Tag Archives: Libraries

The future of the academic library

I usually don’t write in my blog about my work.

Basically because I want to keep my work and hobbies separate and also because there is always a danger in talking about your employer publicly on the web, even if it is done in your own time.

However libraries, and their function is an interest of mine.  Not only because I am a librarian, but also because the function of the library, and the perception of it can be damn interesting.

The reason why I decided to break the rule of not talking about ‘work’ is because of an article by Geoff Hanmer in the Financial review titled: “Last hurrah for the traditional university library”. 

Of course as an University Librarian this sort of article deal directly with my work.  I was prepared for the usual “Libraries are redundant because people can get things online” argument.  But I didn’t find that in Hanmer’s article. What I think he’s saying is that the ‘traditional’ function of the University Library is not relevant anymore.  The problem with his argument was not dismissing the university library out of hand, but the fact that he was betrayed unawareness on how university libraries have already changed.  My impression as I was reading his article was of someone who studied architecture before 2000, and his ideas of how a library operates has been fixed at that time.

This is not uncommon even amongst some of the academics I deal with.  As academic librarians we can offer citation analysis of their research, we can work with them to ensure their students are literate in how to search and use the library resources most effectively, and more.  But some academics (especially those who have graduated quite a while ago) that have a rock solid idea that the library is a place where you peruse journals and borrow books, as it might have been the main function 30 years ago. Following this belief follows that libraries nowdays ‘are redundant’.  Is a common statement amongst some academics that say to me ‘I haven’t used the library for years’.  Meaning that they actually haven’t physically been into a library. But of course access all their information through databases in the comfort of their offices.  Just because they can get access to journals with a few clicks of a button doesn’t mean that they are not using ‘the library’.  They are using it but in a different form.

Peter Green uses a good analogy when he’s told that statement.

When I hear ‘I haven’t been to the library for years’ I feel like responding with ‘I haven’t been to the bank for years’ – but I use the bank all the time, I’m just not going into the physical branch. For an academic at a university the library comes to them, when and where they need it. Like the bank. And like the bank this virtual service doesn’t happen by magic, there is an industry of effort required to make a virtual space work.

It seems because we are used to get information from many ‘free’ sources like websites and Google, some make the assumption that all of it is like that.  It is not.  A journal online has to be subscribed to, indexed etc.  And while in the old days the user (or librarian) had to look into printed indexes to find articles relevant to a topic, the complexity of searching through a online database for journal on a topic can be mind boggling.  Try to enter something like ‘climate change’ in a database like Web of Science and you’ll probably get more than 50,000 returns.  A user may be skilled to find the needled in those haystacks, but a librarian could make the process much easier.

We didn’t have to wait long for the reaction of the library sector of the article.  The response that I thought was more to the point was from the Australian Library and Information Association which pointed out that libraries have been actively moving to electronic formats since the mid 70’s, when very few electrons were involved in anything resembling the ‘internet’.

The concept of the ‘demise of the library’ is a curious one.  I wonder whether some from other professionals get some vicarious pleasure forecasting the end of an industry.  Perhaps a self-appointed Cassandra like role makes some feel a bit superior, who knows.  Maybe there seems to be a dissonance between architects/planners and the role of the modern library.  Urban development consultant, Alan Davies, questioned the decision to spend money on a new library in the Green Square development. 

I have been a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to libraries, having stared being one in my mid 30’s.  But even in the 13 years since I’ve became a librarian it is amazing how things have changed.  Academic libraries are already changing rapidly from a repository of books and journals into a knowledge hub where librarians become involved in assisting students and staff in their learning, teaching and research, rather than simply organising information available in print.

And the change is continuing.  And the future can be seen in some libraries already.  Look at this video about the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at the North Carolina State University and you can get a glimpse of where we are going.

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Is this e-book library revolution all that is cracked up to be?

In don’t usually write about ‘work’ in this blog, as it is purely a hobby to expel some proverbial hot air on issues that interest me.  Of course work does interest me. I am passionate about libraries and their function in helping people get information, but I don’t usually think of this personal blog as a vehicle for my thoughts.  However I do have a bit of a bee in my bonnet at the moment.  So apologies at anyone who usually reads about Association Football and politics, you may want to click away to somewhere else.

