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Academic libraries in the age of the consumer

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By John Wheatcroft

STUDENT expectations of libraries have changed dramatically during the last two decades. It is perhaps the most significant issue that the modern academic librarian has to bear in mind.

On the 21st century campus, students learn in different ways and use the library differently. What might once have been a solitary activity involving pen, paper, and book and periodical is now altogether more collaborative as students work in groups both formally and informally and embrace the technology.

At Hull University, UK, chief librarian Dr Richard Heseltine has witnessed this vast sea change. He was appointed 23 years ago, making him the youngest university librarian in the country – today he admits to being one of the oldest.

Different ways of studying

He says: "There is a growing need to deal with the growing centrality of libraries to the student experience. We need to align libraries with the different ways that students go about study."

The university has been the subject of a massive £28m renovation during the last few years, creating a situation in which large areas of the library were like a building site while services had to be maintained. Hull has not been alone in facing such challenges – although few academic libraries in the UK have been involved in projects on this scale. In common with other institutions, the money has come from university reserves and banking investments rather than via external funding.

York University, UK, has had similar challenges and recent renovation work cost £20m. It might be fanciful to suggest that students would pick a higher institution based on what they see in the library – both Seattle in the US and Manchester in the UK have found interest boosted in the past by their music scene – but neither is it a factor which should be underplayed.

At York, deputy director of information Liz Waller, says that at the very least, a university’s library can be described as a "hygiene factor" which does help to sell the institution. On open days, parents are impressed with the university library and perhaps a little of this rub off on students.

Liz says: "People are looking for an exciting and stimulating place to study and our occupation figures are very high."

The height of popularity

At Hull, the seven-floor Brynmor Jones Library has always impressed.

Richard Heseltine says: "We are lucky to have a library which offers a sense of the campus, students can also see the way in which the university is connected to the city – many students do not want to feel cut off from the place in which they are studying."

That’s another formidable advantage at a time when universities are more than ever primarily dependent on income from students, and every student coming through a library’s gates might represent £1m income to a university.

The word consumers is never going to be a particularly attractive one when applied to education but there’s no doubt that fees have raised expectation, making students more likely to see themselves as consumers who are entitled to be critical of any shortcomings in the service they receive. This applies especially in the humanities where undergraduates have less teaching time. This, at least in the more conscientious students, is likely to translate to more library time.

Ms Sarah Thompson, York’s head of content, says: "Humanities students more likely to be critical of content. They often refer to the library as their lab" Unlike science students, it’s where their chief resources lie."

It all, as her colleague Mrs Liz Waller says, raises the bar for expectations in key areas of staffing, contents and buildings. These issues have been highlighted by LibQUAL, the US web-based survey offered to academic libraries to enable them to understand and act on users’ opinions of service quality.

A "benchmarking tool"

LibQUAL was pioneered by Martha Kyrillidou, senior director of the US Association of Research Libraries Statistics and Services Quality programs. More than 1,200 libraries around the world have now participated, including many academic institutions.

Some library professionals might groan over stated LibQUAL targets such as "fostering a culture of excellence" and "identifying best practices" but as Liz Waller, York’s deputy director of information says, it’s effectively a benchmarking tool that universities can use to find out how well they score in terms of staffing, content and building.

Most, she says, are more likely to find contents – in terms of holdings and facilities – the area that come in for most critical scrutiny, even in the better-off American universities for whom funding and resources might not appear to be a serious concern.

Universities everywhere are responding by developing a much sharper focus on aligning new academic material with current teaching and research. At Hull, changes to the reading lists are automatically updated.

Typically, universities are now finding that the bulk of budgets goes on digital resources (at Hull the figure is 85 to 95 per cent), of which a substantial amount lies in e-books and journals.

"Approval system" on purchases

As part of the drive for value for money combined with providing the most-needed resources, many universities in the US and the UK are now experimenting with patron-driven acquisitions. Using this model, libraries only buy digital contents such as books and e-journals when it is clear that the library user wants them, assessed by a certain number of requests.

Hull has been experimenting with this for a few years and Richard Heseltine says: "It’s rather like approvals – purchases can be triggered by use, and there is some evidence that material acquired this way will be better used."

Open Access of course remains a huge issues affecting academic libraries everywhere, and the principles of ease of access, removal of restrictions on re-use are there for the benefit of everyone from the authors, universities and funding bodies to the wider community.

Dame Janet Finch chaired an independent UK working group on Open Access, whose report (June 2012) supported the case for Open Access through a "balanced program of action".  Open Access allows research to be disseminated widely and quickly, while making the products of research open to all.

Views differ among librarians about the relative merits of the "green" and "gold" access routes, although both work on the principle that research should be free at point of access to anyone with an Internet connection as soon as possible, and that restrictions on reproduction and re-use should be minimized.

York University facilitates both "green" (in which final peer-reviewed research output goes into a repository electronic archive) and "gold" (in which a paper is made available through the publisher’s website) access routes, although the option an author chooses will often depend on how and whether their research has been funded. Many universities do favour the "gold" model. In most cases where this occurs, publishers will make an article-processing charge.

Dutch universities take a stand

It’s a vexed question. In the Netherlands, universities are taking a tough stance by demanding that publishers allow all papers published by their academics to be made Open Access at no extra charge. The Times Higher Education Supplement reported in January that the Dutch move to gold might have been the result of lobbying by publishing giant Elsevier.

Perhaps bigger issues for librarians at the coal face remain those over which they have more control, such as activity data levels and student attainment. Two years ago, a Library Impact Data Project funded by the Joint Information System Committee (JISC) and managed by the University of Huddersfield looked at E-resources usage, library borrowing statistics and library gate entries, and measured them against final degree awards for more than 30,000 graduates throughout the UK. The results did suggest a statistically significant relationship between library resource use and level of degree.

It brings to mind the observation of one senior York academic that libraries have much in common with gyms. It’s the use, not the signing up, that is important.

Perhaps we can extend the analogy, seeing academic librarians as gym instructors who can aim to coax better performances out of students through their professional expertise.

(Thanks to staff at Hull University and York University, UK).