Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Changing the Lightbulb – Er, the Culture: How Many eLib Projects Does It Take to Change the Higher Education Culture?

Clare Davies, Alison Scammell and Matthew Hall discuss what it takes to change Higher Education culture.

As part of the eLib programme's overall evaluation activities, a recent eLib Supporting Study has been investigating something called 'Mobilisation effects of eLib activities on cultural change in higher education' (HE). This article describes what on earth that title means, and what we've been finding out about the 'culture' of eLib. The study, funded by JISC, is managed by the Tavistock Institute and ends this July. Among our activities, we've interviewed various key people in eLib, and examined project and programme deliverables for views and evidence about cultural change issues.

Defining Cultural Change

First, what might we mean by cultural change? Apparently it's one of the aims of the eLib programme, but how can we tell if it's happening? The 1995 Anderson Report [1] stated that the obstacles to making research information delivery completely electronic were "mainly legal and cultural, rather than technical". So it's always been recognised that some shifts in culture, both for libraries and other stakeholders in information, were crucial if electronic libraries were to make a real difference. All very well, until we try to define what culture actually is. The most comprehensive, but highly theoretical, definition given in the Tavistock Institute's 'Policy Mapping Study' of eLib [2] is:

'Cultural change involves new frames of reference, new ways of acting. Cultural change results from actors acquiring new symbolic resources (cognitive frames/paradigms: concepts, knowledge, skills) in changed structural contexts (organisational contexts, work processes) where these symbolic resources are meaningful, deployable and operational.'

Fine in theory, of course, but a more pragmatic approach was needed for our study, so that we and the eLib people we talked to could understand what we were on about. People in eLib projects are for the most part too busy getting systems built and documents digitised to worry about abstractions like cultural change, so we had to examine implicit hints of it rather than explicit descriptions of projects' cultural impacts. (This also implies, of course, that these impacts aren't generally obvious or far-reaching, either within or beyond HE institutions.)

As far as eLib is concerned, we decided that there were two key ways of understanding it: that culture in HE (in terms of how people think and work together as a community) was already changing anyway, and that developments like eLib were supposed to help push (or 'mobilise') the sorts of changes that would help electronic libraries to be useful. eLib is, after all, operating against a background of 'convergence' of many libraries and computer centres, and of many other changes in HE institutions, all of which are making big differences to our libraries one way or another.

This distinction between cultural change as an inevitable process, and eLib's ability to influence it, can at least be made in theory, but the reality is impossible to tease out. How can anyone know whether something's happened because of eLib, or because of all the other current pressures and concepts floating around in HE? This was described by one of our interviewees as "trying to get your hands round a jelly... You try to squeeze it into a certain shape and it comes out between your fingers". In other words, we can't always produce exactly the cultural changes we need by deliberate action.

However, some findings have still emerged from our interviews, discussions and readings of eLib deliverables. It's worth presenting a few of them here - hopefully our final report will appear on the eLib WWW pages soon, containing a much more detailed discussion.

Cultural Change in eLib

One problem with the cultural change concept, where eLib is concerned, is whether eLib itself has a culture. If eLib projects were part of a 'culture', they should be learning from each other and from related developments elsewhere, and should have a sense of common purpose which is greater than the technical objectives of individual projects. Some groups of projects, such as the ODP (On-Demand Publishing) or the ANR (Access to Network Resources) projects, have developed this to some degree, but the programme as a whole hasn't really inspired individual project teams towards strategically influencing the culture of their own institutions, let alone HE more generally. This was partly due to the relatively late introduction of cultural change (and higher-level evaluation in general) as a major explicit objective of projects: the involvement of the Tavistock Institute in defining those particular objectives came after many projects had started in 1995.

The most important programme area in eLib, as far as cultural change is concerned, was always expected to be Training and Awareness (T and A). Most of the T and A projects [3] are concerned with teaching new skills and imparting new knowledge to librarians within HE institutions, on the apparent assumption that this will feed back into their daily work and gradually affect the ways in which they and their users interact and operate together.

