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Associazione italiana biblioteche - Sezione Lombardia
Università degli studi di Milano Bicocca - Biblioteca di Ateneo

What difference does it make? A user's view of her library

Pat Dixon
School of Information Studies,
University of Northumbria

9 ottobre 2001
Università di Milano Bicocca

What I am going to talk to you about this afternoon is my library, and I refer to it in this way for a particular reason. The service I receive from my library is both excellent and frustrating. As with others in libraries all over the world, in every sector, its staff are trying, successfully for much of the time, to harness the new technologies and transform their systems and procedures, policies and practices in order to produce a service which matches the best practice that research has uncovered and meet the demands of their very vocal users. And that is one of the issues, users have high expectations, often unreasonably high. For example, of the internet students are heard to say, "I can get anything I want from the net at any time." This has led to what has been called the "I want it and I want it now" syndrome! Whereas that is unrealistic, I do have the right to have high expectations of my library, just as my students have a right to have high expectations of my teaching and the courses which I design. "What difference does it make?" That is the question that librarian's must now ask of their service, because the whole point in doing any activity in the library, is to ensure that the right information, reaches the right person, in the format she wants, by the time she requires it to so that she can carry out her job effectively and efficiently.. The crux of Information Science. The modern view of performance measurement is to try and measure, difficult though it may be, the value of the service to its users, and the impact it has on them, their work and on their organisations. Librarians must seek answers to the question "What difference does the library make?" in the unending quest to improve their services to users and fulfil those high expectations.

Library staff work day in and day out in their libraries. They work hard at a variety of activities, striving to help users and make their own day interesting. You only have to ask most librarians why they entered the profession to realise that they care about their job and their library, some of them passionately. BUT, Northumbria University Library is not the librarian's library. As I work on my students' behalf, the library staff work on my behalf. The only reason there is a library is to support the core business of the University which is teaching, learning and research. This is why I say it is my library, and that of all the other users.

For me, my library makes all the difference. I can only respond to the pressures the University management places on me because of the service my library offers!

For teachers in higher education in the UK, there has been a shift towards enrolling more students with a wider range of different qualifications and experiences than previously; student-centred learning as a response to a growing body of research into what constitutes effective learning and teaching, which is being better disseminated than ever before; increasing use of independent and resource-based learning for curriculum delivery and the challenges and benefits provided by the use of information and communication technologies to support curriculum design, delivery assessment and evaluation. All this with a decrease in funding.

The University library and its staff are at the heart of the work of the University, in collaboration with teaching and computing staff.

So, what is it I do for which I need the library? As a senior lecturer I am contracted to teach and carry out research and scholarly activity. As such I need to keep up to date with and contribute to professional practice in terms of the Information Profession, be innovative in my teaching and methods of assessment, be involved in curriculum design which will help students fulfil learning outcomes, directly support learners. I am a course leader of a distance learning course which means I am responsible for its overall design, delivery and quality. I am a PhD supervisor; I liase with practitioners; deliver short courses; carry out consultancy and research and try to learn to use the new technologies effectively so that they can really do what they are meant to do for me! I am a Subject Reviewer, which means I help evaluate the quality of LIS education in other Universities throughout the UK.

UK university libraries have a long history of services based on user need, providing open access to a wide variety of information resources, utilising the newest technology when it becomes available in terms of information resource, retrieval and library management, programmes of supportive user education and information skills development. And my library is no exception. Based on 4 different campuses, it has over 500,000 books, 3000 current periodical titles, videos, audio cassettes, microfiche, as well as access to an increasing number of CD-ROM and on-line databases mostly on open access so that my students and I can browse. Special collections include: UK Government Publications, European Documentation Centre, Print and CD-ROM files of visual material for arts and design, Company reports, British Standards, copies of student projects and dissertations.

Services include: On-line catalogue, current awareness service, electronic bibliographic databases, help desk, inter-library loans, user education and information skills tuition, photocopying, over 300 pcs with access to software and the internet.

Northumbria distance learning resources include: a special home page through which students can access the web catalogue, electronic set texts, request books, photocopies and information; an electronic enquiry service and telephone support; a postal service for books, the photocopying and postage of book extracts and articles (within copyright restrictions), an Inter-Library Loan service for articles, a dedicated web page which will provide a general gateway for getting articles specific to the subject studied, details of contacts with other University Libraries (including those near the Student's residence) and access to the Athens Project where students can access and download recent journal articles.

