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An interview with Jill Taylor-Roe

Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Jane Meyers Jill Taylor-Roe is head of Liaison & Academic Services, Newcastle University Library, which has been awarded the Charter Mark, the UK Government’s recognition of excellence in customer service in the public sector, five times in succession.

Jill was interviewed at Online Information 2007.

Can you tell me what your role involves?

I have two roles: I manage the academic liaison librarians who are our front-line contact with the academics, as well as the resources budget, which means being responsible for allocating the money we spend on books, journals, databases, etc. It’s not a typical role, but it’s a useful combination because I get very close feedback from my liaison team about what academic staff and students want, which informs my resource management work. I also have responsibility for special collections, which we are promoting to ensure that all potential users are aware of them.

What trends have you noticed in academics’ use of resources?

Huge, huge demand for electronic journals, it really is a bottomless pit. What I find interesting is that although much is written about how people don’t come into the library when many of the key resources are available electronically, we’re finding that usage of the physical building is actually going up. We may see less of some of the academic staff, but students are still using the library, not only to quietly sit and work in, but also as a social or networking space. Yes, of course they can access a lot of our resources 24/7 from wherever they happen to be, but the need for a physical library space hasn’t diminished.

Why do you think that is?

Basically because we are social creatures and thrive on social interchange. You can sit at a computer accessing information at one or two in the morning if you want to, but you also get ideas and information by interacting, questioning, talking to other people. You can do some of that via social networking tools on the Web, but they don’t quite capture that creative buzz you get when you have people together in a physical space! So now we’re creating social spaces where students can work together on a project if they have a group assignment or if they have a presentation to plan. The library’s a good place for that to happen and of course you have all our information resources at hand.

We no longer see the library as simply a quiet place where everybody gets on with their work and you can hear a pin drop. That’s changed and we are now creating different types of space. There are quiet zones where you can work in silence, there are other zones where you can work with your laptop, and zones where you can talk and work. This approach to managing library space has been quite a sea change for us and it has come about in response to user demand.

There’s been quite a bit of interest, quite a buzz, in e-books at Online 2007. But some librarians think that still some way to go. What are the main problems?

The main problem at the moment is that we haven’t got enough e-textbooks. We want the material which appears on reading lists, and which hundreds of students are chasing at the same time. We want affordable and accessible pricing models, i.e. not too complex or expensive, and the marketplace has not provided them yet. I think there’s a fundamental concern on the part of publishers that selling e-textbooks to libraries will seriously undermine print sales to students and that has been a major factor in preventing the market moving forward.

Our experience is that students are buying fewer textbooks anyway, so there is an element of supposition about the impact that selling e-textbooks to libraries would have. This needs to be verified and tested and we’re hoping that the national ebooks observatory project, which is working with publishers and libraries to observe and examine staff and student attitudes to ebooks will provide us with some insight to help us move ahead together.

E-books have enormous potential for the academic marketplace, particularly at a time when we’ve got more and more students, both on and off campus, and there are more modular programmes, perhaps with 350 students on a module. A library will never have enough print text books to meet that demand, not least because of the way they are used, often a chapter at a time rather than the entire book. It will be interesting over the next few years to see how book content is presented in the digital world. At the moment many publishers seem to be consciously replicating print books in a digital form, whereas what I’d like to see, and think that a new generation of academic authors and readers would like to see, is digital technology being exploited more creatively. Instead of just a series of book chapters you could incorporate audio and video clips, learning objects, online tests or assessments, links to blogs and wikis where you could comment on or question aspects of the text, making the whole things a more interactive and organically evolving concept.

A major aspect of the current Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) e-books observatory project is a user survey which will go out to over 120 higher education (HE) institutions in the UK. Additionally, the e-books which are licensed for the HE community as part of this project will be subjected to deep log analysis to help us understand how they are being used. The data that emerges from this research will be invaluable to both publishers and librarians, and should help us to give the market what it wants in terms of e-book content.

Newcastle University Library recently carried out a survey of staff and students’ opinions of the library. What were some of the significant issues to emerge?

We carry out a major survey every four years. This provides us with information on what our users think about our current services and also gives us clear indications of what they consider to be the areas we should focus on for improvement or further development. As a Charter Mark library that’s very important to us because keeping the customer at the centre of our service is what it’s all about. In general people are very happy with the service we’re providing – 87 per cent of the staff and 88 per cent of students said they were very satisfied, which is very encouraging. The areas where they would like us to improve are quite different. Most important for academic staff, by a significant margin, is more e-journals, followed by more information about new resources or events. For the students, the headline theme was more books – specifically more copies of recommended texts – and they were also keen on longer opening hours. We’re already addressing the latter in that we will be extending our term-time weekday opening till midnight, plus we will be open till 9pm at weekends in term time.

Did they mention e-books?

