraries of all types and in all sectors. In the higher education sector, library consortia are long established and have provided real benefit to readers through access agreements and sharing of practice in statistical form. In the public library sector, the use of consortia is less common but, for example, in May 2012 an inaugural conference took place in Bath for colleagues from public libraries to discuss the potential benefits of consortial practice.
In universities the trend from the early 1980’s has been to follow a twin-track approach of both large and small consortial activity. The precursor to Research Libraries UK (RLUK), the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL) was formed in 1983 from only Oxford, Cambridge, Senate House Libraries, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and Manchester. I would also now include Trinity College Dublin and the LSE in such a list of ‘very large libraries.’ RLUK is now 33 members and likely to continue growing. SCONUL too has grown with changes to the UK higher education sector.
Our library at Senate House is a member of a number of consortia. Some of these are, as with SCONUL and RLUK relatively large groups with a variety of different associated tasks and activities. Others, such as SPARC-Europe are focused on particular areas of work, in that case Open Access to research. I do not want to publicise the total annual cost of these memberships but it is not insignificant for any large research library.
This post is concerned with consortia but also takes the opportunity to reflect on certain aspects of the 2012 SCONUL conference, which I attended in Liverpool a few weeks ago.
To date, I have had a varied career in terms of roles and types of institutional settings. I have worked in the country’s smallest institution at Dartington and in its largest at London. I have been in development agency roles at JISC and in comparatively traditional roles within large libraries. I have managed information services in China and Malaysia whilst at Nottingham University. I have shelved books as an undergraduate assistant at Queen’s University Belfast and written entire strategies at Senate House. In thirteen years since qualifying from Sheffield University I have moved, been moved and ensured movement happens.
I feel deeply privileged to be part of a profession that is at the forefront of the current dominant shift in human culture – the information age. I say this without self-aggrandisement – I have, in all these settings, known what libraries are for.
At the 2012 SCONUL conference there were two presentations I attended which fell some way short of real purpose.
The first was a presentation on information literacy (IL) and the library’s role by Megan Oakleaf, Associate Professor at Syracuse University. Oakleaf is a good speaker, although the seemingly endless, and I’m sorry to say rather weak jokes about the differences between US and British English did wear me down by the end of the presentation. This aside, I think it is important to reflect on the messages contained within her keynote. The principle one seemed to be that because of the Internet, librarians had lost their purpose in life. The answer, according to Oakleaf is to properly define our role in information literacy. As soon as she said this, my heart sank.
Professional librarianship comes in many forms. This is broadly reflected in the curricula of our departments of library and information science, or ‘library schools’ as some of us determinedly call them. As a profession we do tend to choose differing paths for our careers. This is clearly a good thing. If all librarians were the same where would the world be? However, it is not so much the skillsets that define us as the information that we hold.
I am not for one minute suggesting that there are more and less important members of the profession, but I am suggesting that such a distinction exists amongst our libraries.
Oakleaf’s proposal, that not only is information literacy at the heart of our profession but that it is also a ‘teaching practice’ seemed to me, despite the confident manner in which it was presented, a proposal formed on panic. This was the voice of a community overwhelmed by the web. A community of librarians and of libraries whose small collections were now redundant in the digital world and who are left struggling for definition by suggesting that they could ‘teach’ navigation to the users of that world.
Two problems: librarianship is rarely about teaching. That is a process of course design, student monitoring and assessment leading to formal awards, which is not our role in universities. Librarians do not teach. We train. I will no doubt receive examples to prove otherwise but in general, I think we should be honest about where our real purpose lies. Secondly, collections and their interpretation are the heart of the library profession and information literacy is not.
The National Forum on Information Literacy defines IL as ‘the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand.’ The important point here is that although IL is used as a term in libraries, it is actually a misuse and especially in academic libraries. Information literacy is regarded everywhere apart from the library community to be the ability of citizens to interact with the digital world. At the very least, this can be seen as part of the role of colleagues in public libraries. In the academic library environment we are not delivering information literacy, we are training academic skills such as search techniques, data management and web fluency.