One of the things I tend to get to hear constantly about the ‘future of libraries’ is that they are either going to change dramatically and will be smaller and with less librarians because everyone will come in with their iPads or whatever and get their books on line and won’t need to go to a shelf.

We often come across blogs (mainly from tech wizzes) that state that libraries will be museums, and books will be like vinyl records a niche curiosity.

We also come across talks in Library seminars that scares us to adapt or die.  That if we don’t get with the program of the E revolution we will become redundant and the librarian as a profession will go the same way as lamplighters and telegraph operators and we will be all out of a job and we will have only misery and doom in front of us.

I am not saying that libraries are, and will be different from the past.  Even I when a student bemoans that fact that a book is termed as ‘available’ on the catalogue but cannot be found still think how easy they have it.  In my days..I had to find a book in a huge card catalogue.  If it wasn’t on the shelf I had to go to the librarian who would look through a sets of borrowing cards and check if it was out, and when it was due back.

I am sure that someone somewhere has done a thorough study and a PhD about young students being totally digital literate and laughing at those quaint little books on the shelf, but my observation is quite different.

What got me thinking about it is when I went to a new PhD candidates seminar last week.  After my spiel about he library etc. a student asked me about journals and books that have been placed on storage.  He didn’t like it at all.  I did respond that there is a space issue, but with that I also said that the library is going more electronic.  He shook his head and said that his thinking process was really aided by browsing and looking at hard copies books and journals and that looking at computer screens wasn’t the same.  And this was an atmospheric scientist.  Someone who deals with very advanced applied mathematics, not some esoteric book loving historian doing a thesis on the literature of sub Roman England.

Maybe this may be with older students.  What about the young ones straight from high school?  They should take electronic material like ducks to water.  In some cases in first year recommended reading books we have an electronic and a hard copy version.  I expected that the hard copy would gather dust as everyone will go for the electronic version. But it was one of the most borrowed books.  When I asked a couple of students why they didn’t go for the electronic version, they said they did.  Mainly when the hard copy was out, but their preference was the book.  “I don’t like reading too long on the screen’ was the answer.  Or ‘I can take the book anywhere’.  Of course if the University decides to give an iPad to every student (as some Universities are doing this may be less of an issue).  But I also got responses that “prefer the book” or “I seem to study better with the book”.  Further to this I wonder whether there is a tendency for us ‘older’ cohort to overestimate the digital literacy of younger people.  From what I have observed the digital knowledge is restricted to what they need.  But once you go beyond that they are as novices as the rest of us.

I am not saying that the move to electronic/digital is not worthwhile.  I get plenty of appreciative comments from staff and postgraduate that they can get stuff in their office and homes etc.  But I do wonder whether this “become digital or we are totally doomed’ message is all that correct.

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University Librarians: Glorified admin officers or partners in research and teaching?

When I was living at home in the 1970/80’s my father, who is an engineer, was a fellow of the Institution of  Engineers Australia (which I think now is called Engineers Australia) and I used to glance at the newsletter that we would receive every month.  As you would imagine the topics were fairly dry.  Mining projects, structural developments etc.  There was an argument however that cropped up once in a while and did interest me, which was the perception in the Australian community of what an engineer was and whether they should call themselves engineers at all.

This was because, unlike continental Europe, in English speaking countries an Engineer was in the old days someone  starting up, regulating, repairing, and shutting down equipment. They monitored meters and gauges.  They got their hands dirty by using hand and power tools to perform repairs and maintenance.   So when someone described themselves as an ‘engineer’ many people immediately imagined not someone who studied advanced mathematics and applied physics for four years and able to design a bridge that didn’t fall down, but someone in a boiler suit and a wrench making sure pipes were not leaking.

The fact is that jobs either peter out (like telephonists) or they morph into something else in response to changes in society and technology.  Engineers were hands on fixers of things in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but as the complexity of technology and machinery increased, so was the job of someone with the skills to design these things.  And the description of an ‘engineer’ shifted from being a hands on skilled tradesperson to someone who worked in offices making calculations and designing projects.

