Meeting on the ledge

(or why I don't get out much…..)

Course reading

For a while now I’ve thought that libraries will eventually be involved in supplying textbooks to individual students as well as having copies for loan, and a number of recent developments have suggested that this is now beginning to happen.  A new joint pilot venture between Ingrams and Coventry University will supply first year undergraduates at Coventry with their textbooks free as part of their course fees. As an alternative model a number of publishers are working with JISC on an e-textbook model which will be available to all students on a module for that duration of that module. Lastly, at the recent Dawsons Day in Manchester I heard how Dawsons had worked with the UEA library to supply students with course textbooks. Of course, this is what the Open University has been doing for some courses for years (and as a former OU student I’m very aware of how much easier it makes life for the part-time off-campus student!) but it is now happening for full time students as well.

This indicates some interesting directions for UK Higher Education. As shown by the rise of reading list software such as Talis Aspire and rebus: list the reading list is becoming more central to the learning process.  Students are reading only what is on the module reading lists (‘plus ca change..’ some might say). However in this fee-driven environment, students do not view textbooks as an unavoidable expense. Instead they expect libraries to buy them in sufficient numbers for all students on a module to access a copy whenever they want. This is financially impossible for most libraries, and of course was causing a decline in sales for publishers. Therefore, assuming that the cost is not coming from normal library funds, the model of supplying textbooks as part of the course fees works to the benefit of  the students, the library and the bookseller. Moreover, if the university represents it as a benefit to the student, it possibly gets it some competitive advantage to its rivals (ie other universities which don’t do this). This works for both paper and ebooks, and indeed the logistics makes the latter prefereable from the point of view of the supplier. As it is already highly experienced in dealing with book suppliers and copyright law, the library is the obvious part of the university to play the role of arranging all this (possibly in co-operation with IT if the loading of ebooks onto devices is envisaged).

Of course, these ideas may seem like nonsense to many in other parts of the world. I was recently talking to 2 american librarians who told me that their library has very few copies of textbooks, and that students expect that they must purchase their own textbooks. I can only guess at the reasons for the difference in student attitudes (but it does help to explain what has been a great mystery to UK library staff who have to work with US LMS designed with little understanding of why or how a ‘Short Loan’ collection is run or why it is even needed!).

December 10, 2012 Posted by | Libraries, Universities | | Leave a comment


A bit of philosophy this time. Sparked by an article in the Guardian last weekend I’ve been musing over the concept of truth in our Internet-centered lives. Arithmetical truth such as 2+2=4 can be said to still exist (unless you’re a quantum physicist) but truth and right and wrong have always been more fluid concepts. One person’s truth is not the same as another’s, so academic practice teaches that you should assess all possible interpretations and synthesize from these.  A core concept of information literacy is therefore that you shouldn’t always believe everything you read, and as librarians we teach cues which help users assess the quality of sources (is it peer-reviewed, from a trusted publisher, etc).  However information literacy often doesn’t get taught until people enter higher education.

Prior to the Internet most people’s exposure to the broader world would have been via newpapers, magazines, TV and radio as well as people they met in the course of their everyday lives. In turn they didn’t have much opportunity to pass on their views to other people. However this is changing. Now they are exposed via the Web to a wider choice of less regulated information sources, and in turn they can express their own opinions to a wider audience (indeed, I’m doing the same here). If you don’t have the skills to assess the information you hear, a simpler truth tends to appear: truth is whatever is shouted loudest (usually with a jabbing finger for emphasis I’ve noticed). This implies that more radical ideas are going to become  prevalent and that as a result society will become less cohesive. Far from being a declining career it looks like librarians (if they choose to accept it) are needed more than ever……..

April 8, 2011 Posted by | General, Universities | | Leave a comment

Government plans for Universities

There’s an excellent opinion piece in todays Times Higher on the events in London last month. I’m not sure I agree with every word, but it points out how the media has been manipulated to accentuate the unfortunate violence at the student demonstrations in London while ignoring the very real concerns of the demonstrators. For over a decade young people have been told they should go to University if they wanted to be successful, and it has become almost an expected part of growing up for a large part of the population. Now the process has been made much more difficult for them, and not surprisingly they’ve reacted. Big changes in a short space of time inevitably cause social unrest, and happen in an uneven way with unpredictable effects on other parts of society.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | Universities | | Leave a comment

Higher Education libraries

Fascinating article on the BBC website today about HE libraries without books.  Even better, it takes a fairly considered perspective, instead of seeking cheap headlines as do most of the new articles on this subject. The direction that HE libraries are taking seems clear, with more eresources and less paper, but the consequences of this are less so. At the moment libraries still seem to be valued as a physical place to work, but if there’s no longer a reason to maintain a large expensive building, students are either likely to be directed to cheaper environments or expected to study at home. The examples of new libraries given in the article all have significantly less capacity than their predecessors.

