Full steam ahead in the library, but who's on the bridge?

Added by Sarahprice on 07 April 2010 12:49

I enjoyed reading the RIN’s recent guide ‘Challenges for academic libraries in difficult economic times’. I work for JISC and so have an insider’s view to a certain extent on some of the issues discussed – at least in so far as efficiencies can be made by clubbing together.

This is a well-put together, well-argued booklet and I think it will be very helpful to senior managers. I think the content will come as no surprise to librarians, but I assume that the guide is targeted at the highest levels in institutional hierarchies to assist the decision-making process – especially on how money is to be spent.

I think it’s the right thing to do to press for universities to share and drive down costs where possible, though there is surely a limit to the extent that publishers will allow themselves to be squeezed. My personal situation may make me a rather rare creature: I am a manager for JISC, but am also enrolled on a postgraduate degree at Glasgow. Thus I have a foot in at least two camps.

Reading your booklet, it occurs to me that what the student wants may be at odds somewhat with what the library professional wants. Speaking with a student hat on today, I would say that open archives are emphatically the way to go and I wish more lecturers saw the value – to themselves personally as well as to colleagues and students – and used them to deposit more stuff. I would stop short of saying that Research Excellence Framework (REF) ratings should be linked with download traffic on the institutional repository, but still it would be an interesting idea to explore. Also the EThOS service for getting hold of theses is incredibly useful. The Glasgow open archive is called Enlighten, but I see that one is shared between three universities: York, Sheffield and Leeds (called White Rose). Perhaps savings could be made if universities were to join up more in this way.

I was not so impressed with comments in the guide that universities may wish to ‘focus resources relentlessly on those areas that have the biggest impact’ (p12). This seems a slightly crude metric for allocating resources and – though these are not my subjects – we do still need classicists, anglo-saxon calligraphers, and art historians and the like. So I would not like to see too much ‘relentless focus’.

Also, the idea of reducing library opening hours is alarming. As yesterday was a bank holiday, I was in Glasgow University library all day. This appeared to be an almost completely staff-free zone, on all its 12 floors. And yet the library was full: self-policing, self-issuing students as far as the eye could see, all silently beavering away with their books and laptops. The fact that none of the dozen or so photocopiers had any paper in them was probably the surest sign that hardly any staff were in the building!

Reducing opening hours in the face of such clear evidence of need does not seem to be a good idea. If staff costs comprise 70% of budget spends, I’m sure this expenditure is fair and necessary. However, technology (issuing, security, cataloguing) means that libraries can operate with a very lean cohort in exceptional circumstances, like a bank holiday or overnight. An imaginative protest by students not wanting library hours to be reduced took place recently in Edinburgh.

My final student-inspired comment is that Shibboleth aint yet what it’s cracked up to be. Each different online resource seems to have its own logic-defying idiosyncratic procedure for accessing the goods. So this is definitely an area where library professionals can help – to help streamline and make more consistent the path to online resources. One click and you’re in - is the ideal maxim (I realise that it may be publishers who are the hindrance in this respect).

Sarah Price: Sarah is Manager of the JISC Regional Support Centre, Scotland North and East.

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