I find a parallel in my job as a librarian, and sometimes I find it a struggle amongst some of the people I need to assist in my job to shift their perception of what is my role.

In the old days the job of a librarian was organising information in the print form, books and journals.  Selecting, purchasing, classifying and cataloging.   Circulating, preserving, and weeding.  Of course also allowing a space where people could read and study in piece, which inevitably lead to the stereotype of the sexless shushing librarian.

From http://www.mcphee.com/laf/

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However with the digital age this role has diminished.  Some stated that the idea of a ‘Library’ was finished.  People didn’t need to go to a library anymore because they could get everything they wanted on the internet.  I remember that a library I was working at whist studying for my library degree closed after I left by a new CEO that thought precisely that.

The problem with this idea though is that it is a bit like driving.  Anyone can sit behind a wheel and press a pedal.  But to be effective and safe a driver needs to learn about speed, rules and how to get to a destination.  The advent of the internet has in fact made the role of a librarian even more important (even if some want to change the name to something like ‘Information Managers’   – remember the engineer debate?).  An article written quite a long time ago titled Technology is changing role of librarian into that of a teacher
which was written in a librarian blog, outlines this:

While I was President of the American Library Association in 1999-2000, I began to see another big change taking place in the library. More and more, librarians were becoming teachers. It was less about the book, less about the media and more about helping library users find information. Many factors are contributing to this change. One is that much of the work of acquiring and processing and circulating books and other materials has been automated. Another is that the world of information has gotten much more complex with the introduction of the Internet, the World Wide Web and all sorts of electronic information. Today the critical need for librarians is to serve as interpreters and guides to the vast array of information that exists.

Kathy Walsh, Dean of University Libraries at National-Louis University saw the librarian’s role in the age of Google was to help users answer the complex questions of life. “Most people don’t need much help anymore with the “who and what” questions. Now it’s the “how and why” questions that bring people to the library. A lot of what our librarians do is to help users formulate and clarify their questions.”

In an academic library helping students searching information electronically is very important.  They may have been able to Google and get information at High School, but this often won’t cut it at University level where sources must be authentic, sometime peer reviewed and scrupulously referenced.  Once I  did a  session with a lecturer to university students that had an assignment on coal.  He mentioned that often he got back text that sounded like some sort of PR for coal.  With further investigation he found that students goggled and took information from coal promotion sites which is not acceptable in assignments at tertiary level.  Librarians now are charged with the responsibility of guiding users through the mire of information that is available through the internet.

I see that to be relevant I need to be more proactive and change the focus of my tasks.  As you may have read in my previous post, the small library I was running closed and now I am located in a big library, where I don’t need to perform tasks such as circulating material or binding volumes but can now concentrate on liaising with academic staff.  A major part of  job is described as being partners in research (such as offer assistance in making research grant applications) and partners in teaching  (such as helping their students in being information literate).  The question is whether as new liaison librarians we are seen as interlopers crashing a party we were not invited to, despite being there to help.  I have noticed that amongst the ‘older’ set of academics, the perception of librarians performing the task of selecting, purchasing, classifying and cataloging circulating, preserving, and weeding print material is firmly embedded in their minds, as engineers as boilermakers was in the populace in the 60’s and 70’s.  The idea that we could help them in showing their students how to maximise the effectiveness of searching of material, how to write a paper which is properly referenced etc. doesn’t come into their minds.  You have to constantly remind them, and then sometimes you feel a bit like the boy that repeatedly asks the pretty girl out and she accepts just because of your insistence.  Some come to the library with photocopies for students to photocopy themselves or to read and you repeatedly, gently remind them that if they asked me months earlier I could have organised for those articles to be digitised, so that students could access them easily through electronically.   But because they have done this since 1973 they continue to do so, not having realised that the skills and role of the librarian have now changed.  Another proof of this is when I was talking to some visiting academics and I introduced myself as the librarian.  “I haven’t used a library for years” came the reply.  “I search through databases online”.  When I inquired further I discovered that was in fact their library that provided the tools  for them to be able to research and find material.  The fact is that they were using the library.  Just because they physically didn’t need to enter a building didn’t mean that they were availing themselves of the skills and knowledge of a librarian.

