Posted tagged ‘libraries’

Keeping the library open

December 21, 2015

This post will be slightly more philosophical in intent than the title may suggest.

In the late 1970s I was a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England. As was the case with many of those doing research for a PhD, I spent a lot of time in the library. Or maybe I should say, in the libraries, because Cambridge had a number of these and I frequented many of them, in part because I was trying to stretch my work across disciplinary boundaries. I loved the libraries, and I enjoyed working there and eating there and observing other users there.

And then I attended a talk at which the speaker suggested that the age of libraries was nearly over. At the time we were not yet in the era of personal computing, but the speaker predicted – accurately – that this was just over the horizon, and (less accurately) that once computers became accessible to the masses libraries would be out of business. Books, he suggested, would be acquired for their historical and aesthetic attractions but not for reading.

Earlier this year, on a visit to London, I sought out a library I used to frequent on visits from Cambridge, and found much of it as I remembered it. There were plenty of readers, and while some were sitting at desks with iPads out, others were immersed in old fashioned print. But there was a difference. I don’t know whether it was just that particular day, but what I found was that the readers were interacting with each other much more than in former days. Back then we would sit quietly and do our reading and writing, and the only interaction would be an irritated glance at someone making a noise. Now people were exchanging views, pointing to things 0n their iPads or their books, quietly arguing or discussing.

If there has been a change, I suspect this will have been caused by a number of different factors; but I think the accessibility of technology-disseminated information will have played a part, as this breaks down strict disciplinary boundaries more easily than, in former days, cautious attempts to invade some other discipline’s scholarly spaces. And books have kept pace, still read, indeed perhaps more widely shared now than before: the analog and the digital in harmony.

At the heart of the campus?

February 25, 2011

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.

Charles Haughey’s papers come to DCU

February 4, 2009

Tuesday was a significant day for Dublin City University: the papers of the late Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Charles J. Haughey were handed to DCU by his family. They are now being sorted and catalogued and, eventually, will be accessible to researchers, historians and scholars who want to study them. It is a priceless collection: letters, reports, memos, documents and other memorabilia, perhaps the most impressive and complete collection of such documents in recent Irish history,  providing insights not just into the life of this most visionary but also controversial politician, but also his times.

It was one of those interesting twists that the hand-over of the papers took place on the day that we learned of the break-down of the social partnership talks aimed at tackling the serious economic and financial problems currently faced by Ireland. In 1987, within days of becoming Taoiseach after the general election of that year, Haughey set about the task of preparing the ground for what became the Programme for National Recovery – an agreement between the government, the employers, the trade unions and other representative groups, under which pay restraint was agreed in return for reform in taxation and various social programmes. It was an extremely successful initiative, contributing critically to a steep growth in Ireland’s competitiveness and providing order in the country’s public finances. The boom of the Celtic Tiger was born in that initiative, very well documented in the papers we received today.

Political archives are enormously important for historians, political scientists, journalists and others. With the Haughey papers, and with materials previously provided by the families of the late Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby and diplomat Sean Lester, DCU is building a collection of unique value. And we hope that this is only the beginning of a process that will allow us to become the recognised home for such archives in Ireland.

In relation specifically to Charles Haughey, I think the time is right to change the focus from one on his personal life and finances to the role he played, first as a reforming and socially aware Minister in several departments, and later as the head of a government that took the painful but necessary steps to halt Ireland’s dramatic economic slide. When Haughey took over as Taoiseach in 1987, there was a huge public debt, and unemployment was at over 17 per cent. Within three years everything had changed, and the country was well on the way to becoming a model for economic reform and development. I am glad that DCU is able to make some contribution to recognising this.

What’s in a library?

February 1, 2009

Twenty years ago this year I started on the process that would finish with the publication of my first book. In fact, in the course of my career I have written four books, and edited or co-edited another ten or so. In a great display of narcissism, when I visited a major library in London recently I did a search for my books and found them nearly all there, and went to the relevant shelf to admire them. There is a kind of quiet satisfaction in seeing them and thinking that this is something of me that may remain after I have gone.

Or will it? Can I really be sure that, in another 50 years, there will still be libraries like that one, or that any libraries that do exist will be displaying anything very much on shelves?

I recall the occasion when, in my last university, I was at a meeting at which the Librarian explained that, at that point, the cost of new journal and book acquisitions necessary for maintaining our teaching and research had begun to exceed our means. And he pointed out that this would get worse, that academic publishers were putting up journal prices in particular at a rate far beyond inflation, and that soon only very wealthy universities would be able to maintain an adequate collection. That was still in the days before widespread digital and online publications. Now the hard copy versions of a good many publications are beyond the resources of most institutions.

You would of course wonder about the business plans of publishers who have for years been pricing their products out of affordability for many of their customers, but I think some of them took the view that they held so many monopoly rights that they could afford to squeeze academic libraries, which on the whole simply couldn’t afford not to have their products and would have to cut other things if necessary.

But all of that may have fatally undermined paper versions of academic publications. As the crazy pricing escalated, many libraries started moving away from acquiring hard copies of some items and started offering electronic access to books and journals as the primary avenue of distribution. Once you start down that road, you cannot return: the cost of stocking all these items on paper later on would be so prohibitively expensive that no-one could afford to contemplate it.

When I was setting out to write that first book, I occupied a desk in the library, and there I surrounded myself with stacks of books, papers and journals, and the atmosphere of scholarship emanating from these was almost tangible and a great motivator of my research. I am of course a technophile, and I happily sit at my computer to research something. But in the end it’s not the same. Of course I want electronic access to everything in my library, but I also want hard copies of books and journals, and I refuse to believe that this world is lost and gone for ever. Surely it cannot be!