Libraries in peril

Recently I was present at a conversation between two university librarians, and it was not an uplifting experience. Coming from very different types of university, both had identical concerns about the future. Libraries, they suggested, were now so expensive that most institutions could no longer afford them – partly because of the unreasonable greed of the major publishers. Funding sources were drying up, books and journals were becoming much more expensive, nobody had quite worked out the appropriate relationship between online sources and hard copy, some academics had become lukewarm about the importance of libraries, and so forth. Libraries, one of them suggested, were in many ways still treated like the old monastic depositories of books, in a world where such facilities were not readily understood – but were not resourced anyway to carry out that role successfully. Many had reinvented themselves as providers of digital resources, but sometimes without that being worked properly into a teaching and learning strategy of the host institution.

Were they right to be so pessimistic? Actually, when I visit other universities and get a tour of their campus, I can still expect, every time, that my tour will take in a major library and that will be presented as a core facility. But you need only take a short walk in one to see how confused the planners sometimes are. You might see computer workstations scattered around the place, or you might see shelves, but often these are just hosted in different parts of a building that does not seem to have a clear information strategy. Computers and the information they contain are treated as if they were books and journals that just look different, whereas in reality they are very different research tools. Study spaces, collaboration spaces and social spaces are usually there, but again without the building having been designed to develop these strategically and integrate them into learning techniques.

But in the end it is funding issues that most threaten libraries. As universities experience ever more severe cuts, library budgets are obvious targets. Stocking libraries with books has become almost an eccentric pursuit, as limited budgets go into journal renewals and online subscriptions; and indeed not enough of these. Right now students increasingly vote with their laptops and stay at home to surf out their sources, which we can only hope they will credit. But because of the explosion of information that is freely available, the library has become ever more necessary. But universities need to have a policy for developing libraries that goes beyond just stocking them; they need to use them as learning and research development tools, properly supported and used appropriately as students are trained to find and evaluate information.

A modern university library needs to be something more than a slightly gloomy building in which everyone says ‘Sshhh!’ They need to provide structured and then independent learning tools. And they need to be equipped to play that role.

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7 Comments on “Libraries in peril”

  1. Vincent Says:

    How about yourself TCD and UCD setting up a central Library. -I know the NL is there but it has a very different function, in that it is something of a deep freeze.- Lets call it the Dublin Universities Central Library or The DUCK for short. Now the issue would be where to put the thing. I would argue Collins barracks and what ever stuff sitting there moved to Cathal Brugha. What on earth we still have an Armed Camp sitting in the middle of our Capital is beyond me. So why not move them to Thornton Hall, we might as well get value for money for that place.

  2. I think you are looking at the library in isolation, and not as the tail-end of a much larger publishing ecosystem. It is this system as a whole, rather than the university libraries which have the problem which you rightly point out. The problem boils down to money, and who gets it. How can it make sense for universities of academics to on the one hand fund the writing of academic books and journal articles through research salaries, but on the other hand have to buy these same books and journals back at a vast premium? There needs to be some restructuring of this arrangement, to say the least.

    I would say that you can’t really get a scope on how well a particular library is coping with the changes in IT without understanding their operations in a fair amount of detail. The physicalities of the library are less and less important, and the skill and knowledge of the staff in purchasing resources and guiding their use are more and more important.

    There is a distinction between online sources and books now, but with the iPad, the Kindle, and the open source version which will inevitably follow, that gap will surely be greatly narrowed by the end of the decade at the latest.

    • Jilly Says:

      Antoin, this is an interesting perspective, and I think has some value, but there are complications. The universities fund the research that goes into the writing of academic books, articles etc through academics’ salaries. But it is the publishers who fund the printing, distribution etc of those books (I believe that 15,000 euro for a standard monograph print-run of 750 copies is a typical figure, though I’m equally sure there are huge variations). And that cost, along with the salaries of editors, sales teams etc are what they’re trying to recoup by selling to university libraries – along with some profit, obviously.

      The standard assumption in academia is that very little profit is made on our books. But I wonder if that’s really true? I suspect it is in most cases, but the truth is that few of us really know…

  3. “Right now students increasingly vote with their laptops and stay at home to surf out their sources, which we can only hope they will credit.”

    Yes, and in so doing their university experience is diminished.

  4. ‘The universities fund the research that goes into the writing of academic books, articles etc through academics’ salaries. But it is the publishers who fund the printing, distribution etc of those books’

    The universities (the public purse) pay for the research. The universities pay for the published product (all formats). The universities provide the peer reviewers. The universities provide the editorial board. The universities pay the page and colour charges. The universities pay extra to make the research paper barrier free (open access).

    It’s a monumental scam but at least it’s being addressed. New models of publishing are emerging and there is now a great opportunity to re-engineer the university press. Publishers are service providers pushing an outmoded business model that ill-serves 21st century scholarly communication. They know a huge shift is taking place and so do librarians. Now’s not the time for hand-wringing.

  5. Conor Galvin Says:

    Two observations: Plos ( and other publishers like it and what they will most probably do to academic publishing trade in the near future.
    And the Teaching Grid at Warwick ( where I had the great pleasure of keynoting the launch-event a while back. The Grid is not new, it’s renovated space but it works impressively well.

    Libraries can be wonderfully dynamic and energising places with a little bit of vision and the right sort of support from within the academic ecosystem. The reasons more aren’t is something that puzzles me a lot.

  6. Antoin Says:

    15000 euros to set up a book and print 750 copies is a big rip-off. Publishers have gotten fat and lazy if these are their costs. On the technical side, print on demand places will print for you, on demand as many or as few copies as you want. The setup fee is around 50 euros and you supply them with a PDF file. For commercial and distribution, they can feed directly into amazon. I know of at least one publishing firm In Ireland which publishes academic books on this basis for a very good margin to the author. In any case, what future is there, really, in paper copies? It is just an extra expense to store them.

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