Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Looking Back in Anger: A Retrospective

Don Revill, former Head of Information Services at Liverpool John Moores University, offers a retrospective.

Having read recent government reports, and returning now to the position of being a mere user contemplating a forty four year career in education for librarianship, libraries and (one must now add) information services, it strikes me that little has changed over the years. The problems the profession faced in the 50s and 60s are still with us.

There are still many politically-charged questions that we are unable to answer convincingly, including how much it costs to provide library services for each successfully educated chemist, physicist, sociologist, geographer …… and how big the book (materials) fund should be, other than, of course, by asking “How much have you got?” I have yet to see an information strategy that successfully addresses such issues. Recognition of the librarian’s contribution to the educational process is still not common.(1, 2)

Institutional managements tend not to recognise the role played by the information service. Try asking them how many students hours they think are spent in their libraries. A crude calculation based, say, on a university of 16,000 students and average class contact hours of 15 weekly, suggests a total annual count of 7.2 million student hours. In comparison, its library might have 1.5 million user visits at an approximate mean duration of two hours, giving 3 million student hours per annum, or 42% of the figure above - a not inconsiderable proportion and a significant part of a student’s time. Some might argue that time spent on computing activities is roughly commensurate with that spent in the library. My experience is of an integrated service where we could “prove” a mean of three visits weekly and roughly six hours weekly spent on both library and computing activities per student. Evidence of duration of stay is not part of current national data gathering activities so comparative data is hard to find - such is our lack of some significant overall usage measures, never mind the absence of information on usage by given student groups by year, status or discipline studied.

There are at least two information domains that universities experience. The first, tending to be regarded as the more important, is that which is generated internally by the institution itself including the directives, advice and invitations from government and the funding councils. This domain includes student applications, enrolments, timetabling, student progression, finance, classroom learning materials, personnel files, the political documents of the institution and so on.

The second domain, and that with which the library largely deals, is the substance of learning. It consists of externally published information including that which is available electronically. This domain is infinitely more extensive than the first but, by the same token, it is more remote, less obviously immediately applicable, has to be bought one way or another and, because resources are limited, it often has to be selected. One therefore buys variable amounts of it. Access to this domain can be extended or contracted as finances and institutional cultures allow. It can be seen as less essential. There have been cases in the past (vide the history of the polytechnics) where cuts have been imposed, materials not bought for several months, yet students did not fail in droves.

It is my contention that libraries (and perhaps even computing services) could cease to be but that the proportion of firsts, upper and lower seconds and thirds would barely change. Academics would cope, change their expectations and practices, preserve their own jobs and preserve the existence of their institutions (the first real objective of any institution is its own survival) despite what happens around them. I was once told by a lecturer colleague; “Your job is easy. All you have to do is buy the books and journals we recommend and put them on the shelves”. And that is still the perception of many academics. Such is the vulnerability of the services we provide.

Many academic staff see libraries as purely a support service; not one intrinsically involved with the success of their own performance. They see their students leaving their classrooms to pursue learning strategies, developed and controlled by academic staff, via other agencies - the computer service and the library service in particular. Neither of these services is particularly well-integrated into mainstream classroom activities. What electronic teaching packages do exist tend to be designed in-house - a consequence of the “not invented here syndrome”so prevalent, and so inimical to sharing high-cost programmes, in UK higher education.

Libraries largely support individual study. They are insufficiently involved with the delivery of material directly relevant to course contents. There are, of course, exceptions where courses are designed around project work and direct use of the library, but much of our service is of the further reading, background study type. There are courses, many of which may be workshop or laboratory based, which barely require students to enter the library. So we are of less direct relevance to academic staff. By the same token our efforts therefore have little effect on alleviating pressures on the staff-student ratios - a major concern for most universities.

The existence of electronic learning materials which do substitute for class contact time (courseware) gives libraries the opportunity to offer to deliver these to students and thereby become more relevant. Even so there is a reluctance on the part of academic staff to allow such material to be networked. They appear to prefer to retain control over it by establishing their own departmental PC suites. Their argument, long since found by librarians to be largely untrue, is that no one else in the university is interested in the material. The fact that much of it is developed in-house reinforces this attitude.

