Posted tagged ‘university libraries’

Defending the university library

February 10, 2015

Whatever challenges we may face in this part of the world, we are unlikely – or so we hope – to experience the destruction of our libraries through book burnings. However, not everyone in the world can be see confident: throughout the second half of 2014 the jihadists of Islamic State, who had captured the Northern Iraq city of Mosul, have been burning all non-Islamic books in the local university libraries. And before we get to feel superior, we must of course remember that in the 20th century this happened in Europe also. And even more recently in America, though admittedly for different reasons: in Missouri a university librarian destroyed 188,000 books because he felt they were moldy and damp.

Libraries face all sorts of challenges: they can be the first to feel the impact of budget cuts, they can experience the uncertainty some university leaders feel about whether traditional library materials are still needed or a good investment, or they can get into the news for the wrong reasons, as some students are found doing things there they shouldn’t be.

In a world in which learning methods and indeed learning habits are changing rapidly, in which demographic trends are changing many of our former assumptions, in which electronic materials are replacing hard copies, it may be difficult to develop and promote sustainable library models. But it seems clear to me that we must do so, because in the end the library is, more than anything else, the key symbol of the academy – where the source of knowledge is contained and its analysis facilitated. No matter what happens to the technology, libraries will become neither less relevant nor, it has to be said, less expensive. Universities need to ensure that they survive and prosper, not just on electronic servers, but as places in which scholars can be scholars.

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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.

Libraries in peril

May 19, 2010

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.