At the heart of the campus?

Right now a controversy is raging in the United Kingdom, as many readers will know, about the future of public libraries. Libraries, under threat from funding cuts being experienced by local authorities, have become a kind of icon in the struggle to find a new kind of society that maintains decent values and is yet affordable in these straightened times. And yet, a vox pop survey carried out the other day by a British radio station on a typical English high street did not come up with a single passer-by who had been inside the local library within the previous month.

This finding was on my mind when I met a small group of students who were proposing to interview me for a student magazine. In passing I asked them how often they used their university library. Of the five present, one said he used it very frequently, another said he was there occasionally (principally just before an exam), and the other three could not recall when they had last been in it. ‘It’s all on the web now,’ one of them offered.

I don’t know of any academic who would not put in a spirited defence of their library and of the need to resource it generously. And yet, how many of them use it? Is it that we are addicted to nostalgia that keeps us from making realistic judgements, or are we right to defend libraries even though many have lost the knack of using it?

No doubt some of this depends on what subject is being studied or researched, but in the end I would be aghast at the idea of leaving behind the idea of the university library as the heart of the intellectual community. But it may be the case that we need to re-conceptualise it, and gain a batter understanding of how a library, as a centre for books, information technology and other resources, can be at the centre of learning and scholarship today. If we don’t do this and do it well, it will not be long before someone starts to think of the library as an unnecessary extravagance; and then we will really have lost something.

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17 Comments on “At the heart of the campus?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Are you saying that we should be issued with an i-book and download from a central node.

  2. jfryar Says:

    Two points. First is that lots of older material isn’t available in electronic format (particularly some of the older scientific journals). It’s a constant source of irritation for me to find that some researchers think their science only dates back 10 years and are surprised when they find papers from the 1950s that have already examined some of the stuff they talk about. I wonder how much ‘re-inventing the wheel’ goes on by our young PhD candidates who haven’t actually looked in the library. So libraries still remain an important tool – their relevence is only diminished if people aren’t prepared to use them properly and that’s something academics can instill in students.

    Secondly, libraries offer ‘real’ references. Too many students use the web as a quick-fix referencing tool where the origins are dubious and the writer is either anonymous or has questionable qualifications. So books are still important and, let’s be honest, few people are going to download an entire book on ‘Thermodynamics of Plasma Plumes’ so it’s unlike you’ll find such material on the web.

    I personally think the usefulness of the web is overstated. It’s good for doing searches but, as most academics will have found, you often run into papers you don’t have access to because the institution doesn’t subscribe and off you go to fill out inter-library loan forms. If you lose libraries then how ‘thorough’ is the research if people decide ‘can’t access it on the web so will ignore it’?

    • I guess the point is not that you can get source material on general web pages, but that the journals are now often there for direct reference.

      • jfryar Says:

        True, but most universities have subscriptions that allow access to journals only beyond a set date. Often, those journal subscriptions are based on modern impact factors which either didn’t exist or have changed considerably.

        Also, many journals are no longer in existence or have changed titles so it’s impossible to access them via the web because they’re no longer published.

        There’s also an issue where older journals have simply been scanned in, so searches will find the title and ‘keywords’ but searching the content is impossible other than by reading.

        Basically my point is that, in my opinion, relying solely on the web makes for poor research and libraries are an important resource as a repository of old information that is still relevent.

        • jfryar Says:

          Plus, I should add that most journal subscriptions cost an arm and a leg, so access is limited to university staff and students. On the other hand, print journals are physical books that are available to the general public.

          • Al Says:

            I have to agree.
            library research exposes students to research in a physical environment and all that is implicit in that.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    *But it may be the case that we need to re-conceptualise it, and gain a batter understanding of how a library, as a centre for books, information technology and other resources, can be at the centre of learning and scholarship today.* That is exactly the point, libraries need to change in order to serve and reflect new learning and teaching environments and broader changes in the production and dissemination of information brought about by digital technologies. The concept of Library 2.0 is useful to this scope.

  4. Mike Scott Says:

    Lets face it the library is going the way of the public telephone box. If you want to make a phone call you reach for your mobile phone, if you want information you Google for it. I haven’t been in the DCU library in months, and I certainly wouldn’t put up a “spirited defence” for lavishing scarce resouces on it.

  5. Jilly Says:

    This discussion is very focused on journal articles, but students and academics also need to read books. That’s where the library provides a service which isn’t available online.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Jilly, I have to disagree woth this, books are available now online…it would be short-sighted of libraries to pin the raison d’etre for their existence on this one aspect

      • Jilly Says:

        Erm…some books are available online, but not necessarily the ones you need to read. I have to buy or borrow from the library at least 90% of the secondary texts I use.

  6. Fred Says:

    I think that the two are complementaries rather than substitutes. Yes it is far more convenient to look in the online library at first and probably to read few papers there but I think that it is not that convenient to read whole books. So even if there are some e-books I think that their use is when you are searching for specific chapters or when you want to easily compare contents and basic things. The next hour you can go and get the “traditional” book from the library!

  7. cormac Says:

    The library in my village in Dunmore is only open one day a week…as a result I never miss it!

  8. Dan Says:

    I would be delighted to spend more time in the library – virtual or real – if I could spend less time on administration and emails and more on research and updating my teaching materials.

    Is there any chance, seeing that ‘change’ is all the rage, that we could “re-conceptualise” admin?

  9. Daniel Says:

    I wonder if your conversation with the students reflects a work ethic issue, rather than the decline of the library? As a postgrad student I can say I’d be lost without it, my class would agree. However I can count the amount of times I set foot inside it during my degree on one hand.

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