We do provide a support service in at least one respect, for example when a whole class descends on the library looking for the same things but the first three people through the door have cleared out the most useful items. The words remind me of a surgical support which tries to take over when the damage has been done! Electronic delivery could solve this - eventually.

The present Government has begun to recognise the part libraries can play in the Learning Age, including creating digital versions of a range of cultural materials.(3) Government support is vital. Yet even at the institutional level curious euphemisms continue to be found. The Government’s response to the Dearing Committee stated that “the reduction in the unit of funding ……. will be limited to 1%”, thus meeting the Dearing Committee’s priority for additional funding.(4) Only in a government paper could a 1% cut be seen as extra cash!

The Government supports Dearing’s call for greater collaboration between institutions. This has been a familiar theme in the library world for the past 40 years yet with no financial incentives to encourage it. Libraries have long since collaborated yet there is little evidence of their institutions generally having done so. The latter still tend to see themselves as in competition with others, particularly their local higher education establishments. It makes no sense for a library to collaborate unless institutions rationalise their course provision so the library knows, more clearly, what do to.

The Government’s response to Dearing also mentioned the “chance of [students] hearing outstanding lecturers from elsewhere e.g. on film, video or via broadcasting”, (5) yet there was no mention of availability via the Web for an idea that is at least thirty years old, yet waiting to be realised to any great extent.

We have long since heard that remedies for higher education lie in the greater use of information technology. The Government recommends that by 200001 “higher education institutions should ensure that all students have open access to a networked desktop computer and expect that by 200506 all students will be required to have access to their own portable computer.”(6) The devil, as usual, is in the detail. What does this mean in effect? Will we need one PC per 5 students (the old Nelson report specification) or more, or less? How much will it cost? We even lack national data on current provision of PCs. Even when (or if) students have their own portables they will still expect institutional PCs to be available, as well as printing facilities. And what specification laptop will be needed to access the sources available from nstitutions’networks?

A colleague once remarked that a solution based on the possession of personal laptops may well founder on the simple fact that local thugs will relieve students of so many that ownership will become problematic! If academic staff are reluctant to adopt materials devised elsewhere then the intention may also fail simply because of the cost of electronic production. The old audio-visual prescription of 100 hours of staff input for every hour of learning materials appears to be multiplied ten fold, if not twenty fold, for electronic materials. Nor is it likely that such materials will need less revision, or even easier revision, than more conventional items. So recouping costs over time seems to offer little promise.

Digitised texts offer more hope yet raise additional difficulties. We have a pre-Gutenberg situation where institutions make individual contracts with copyright owners for the use of their products for specified groups of students - much like monasteries would copy manuscripts for other religious establishments. We have a similar situation for CD-ROMs, where staff often need to consult contracts in order to decide which users are eligible to use which services. There just is not the time to make individual arrangements for specific titles, and the whole notion of doing so is absurd. Moreover, the Government supports the Funding Council’s intention to charge for transatlantic networking “in order to ensure that effective use is made of expensive network resources.”(7) It all goes to push up the costs of electronic delivery.

We desperately need a central agency to handle digitisation on a massive scale. It should be done at source. The original machine-readable text should be corrected as for the final proof-read edition and that electronic version deposited with the appropriate agency. Electronic learning materials are needed in the thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, if higher education is to take real advantage of electronic delivery. Despite JISC and eLib only small beginnings have been made.(8) Not until a user can find an item, say via a one-stop catalogue, and then get the complete text on screen, with printing rights, at the touch of a button, will electronic access be a reality.

Librarians tend to forget that for the user this is the start of a process and not the culmination of it. Not until the found item has been used successfully will the user be “satisfied”. The really hard work starts when the user has enough material to meet his/her needs: not a comprehensive collection, but just enough. Overly comprehensive answers tend to lead to information overload.