Oakleaf has I think, mistaken these core information handling skills as information literacy and, perhaps because of her own background as a teacher applied this term incorrectly for our profession. The result was a presentation without real depth of purpose, despite the admitted energy of the presenter.
The real problem underlying Oakleaf’s presentation though was not of her own making. There were over one hundred libraries represented in the room at the SCONUL conference and not all of them were alike.
Chris Hale, from Universities UK gave the second session I would highlight as a problem. I have seen Chris present a number of times and he always strikes me as a thoughtful and well-considered contributor to discussion. This was no exception in the sense that Chris’ style was clear and his content logically delivered. The problem arose, and it jumped out at me like a hidden tiger, at the moment he used the word ‘generic’ to describe library activities.
UUK are starting a benchmarking initiative across all academic libraries to discern areas of library practice which are similar, or duplicated or perhaps both. The aim appears to be to produce a report for senior mangers in universities to enable them to have reassurances that their local library services are efficient. If we put the considerable risk of this data to those libraries aside, in that universities have a common ability to willfully misread benchmark data in order to justify damaging cuts, we can focus on the real difficulty here.
I looked around the table at Chris’ session and could see perhaps three other large research libraries represented. All other colleagues were, broadly speaking from smaller institutions or teaching-led environments. As is the case in much of the UK sector, and I have already mentioned my own time outside of RLUK, there is real excellence in many of those institutions. Some of my colleagues in post-1992 universities are running multi-award winning services with superb results in, for example, the National Student Survey.
My issue with the word ‘generic’ is not one based on elitism but rather on pragmatism. UUK’s survey as presented to us seemed to discuss libraries purely in terms of undergraduate throughput, whether that is measured by gate statistics or e-book usage or any other desperately simplistic description of what a library is in the early twenty-first century. There is no doubt that some slighter, less complex services, however excellent can be measured like this. However, for a comparably small number of world-class libraries this is a tactical error.
For around nine HE libraries, perhaps even the original seven in CURL, this kind of measurement is not only damaging locally but also nationally. Policy makers are almost always short-term junkies. Politics itself is fast-paced and trend driven. It is far easier to seek out new headlines than retrace collective steps to consider what has already been achieved. The fact is, and it is shown most clearly in the UK Inter-Library Loan system, that a small number of very large libraries are already an efficient way of providing world-class facilities to the whole sector with minimal duplication across all UK university libraries.
Efficiencies can of course always be made, but in some areas it needs to be understood that the academic library sector needs clarity and stability, not endless reinvention.
In the early part of the twentieth century the same nine libraries were, for the most part delivering the services now asked of them in the early part of the twenty-first century. There have of course been many more libraries built in the intervening years. There has more recently, been a seismic shift in knowledge availability through the Internet. Change will continue. The fact remains though, that the UK should not consider its university libraries either as primarily focused on training information handling skills, or as a generic activity. There remains a core of our national collections, which have also physically grown in the last one hundred years or so, and will continue to grow in printed form. This core needs to be absolutely clear as to its shared purpose and its contribution to the UK, and indeed Irish university sectors.
Oxford, Cambridge, Senate House Libraries, London School of Economics, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Trinity College Dublin remain the largest institutional collections in the UK and Ireland by any measure. These are broadly different though than the measures used by SCONUL and UUK and mean they too are centres of excellence making unique contributions to the national and international research effort. Might these be regarded as needing a further shared definition of purpose?
Considering the role of the past in the definition of a future is always roulette. What can be said though, is that for the UK to remain essential internationally we must speak with confidence about diversity. Very large libraries are not the same as smaller libraries. They hold collections on a different scale. They engage with the digital world in a more complex manner and they should be celebrated as a shared national resource, not judged in generic terms. This is I believe, a real challenge for both RLUK and SCONUL.