Web Magazine for Information Professionals

eLib: How Was It for You?

John Kirriemuir reviews the eLib programme

"The Vice Chancellor may take some time in replying to your query regarding the effectiveness of cultural change, as I have to print out his email, and transcribe and re-key the reply for him. Health and safety regulations here mean that we dissuade him from using his computer whenever possible"

That quote isn’t a snippet from this weeks Laurie Taylor column on the back of the Times Higher, but my favourite email from three years of being involved with eLib. Interestingly, the person who sent it moved rapidly up the career ladder in an IT department, while the VC quietly "retired" to tend his roses; draw your own conclusions.

Cultural change. It’s an odd phrase; part ‘new age’, perhaps ‘touchy feely’, and possibly part 90’s management speak. Several other articles in Ariadne have tackled the issues surrounding CC; looking back, it is interesting to re-read the article in issue five (over two years ago) by Kelly Russell which touched on this subject. Has eLib changed the culture? Well, arguably "yes", though probably "perhaps" is more accurate.

Cultural change is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. "Good news from eLib: Cultural Change is up by 2.3% this week"; we think not. It is easy to see, from extreme examples, when CC clearly hasn’t happened, or has been ignored or resisted. However, it is more difficult to spot many of the subtler changes in approach and attitute. In UK academia, "things take time"; at least one university still bars "secretaries and typists" from the senior (read: staff) common room, many years after this elitist edict was introduced. Like the Marylebone Cricket Club admissions policy, that which many of us adapt to overnight, takes others decades to accept. With eLib, many of the resultant ripples of cultural change may have no effect for years and decades, and may never become explicitely apparent.

But who has eLib definitely influenced? Well, it has touched on most university Librarians. Those University Vice Chancellors whose secretaries do not overzealously filter their post will have received, and in some cases read, and in a fewer cases even still understood, Ariadne. Accesses to the subject gateways continue to climb. Netskills and other eLib projects have trained thousands of people (roughly 1 for every 2,500 people in the United Kingdom). And so forth.

In addition, there are the hidden benefits. eLib projects have directly employed several hundred people, and indirectly several hundred more. Many of these people now work in useful positions in museums, universities, colleges, publishers and other organisations, with the skills, contacts and knowledge gained through their eLib days. Many universities are more aware of electronic copyright issues and laws (or at least of the associated pitfalls). And many universities have come to, if not fear, then at least have a little more (sometimes grudging) respect for their "Library and Information Services".

But what of the future? eLib has resulted in a body of projects maturing to the point where they could be arguably labelled "services", or be well on the way to such status. How will eLib take the next, and most difficult step, ensuring that these projects turn into high-profile, well-used services, rather than ending up as an appendix in some consultancy report gathering dust on a shelf in north Bristol? The bottom line is money. Dosh. Funding. Sponsorship. Unrestricted Educational Grants. Call it what you like, but money is the key. No money, no staff, no services. But with the future coffers of our funding bodies seemingly as empty as the trophy room at West Bromwich Albion, where else will the money come from?

Advertising or being sponsored, while appearing not to lose your independence, is a tricky balancing act. Who are suitable sponsors of currently JISC-funded services? Perhaps Dewhurst the butchers could sponsor the Visible Human Mirror, or Shane MacGowan sponsor Derweb, the Dental resource? Perhaps not. With little research, two main models of funding services become more apparent. On the one hand, find one benign, benevolent funder to write one large cheque per year; good, as there is less administration and hassle; bad, as the image of the service is tied closely to that of the sole funder. One the other hand, a basket of sponsors may be better, as your service needs less money from each of them, and the image of your sponsors is more diffuse; however, dealing with a large number of funders (cooks?) may prove to be more hassle than it is worth.

But what of the Universities? Charge them an average of 50K a year each (writes "Anonymous or I’ll be lynched"), which is the cost of one department manager. "Pick your least effective manager; would you swap him or her for continued use of Mailbase? I would!" exclaims our socialist bard; the resulting millions could bear the cost of many of the service-oriented projects funded by JISC. Or what of the charges incurred through using the transatlantic link as of next August? Should the universities be persuaded (or perhaps forced?) to use the subject gateways, such as EEVL, OMNI, SOSIG and Biz/ed, as well as the national Caching service, in order to reduce network costs. And should these services therefore benefit from the financial savings? Discuss. Carefully.

However, is the culture sufficiently changed within UK universities for possibilities such as these to be widely comprehended? Try ordering work-related equipment through the Web, and then claim it back through the finance system of your University; the chances are 2 in 3 that you will have more problems than usual (and in some cases, be met with a flat refusal - no initially university generated order number, no refund). Individual email access for every academic who wants it? Still hasn’t happened. And don’t ever telephone a certain Hampshire university switchboard and ask for the webmaster, as you will be swiftly connected to the zoology department… Perhaps we still have some way to go before the ripples of cultural change have lapped onto the most distant shores of our academic institutions.

Author Details:

John Kirriemuir
OMNI service manager,
Greenfield Medical Library,
Queens Medical Centre,
Nottingham, NG7 2UH
Email: jk@omni.ac.uk
URL: http://omni.ac.uk/