As a librarian, I was also glad to see that the article recognises that librarians still have a role to play. Many people link librarians just to books rather than to information, which is a sad misunderstanding of what librarians do. There are important roles played by librarians that many people (including some academics and IT Services staff) don’t see, in selecting and organising resources as well as in helping people to understand and use information.

But cost saving is also mentioned, and cutting costs is a focus of the current UK government at the moment (in all areas, not just HE).  Cheaper education is indeed possible at a distance using planned learning, with digitised/ born digital resources and VLEs and remote support available where necessary – just look at the success of the Open University. But the result of this is an educational experience very different from that of the last century, where students actually got to know and speak personally to their educators, and by the experience of searching for information in less well-indexed times grew more familiar with their overall field of study. Moreover by living away from home in an entirely different environment their mental horizons were changed in a way that is happening less in the modern HE world. The educational experience is thus very different and in turn is bound to have an influence on the society which these people in their turn contribute to forming.  Information is changing society in ways we can only speculate about.

November 12, 2010 Posted by | Libraries, Universities | Leave a comment

Resource Discovery

Like a lot of HE libraries, Resource Discovery interfaces are on our minds at the moment. I attended the EIUG Exchange of Experience Day at Warwick a few weeks ago and saw demonstrations of Summon, EDS, Encore and Aquabrowser. I’ve also been up to Huddersfield to see their Summon installation and had other demos of Encore and Primo elsewhere. But I’m still confused as to the best match for our users.

From looking at their searches on the OPAC (III’s WebPac is pretty good at showing these) I can see that users search skills in general, despite the extensive work we put into information literacy training, are fairly low. Keyword searches on entire essay titles are common (do they develop amnesia after leaving the induction sessions? ;-)). Users also tell us that they don’t want to have to search in multiple places (eg the OPAC plus 4 or 5 online databases) and then bring together and de-duplicate the results themselves. After the simplicity of using Google they are not prepared to invest this kind of time and work into finding academic resources. Instead they want a single search box which does it all: it must concurrently search all the academic resources to which the University Library provides access, deduplicate and present the results in a usable relevance-ranked order, providing links to full-text wherever available. Better search facilities would also be good – the graphical concept map which Aquabrowser gives is impressive.

But few of the current Resource Discovery systems do all of this at the moment. Summon and EDS allow you to search on the OPAC plus a subset of resources which they’ve indexed (the impression I have is that EBSCOs coverage of academic resources is better but I have no evidence to support this). Moreover as the parent companies maintain the indexes and infrastructure they are relatively low-overhead. But they don’t index all of the expensive databases we pay for, so the results are still only partial. Encore and Primo get round this by retaining federated search and including this in the results as well, although at a greater financial cost and slower search results.  But maintaining all the infrastructure behind this also adds to the work for the library, and at a time when libraries are trying to ‘do more with less’ this is hardly welcome.

There are of course systems I’ve not really looked at yet, such as OCLC’s WorldCat Local and SirsiDynix’s Enterprise, although I do have the impression that they share some of the above features and weaknesses. Looks like I’ve got a lot more work to do….  So have the suppliers – as most libraries have a similar need their product development depts must be on overtime!

October 7, 2010 Posted by | Libraries, Universities | | 2 Comments

Higher education funding

There’s an interesting juxtaposition of HE stories on the BBC news website this morning. The Russell Group has responded in the Guardian to government plans to reduce University funding over the next 3 years, pointing out the damage that it will cause to Higher Education in the UK. There’s a dramatic quotation:

“It has taken more than 800 years to create one of the world’s greatest education systems and it looks like it will take just six months to bring it to its knees.”

Compare and contrast that to another article arising from a student survey by a technology firm Olympus. This highights how seriously lack of money is affecting current students. Most are missing lectures to do part-time work to support themselves, and are worried about the longer-term benefit they will get from their degree.

These financial problems are arising from a government which must be regretting stating an intention for 50% of young people to attend Higher Education. While France and Germany are putting more money into their Universities, the UK is instead cutting funding and making it more difficult for students to find time to learn. The UK’s Universities are seen internationally as one of its strengths: cut them and in an increasingly-competitive world the UK loses another of its assets.

January 12, 2010 Posted by | Universities | | Leave a comment