It is a hybrid library:

"The hybrid library should integrate access to all four (legacy, transition, new and future) kinds of resources, using different technologies from the digital world and across different media. The name hybrid is intended to reflect the transitional state of the library. " (Rusbridge 1998)

It will be in transition for the rest of my professional life, but with the emphasis becoming more and more on digital resources.

It offers a converged service, bringing together the information services and IT services which underpin them. Everybody calls it the library, but in fact it is Information Services! I sit at my desk and by going to the library home page, I can get access to most items I want in terms of direct learning resources or information on where else to go to get them. The web is beginning to provide an interface paradigm which overcomes some of the disparities between the different interfaces. There is beginning to be reassuring consistency which makes things easier for me. There is an IT help line, and staff on the whole are both friendly and helpful, and deal with any IT questions.

There are also other people available. We have Subject Librarians who specialise in a particular subject. Graham liases with our School, and for me he is the public face of the library, and my first contact. I do not know whether he is supposed to do what he does, but when I want any help I ring up Graham, and he helps me. I suspect he is supposed to pass me over to other "experts", but I prefer it if he deals with things on my behalf, and he does. He introduces all the campus students to the library, comes to the School when I am running the residential schools for the distance learning courses I offer, and he even came to Parma with me this year when I met the students on our joint course with Parma University. This makes all the difference to students - to be able to put a face to what would be just a name.

The library provides an electronic set text collection. In resource based learning, students need access to a wide variety of materials, the core ones of which for campus students are available for short loan only, or even reference only within the library. For distance learning students, texts are either photocopied to be included in packs sent out with other print material, (the web is still too unstable for the transmission of the major bulk of learning materials, which according to our research, students still want in the convenient form of print, ) or made available over the web. The library provides a copyright clearance and advice centre, pays for special copyright clearance for electronic set texts, provides access and help via email directly to the student. Email and learning platforms such as Blackboard are vital for helping to establish communities of learning, so crucial to distance learners. Again, these services come within the umbrella of Information Services.

But more importantly for me, the library offers the staff development courses I need to enable me take advantage of all this support. This is done by MARCET, the materials and resources centre for education and training, a department in the library supporting innovation in teaching and learning.

How did the library metamorphose, because that is what has happened. Just thinking about it for this talk, I realised that when I joined the University 12 years ago, or even when I was finishing my own higher degree in the Department of Economics as a part time student, just 5 years ago, hardly any of the electronic services were offered, except as an "add on". Today the service is an integrated one.

The Library, together with staff from the School, was part of the eLib programme. At the heart of UK university library development was the Follett Report, (1993) reporting on the Libraries Review Group, and the Electronic Libraries Program - eLib - which developed from it. Right from the inception of eLib in 1994, information was the focus, not only the medium by which it is carried. The program was started "to stimulate change within the information chain and to engage the Higher Education (HE) community in developing and shaping the implementation of the electronic library." (Rusbridge 1998) The People's Network project is achieving similar developments in the public and school library sector.

eLib was firmly grounded in where university libraries were at the time, with the intention of building on their strengths. One of the defining characteristics of eLib was that it attempted to start from the needs - both present and future - of the university, the user and the librarian, and from there work towards the technology. The technology was only one thread of a complex web.

eLib comprised a wide range of relatively small scale collaborative projects. Phase 1 consisting of 60 projects plus supporting studies started in 1995, phase 2 built on phase 1, with projects addressing both the issues raised and weaknesses in the projects. The projects fell under the following headings: Access to Resources, Electronic Publishing, Learning and Teaching, Supporting Studies and Training and Awareness. Phase 3 built on success and was NOT more of the same. The themes were The Hybrid Library, Large Scale Resource Discovery and Digital Preservation.

Throughout there was a strong emphasis on process as well as product (Rusbridge 1998) in terms of:

For all these reasons, eLib had a huge impact on UK university libraries.

It offered a way forward.

The move from holdings to access policies must continue, with the user having access to the information he/she needs to use in whatever form.

eLib highlighted that both old and new technologies have to be made to co-exist with a coherent set of services (Brophy 1999) And so the concept of the hybrid library is central to the eLib view of moving towards the library of the future in the short to medium term.