It's difficult to know how much impact the T and A projects have actually had on the culture of HE institutions, or indeed whether the uptake of T and A projects simply reflects cultural change which is happening anyway. The number of people put through training courses and awareness-raising events, or even reading this magazine, is not a measure of cultural change in itself. Although the T and A activities are likely to have an impact on the way LIS perceive themselves in relation to their jobs (and this is an important prerequisite for cultural change), the real change will only come with lasting structural changes in roles and therefore relationships. There are T and A projects which raise the issue of new roles and relationships, but like all other eLib projects, it is not within their scope to restructure entire library and information units in order to make those changes felt.

As a separate strand of eLib activity, T and A finds itself neither addressing the technical issues arising from specific projects, nor satisfying the generic skills needed in the programme as a whole. It will be interesting to watch 'the eLib generation' of young librarians returning from T and A courses tooled up for change: Will their collective vision alone be sufficient, or will their frustration grow as they encounter the same structures and attitudes running the library as before?

There is an argument for saying that library staff are the key people to bring about cultural change. One person interviewed for the project went as far as to see librarians as "the catalyst for the transition between paper-based systems and the delivery of electronic information... The most important people are the front-line staff in libraries, who get people to use the systems and give them training and help."

Stakeholders in eLib cultural change But librarians aren't the only people in the 'culture' that can be changed by innovations like eLib. To get a real feel for this 'culture', we have to include other stakeholders in the model, as shown in the diagram.

Two key stakeholders, of which we know the most, are the academics and academic librarians. The other stakeholder groups, especially those outside the immediate HE 'world', have been less fully included in eLib and other initiatives to date, and have arguably been less directly affected by them. The relationships among stakeholders are changing, however, even where they haven't been playing a direct role in eLib. For instance, our research showed the important role that publishers are now playing in the cultural change process, because eLib has started to have an impact on their attitudes towards electronic information.

The literature on electronic publishing has lots to say about the changes to 'scholarly communication' among academics, and about the (hopefully) changing relationships between them and librarians as the latter find new ways to support researchers' needs. Librarians can also take the lead in trying to change scholarly working practices, by providing academics with electronic information options which are new and better than the ones they already use. Changing the academic culture is not obvious: one of our interviewees pointed out that "Academic departments are not run as organisational hierarchies. You don't get to change things, you get to persuade, cajole, seduce, and change comes about in those sorts of ways." Another interviewee put it more bluntly: "You have the carrot, which is [e.g.] the subject gateway, and then there's the stick approach which is just to cancel the book budget and say 'You have to use this whether you like it or not, matey'." Certainly, some change towards electronic resources is going to happen, and is already happening in many disciplines.

However, the degree to which all this feeds into new ways of teaching and learning, always an underlying aim of eLib (and before it, the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme and similar initiatives) seems to be gradual rather than revolutionary. Students aren't seeing a big change in their working practices as an immediate result of eLib. But there's no doubt that technologies are making some progress towards more remote and less classroom-based learning. So in changes like this, eLib's influence is long-term and less measurable than we might have hoped when the programme started.

Conclusions and future needs

Our final report will contain some tentative conclusions about needs and recommendations for future eLib-like innovations. These include, among others:

The project team welcome feedback over the next couple of weeks, as we prepare our final deliverable and related publications. Do you feel part of a culture? What are the obvious, and less obvious, structures and assumptions that affect your working life? And what do you think needs changing about those if the electronic (or hybrid) library is to make sense and fit properly into your institution? If you don't know, and aren't prepared to find out, you could be part of the problem, not part of the solution... Feel free to respond to this article - discussion can only help foster the right 'culture' for the future.

[1] Joint Funding Council's Library Review: Report of the Group on a National/ Regional Strategy for Library Provision for Researchers (The Anderson Report),

[2] Tavistock Institute: eLib Policy Mapping Study,

[3] Training and Awareness projects: for details see:

[4] E.g. see Rebecca Bradshaw's article on library school training in the previous issue of Ariadne.

Author details

The authors are all researchers at:

International Institute for Electronic Library Research,
De Montfort University,
Milton Keynes,
Hammerwood Gate,
Kents Hill,
Milton Keynes MK7 6HP

Clare Davies: cdavies@dmu.ac.uk
Alison Scammell: ascam@dmu.ac.uk
Matthew Hall: mhall@dmu.ac.uk