Web Magazine for Information Professionals

View from the Hill: Mel Collier

Lyndon Pugh talks to Mel Collier, previously Director of the International Institute for Electronic Library Research at De Montfort University and now Director of Strategic and Operational Planning at Dawson Holdings plc.

From his present position as Director of Strategic and Operational Planning at Dawson Holdings plc Mel Collier can look back over almost 30 years spanning early work with SWALCAP, pioneering convergence at De Montfort, JISC and the Library and Information Commission among other activities.

We began with the motivation behind the changes at De Montfort in the 1980’s : “It was clear that the traditional approaches simply weren’t going to be adequate. We were on the threshold of a significant change in the way that information would be processed and published. We decided to be proactive, and get involved in research and so on. De Montfort had also set itself a very ambitious business agenda. At a simplistic level there was no way that as we grew from 8000 to 28000 students on nine campuses we could replicate the central archival library.”

photo of Mel Collier

One difficulty identified was the lack of a model. The debate ranged over the ways in which new technology was introduced into other sectors and the relevance of this to the continuing work on the electronic library and digitisation: “The digital library work had no base of prior experience elsewhere, it was genuinely new. Examples of the management of change under the technological imperatives we were subjected to were few, apart maybe from the Carnegie Mellon initiatives. We were doing a lot of action research. Early library automation was to do with changing processes and looking for technical efficiency. The electronic library is changing the way the library works. We are potentially changing the content of the library, the interaction between the users, the material and the staff. So it is change management of a totally different order. We still don’t have a theory of change in that context, nor a theory of the electronic library, if you like. Maybe that’s possible now, and I have often postulated that we need it. The challenge is several dimensions greater than introducing library automation or putting new technology into a production line. The electronic library is a different outcome which radically changes the material available to help people learn. The change is such that really big questions have to be asked about how we handle things, as part of a holistic approach.”

This also brought new demands on staff. In this context, Mel Collier has frequently used the term “multi-talented” to describe the attributes he felt would be needed in the electronic library environment. He takes the view that it is not enough to talk about skills, but what is required is a new attitude:

“Multi-skilling and re-skilling imply a linear approach: ‘we have to do something, so let’s retrain ourselves to do it.’ No-one should come into the information business today without good IT skills, but we need to have people who are flexible. People have to be responsive to change, and it’s as much an attitude of mind as anything. Career and organisational plans can change at any time. The issue of skilling is not just technical skills. It’s to do with team playing, communication, presentation, being able to see an opportunity, and being multi-talented is all of these.” We ended our discussion of this issue on a positive note, with the affirmation that we were already producing professionals with the necessary attitude, and that this was coupled with strong IT skills and a general acceptance of the growing technological character of the information profession.

Perhaps one of the most newsworthy of Mel Collier’s interests has been the structure and management of new services. From time to time he has shown a robust approach to convergence, and he is still realistic: “Convergence is not a panacea, and of itself it is not necessarily the answer, but it is here to stay and it has more than delivered. Looking back now the justification for convergence was fairly simplistic, but it’s delivered some things that we didn’t anticipate or articulate, like the involvement of information service managers in how courseware might be designed or made available, or how programmes might be redesigned. Those things are now taken as read, but the number of organisations that have really converged teaching and learning development with the information side is relatively small. At Tilborg University, which I know very well, everything is based on an extremely creative but informal relationship between the librarian and the head of the computer centre.”

Assessing the overall development of the electronic library produces the same realism. Professor Collier feels that in some senses the progress has been less than was expected, but looking back at the position when the early work started, there has been a remarkable progression. This naturally led us into an assessment of where we were now and where we were likely to go in the future: “The next move is going to be the virtual university, and this has already started to emerge. We will have to get into technology based teaching, web based teaching and distance learning, even if these things are used on campus, and not only for distance learning. In the context of lifelong learning that’s the way things are going.”

The present climate is seen to be one of the most encouraging for the information profession for some time. Summing up initiatives such as the LIC draft research proposals, a positive picture emerges: “We will get an integrated superhighway for the UK. I shall be very disappointed if we don’t get a public library network linked to the National Grid for Learning, to Janet and SuperJanet and other nets. The shift in the delivery of academic journals will continue. High cost, relatively low circulation products will tend towards the electronic. This is common sense. Low cost, high volume material will still be in print form, and the textbook world still has plenty of life left in it, but it will be complicated by the integration of electronic and paper based learning materials. Naturally, I wholly subscribe to the LIC vision as a statement of where we are going and I certainly support research which helps the development of a networked learning society.Dissemination will be crucial. What I won’t do is attach dates to anything, because I will be wrong.”

Author details

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