Interestingly, e-books didn’t feature on either the staff or student agendas, perhaps because people didn’t feel they knew enough about them, or that we haven’t got enough of them to make an impact. We did some awareness-raising with a group of our marketing and media students, and they thought e-books were great – but it was clear they did not know much about them at the outset. We are very conscious that we need to do more to publicize e-books, but we also need to build more critical mass across a wider range of subjects. There’s no point raising interest if you then find you haven’t got, or can’t provide, what folk want. So we need to go back to the Schools and find out exactly what it is they need – then we will go out to the market and try to source it. The most useful thing about the type of survey we do is that you don’t just get a long wish list. We get a ranked list of priorities for our core user groups, which makes it quite clear which are the big issues and which the smaller ones; and while we take them all seriously, clearly the major issues are the ones we address first. We put a summary of the key findings up on our web pages, and we update this to show how we are tackling the issues raised.

What are some of the other ways in which libraries can measure their value?

We’re very keen on benchmarking, because while it’s all very well getting data about your individual library, it has more value if you can see it within the context of other libraries that are similar to yours. To do this effectively, you have to be able to agree on a common set of indicators, and then you’ve got to gather the data. This can take quite a bit of time, and there may be issues of confidentiality surrounding other people’s data so you have to be sensitive about that. We spend an awful lot of time gathering and compiling data about the use of our digital collections – for example we had 1.3 million article downloads from our journal collections last academic year. While some people may be cynical about the value of such data (and concerned about the time and effort needed to compile it), when so much of your budget is being devoted to these resources, I do feel it is important to be able to get some indication of whether that outlay was worth it.

Other ways in which we gain feedback are by attending university meetings such as boards of studies, staff-student committees, internal subject reviews, etc., where library services and resources will be discussed. While not necessarily deriving a measure of value from such meetings, we do feel we get direct and useful feedback on what our staff and students think about our services, which is well worth having.

As a service, we feel it is vitally important to get out into our community, and not just sit there waiting for feedback to come to us.

One of your objectives is to increase the digital element of your library. How can libraries do this without, as has been reported in the press ("Libraries dump 2 million volumes", Times Higher Education, 16/11/2007), getting rid of their physical stock to house the digital infrastructure, in other words the servers and the additional computers?

Libraries have always had space problems, and any sustainable collection development strategy has to embrace the concept of removing lesser used stock into storage and ultimately, to disposing of some low-to-zero use stock altogether. However, while many of us grew up professionally with an understanding of the Atkinsonian concept of the “steady state library”, where you balanced acquisitions with disposals, I think it’s probably true to say that very few libraries have ever achieved it – certainly not on a regular basis.

The increasing availability of digital content, particularly e-journals, over the last eight years has transformed our collections – many of us have more than doubled our journal collections in ways that would have been impossible to contemplate if we had been still focusing on print. And it is quite clear from the usage statistics that our users love e-journals – indeed it is rare that any requests I receive for new journals ask for the printed format over the electronic.

Now of course, they are asking for the digital backfiles, and we are finding that usage of print-only collections is plummeting. So there are two strands converging here – the availability and greater usability of e-resources, and the perpetual pressure on library space that we have always had. In terms of enhanced services to users, there is a clear push towards securing even more digital content. If in doing this, you have the opportunity to consider whether you need to retain the equivalent print holdings, then I have no problem with that at all. “Dumping” is such an emotive word – it implies a casual, rash or even devious action – librarians aren’t like that! We are (generally!) much more thoughtful and strategic in our approach. We are also by nature collaborative, so we participate in regional and national initiatives regarding print disposals which are premised on the fact that we don’t all need to retain the same things, but there should be some print holdings which are accessible for all when needed. The UK Research Reserve proposal is a recent initiative which is seeking to address some of these issues and we have signed up to participate.

Libraries always need more space – for our expanding heritage and print collections and to create appropriate research and study environments for our user community. It is these needs which tend to inform and drive our disposal of physical stock, rather than any specific need to house the “digital infrastructure” of our eresources. In the majority of cases, we are accessing our econtent via remote servers around the world, rather than local mounting data, so we are certainly not replacing printed stock with servers and computers.

What are the other main challenges at Newcastle University Library (as if the ones we have talked about were not enough!)?

Our main challenge is ensuring that our services remain focused on users’ core needs and aspirations. The other big challenge is ensuring that our staff have the skills base they need to deliver and manage library services in a rapidly changing information environment. To do this we have to ensure we’ve got an effective staff training and development strategy in place for our existing staff. We also need to think creatively about the skills we need to deliver present and future library services to support the teaching, learning and research needs of the University when we appoint new staff. Sometimes, we may require people with completely new or different skills/attributes to those we have sought in the past.

That for me is the bedrock: recruit and develop excellent staff, motivate them and ensure they know and support what the service is committed to delivering.

If we can do that, we’ll be well-equipped to meet the challenge of what’s to come. The pace of change seems to get faster every year and in three years’ time the library will probably be quite a different place. That’s not negative or threatening, it’s good, it’s exciting. Keeps us on our toes!

More information about the JISC national e-books observatory project can be found at