Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The British Library's Digital Libraries Programme

Lyndon Pugh meets with Sue Howley to discuss the British Library's digital research programme.

THE DIGITAL LIBRARIES Research Programme at British Library Research and Innovation Centre (BLRIC) is at a difficult stage in its development, being currently in no-man’s land awaiting the appointment of a new Research Analyst. The ethos of the RIC is such that a heavy responsibility is borne by the analysts with oversight of the programmes. Sue Howley, the Deputy Director, while outlining the general nature of the programme, put the position: ‘The research analyst is responsible for developing an area and giving it a slant, which inevitably reflects the experience and the interests the particular RA brings to that area. This is deliberate because we want the RA to own that area.’

The present programme is broadly based on investigating user needs, particularly in areas where access to information might not be easy, and there is a keen interest in the use of the Internet by specific professions. The issues uppermost in the minds of analysts tend to reflect the preoccupations of the mainstream information professional: the widening of access to networked resources, the inclusion of digital sources in the broad spectrum of resource provision, cross sectoral developments and the ever-present skills problem.

The emphasis on the role of the analyst raised the possibility that there could perhaps be a bias in the thrust of the programme, but Sue quickly dispelled any image of a manic researcher taking the BL’s research to extremes of any kind: “The consultation with the profession, with other researchers and with other research organisations is something we are very happy with, and this takes place at all stages of the process.”

The programme to date has relied on the support of an advisory panel and a raft of consultative procedures with the profession at large. This has taken place both inside and outside the BL, and as well as the obvious bodies such as the LIC Research Committee and UKOLN, many individuals have also contributed. There is therefore a sense that the Digital Libraries Programme is based on a consensus within the profession. This does not lead to complacency. A healthy degree of self criticism is also at work, and Sue confessed to some ambivalent feelings, not about the Digital Libraries Programme itself, but about the general direction of research into digital information. Tongue-in- cheek, I offered the observation that maybe the problem was that the difficult part was the human dimension, and perhaps this was not being addressed as it should be. Her response was interesting:
“If you look across the programme you will see a catholic mix of technology based work and user concerns, and of course some aspects of digital library research can appear in other programmes.” Nevertheless, she feels that the time might soon be right for a general review of activities in this area.

A similar approach is also taken to the vetting of proposals, and the almost impossible task of sifting the response to a call. Referees are approached on the basis of their subject knowledge, their previous experience of research within the area, and their expertise in the use of particular methodologies.

It was obvious while talking to Sue that she held out high hopes for one programme which is due to report in the Spring of next year. This is the City University-led research into the effect of the Internet on journalists and other information users in print media. In some ways it offers a model to a prospective researcher in digital information. It is focussed on a specific group of users whose needs might not always be obvious, it relies on a strong input from the journalism profession itself, and it is paying due attention to dissemination. It is also likely to lead to a further investigation. (1)

Our discussion inevitably turned to the recent LIC consultative document on research (2), and Sue saw this as a positive development for the information community and digital research in particular:
‘It’s quite clear that the vision that lies behind this document is very much a digital vision, although obviously I can only comment personally. BLRIC has not yet formulated a response. We are very anxious to work with the LIC and it’s quite clear to us that the digital library programme is crucial. That’s another reason why we might want to have a review and a rethink about the programme.’

I inevitably took the opportunity to raise some of my favourite obsessions, and I asked Sue first of all whether BLRIC research calls were biased against small scale, “soft” research:
‘Absolutely not. Some of the very best projects, in methodology and content, have been small scale.’

Q: Does putting in more than one response increase the chances of success?
A: Of course not. The only criterion is quality, and you could end up with more than one project to run if they were both good enough.

So small scale independent researchers need not despair.

The next call for proposals from BLRIC will be based on the theme of the Value and Impact of Libraries, and it may well be that some digital research concerns will find their way into this area, so I went to talk to Barbara Buckley, who is the analyst responsible.
‘The overall aim of the programme will be to produce evidence to influence policy- and decision makers regarding the value and impact of library and information services.’

Successful bids are likely to be cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary, in the manner of the City University project referred to above, and partnerships within and outside the profession are likely to be encouraged. Barbara would particularly like to see responses that investigate the relevance of models, theories and approaches current in other sectors, and the call is likely to go out some time after next February.

I asked both Sue and Barbara if they had any advice to offer potential grantees. The response was succinct:
‘Keep it simple. Librarianship is a practical profession.’

Author details

Lydon Pugh,
Ariadne Managing Editor,
Email: lyndon@pewter.u-net.com