"The hybrid library was designed to bring a range of technologies from different sources together in the context of a working library, and also to begin to explore integrated systems and services in both the electronic and print environments. (Rusbridge 1998)

Information is there to be used. There are too many barriers:

Interoperability is key, technical, semantic, political/human.
People, NOT technology represent the important issue, human systems resist change
Many of the barriers could be overturned if political divides are overcome:

"Library staff in several institutions saw their computing colleagues as having different priorities to them, in relation to user needs, and being primarily concerned with IT systems, rather than service to provided to users... some computing staff described library staff as clinging to outmoded notions of professionalism. In general there is an absence of understanding of what each group is doing, and a lack of respect for each other's professional skills."
(Garrod and Sidgreaves 1998)

There needs to be joined up thinking

People need to work collaboratively, no one group of people can provide what users need today. Promoting integrated use of services implies action and investment not only at the national level but also at the level of:

Individual staff and groups of staff need to change - and need to be supported by cultural change.

There needs to be a move towards the conscious comparison of practice and potential that is at the heart of the concept of the reflective practitioner, to move towards evidence-based practice, the utilisation of research, a consideration of the future and goal-setting. This needs to be accompanied by staff training and development.

So, the Northumbria library started the process of change by implementing findings based on research into practice. How did it know that this change was necessary? How does it know that these changes are working, that they result in a better service for users? How does it know it is making difference? It asked and continues to ask its users. Performance measurement is vital, and again research can inform practice. Information Services and the School jointly started the Northumbria International Peformance Measurement Conference in 1995 and since then it has run every two years. I have been on the organising committee since its inception, and the fourth one ran this year attracting practitioners, researchers and teachers from all over the world and across all sectors. The message from these conferences is that we need a range of tools, that statistics are useful but if we are to measure value and impact we need to engage the users directly face-to-face at some point.

I do not know all the ways in which my library measures its performance, but what I do know is that its staff play a part in the constant monitoring of teaching and learning. The quality framework of the University lays down that the Subject Librarian is a member of each course committee, which involves all relevant teaching staff and student representatives once a semester in monitoring and evaluating the course; that he is a member of the Annual Course Review which formally reports on course issues, again involving staff and students. This report goes to Faculty Board, Academic Board (the equivalent to the Senate) and on to the Vice Chancellor. Information Services is always an item on the agenda for the meetings and for the reports. Graham, our Subject Librarian, plays a key role in these reviews. Module tutors are required to evaluate their modules by seeking student opinions, again access to resources is always included. A library users committee with staff and student representatives meets once a semester. From these the library learns what is working and what is not, from the users' point of view. The staff are required to consider this evidence and act on it as they think appropriate. They feed back their decisions to teaching staff and students, and they continue to be monitored. In this way we say the quality loop is closed. When new courses are designed, at a minimum staff consult their Subject Librarian, and at best there is true collaboration. The documentation written is used for monitoring by external review bodies every five years, and during the review the Subject Librarian has a key role in representing learning resources to the review panel.

In these ways the library staff can judge the extent to which the library makes a difference to the work of the University. They do make a difference, they not only make my work easier and better, but make it possible. And I must remember to tell them.

Much of the comment on the Electronic Libraries Programme has been taken from the official reports of the Programme, and in particular from an article in D-LIB Magazine, Towards the Hybrid Library, by the Programme Director of the Electronic Libraries Programme, Chris Rusbridge. I refer readers to www.jisc.ac.uk, via which they can access all the detail of eLib (UK Electronic Libraries Program).

Brophy, Peter. (1999) Digital library research review. Final report. LIC
Joint Funding Council's Libraries Review Group: Report
Follett, B. (1998) HEFCE Report of the Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review Group (Chairman: Prof. Sir Brian Follett. HEFCE: Bristol. http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/papers/follett/report/ )
Garrod, P and Sidgreaves, I (1998) Skills for new Information Professionals: the SKIP Project. London: LITC. Also available at http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/other/skip/
Rusbridge, C. !1998) Towards the hybrid library. D-Llib Magazine July-August. http://mirrored.ukoln.ac.uk/lis-journals/dlib

Copyright AIB 2001-11-09, ultimo aggiornamento 2001-11-09 a cura di MdG

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