There is hope however from the younger academic.  Often when I offer my assistance and help their students about how to use library resources they are quite surprised about what I offer.  They say things like ‘I didn’t know there was so much information’ or ‘I learned things myself about how to use library resources that I didn’t know either’.  The fact is that unlike the engineers, where the old perception has now almost all gone, we librarians are still in the boiler suit phase.  It will take some time for the reality to catch up.

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The library is now closed

I don’t usually write about my work on my blog.  Mainly because I am wary about using something which is a personal hobby to comment on my professional life.  However in this case my professional life intersects with my work one.

Tomorrow I will be sitting in a new place at work,  The library where I was the only librarian, the Earth Sciences Library has been in the process of amalgamation with a bigger one on the university campus.  I am not against this move.  I knew it was going to happen ever since I took on the job and in a way I am relieved that it has happened and I don’t have to think about it anymore.  There is however a tinge of sadness in thinking that from tomorrow I won’t be placed in my own little library, but also a bit sad to think that this library that was in existence ever since the Department of Geology was created at the University of Melbourne is no more.

There is also a personal dimension about this move.  I have studied at this library in my undergraduate years, and to think back then I would never imagined in a million years that I would become a librarian, the librarian of that library and the last one to boot.   It gave me a sense of continuity to think that I was working in a place that I used back in my twenties.

But time to move on.  And really as someone who got retrenched twice, I a grateful that I still have a job and one which still is being a librarian in the area of the earth sciences.

I will think of the old library fondly.  I hope that the space will be used well.

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How serious should Facebook be?

For me Facebook is really a bit of froth that I use to give me a bit of variety in my day.  As a I work mostly on my own it gives me an opportunity to have a break once in a while and see what my facebook ‘friends’ say or what links have put up.  As it can be seen from the movie Social Network, the purpose of Facebook was really a way for people to socialise on line.

Of course as we now know the purpose has expanded.  Politicians, social groups etc. use Facebook to spread their ideas.  For instance I am a ‘friend’ to Julia Gillard, and Andrew Bartlett.  I ‘like’ the ALP and Greens page, and of course anything to do with football.

However should work be placed in a different category?  Should Facebook be serious as well?  I m asking that question because the University where I work has a number of pages and one concerns the Library (which is my bit).  I received this in my staff news this morning:

The University Library’s Facebook and Twitter pages now have over 750 followers between them. We have been posting on average about three times a week and we welcome wider library input. If you would like something promoted via our social media accounts, please contact ……… Some ideas include:

* Library tips
* Did you know (about this service/scheme)
* Library FAQ of the week (and the answer)
* A photograph of the new books in the library

We have been marketing the pages through various avenues but it would be great if you can also contribute to these efforts either through your contacts with students and staff or via your publications such as LibGuides. The links are:

* Facebook.com/unilibrary
* Twitter.com/unilibrary

Immediately I loved this idea. As someone that has been trying to publicise the library as wide as possible I can see the possibilities here. On the other hand it shifts my concept of ‘Facebook’ from a diversion and relatively light hearted activity to something serious.

I was ‘told’ this quite clearly when I didn’t see this boundary when on the page there was a notice to page ‘likers’ to nominate a library staff member, service or team for an excellence award. I wrote back that I wanted to be nominated for the ‘grumpy old librarian that doesn’t allow you to eat in the library or use the phone award’. OK not exactly champagne comedy but in the context of Facebook comments I thought perfectly acceptable. The maintainer of the page responded tersely “Library staff can be nominated for an awards for service excellence or making an outstanding contribution.” . Well, not the usual Facebook repartee there.

So it seems that Facebook has become like real life compartmentalised in light hearted social interaction, important causes such as in politics or social justice, hobbies like football and now the workplace. And as real life better not blur the boundaries.

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