Another issue not receiving its due attention is that of plagiarism. The ability to download texts electronically and then edit them will lead (if it has not already done so) to fraud on an unprecedented scale. It would take an extremely well informed academic to recognise all cases of plagiarised texts - in essays, projects, theses and seen examination answers. We already hear of cases where first year university students appear to be surprised to learn that the cut and paste methods they used in primary and secondary schools are no longer acceptable in higher education without the inverted commas and the references, together with some sensible text in between.

The experience of more than one institution tells us that many are struggling to cope with demands - especially so in the case of converged services having, as they do, the responsibility for handling computing matters.(9) Our users’ complaints can be summarised roughly as: students want more books and study seats, academics want more journals, both want more PCs.

Seldom do either say they want more library staff. The surveys done for, and the evidence given to, Dearing showed that the first priority of full-time students, and the second of part-time students was for more books! (10)

In the early 70s the Council of Polytechnic Librarians had the aim of achieving a ratio of 1 staff member per 80 full-time equivalent students, and a modest 50 volumes held per FTE in each polytechnic library. Bearing in mind that the former polytechnics were less well endowed than the older universities, the SCONUL (and LISU) figures show a steady decline in support over the last twenty years. In 197778 polytechnic libraries added 4.3 items to stock per FTE student per annum.(11) In 199596 all university libraries added a mean of only 2 items to stock per FTE (1.29 net).(12) Stock holdings have barely moved, from 52 items per FTE in Polytechnics in 197778 to 52.3 for all universities in 199596.

As we are aware, much student frustration is caused because there is not enough material available when it is required - hence the short loan and photocopy collections, the attempts to digitise some texts and the reservations waiting lists. We argue lack of resources. We frequently blame customers, both academic staff and students, for lack of notice and preparation. All this is partly true but simply points up the failures in communication between the parties involved, as well as resource deficiencies.

I do not believe that electronic sources have substituted for these lost resources. We know that a large proportion of most students’ time on computers is devoted to word processing rather than information seeking. It is another measure of our lack of information, and understanding, that we do not know much about how our PCs are used, which sources are used, or how much the Internet is used for academic rather than personal or trivial purposes. Despite the demand for study space and the need to provide PCs, physical space allocated per FTE has also declined from 1.02m2 in 197778 to 0.9m2 in 199596. The number of FTE students per seat has grown from 6 in 197778 to 8 in 199596. All this despite the supposed greater degree of independent study. Library staff to student ratios have also declined from 1 : 96 in 197778 to 1 : 145 in 199596.

The figures show diminishing resource provision over the years. Usage, however, has increased. The variety of services provided has also increased - particularly in regard to electronic provision and the consequent training requirement for both staff and students. As staff numbers decline students want, and will continue to want, personal assistance in order to make sense, and take advantage of, the information-rich environment. Increasingly learning resources staff will have to tread the fine line between explaining how to do things and giving information and advice on the one hand and teaching them, if not actually doing their work for them, on the other. Such staff carry out a tutorial function yet receive little recognition for it. Yet this was ever the case with the older concept of subject librarians. There is a limit to the efficacy of self-help devices such as idiots’ guides, frequently asked questions lists, user manuals and help screens. Help screens, too often, can be infuriatingly unhelpful. They can be presented in computerese, derived largely from the system documentation and not from the users’ perspective. They can be akin to the video on “How to use a VCR”.

These arguments are relevant in the context of the Funding Council’s new funding method for teaching, based on the principle of a standard price for each of the four broad subject groups(13). Surely the argument that quality has increased, and can be further improved, cannot be maintained? The quality assurance game is at best camouflage or smokescreen, hiding the real situation, or at worst a cynical confidence trick in which we all join, however reluctantly.

We find euphemisms such as “improved quality levels within the context of efficiency gains” - meaning we have improved things despite having less cash. I do not believe that most university libraries are so inefficient that they can take cuts and improve quality at the same time. It is patently not true that efficiency (meaning the production of a given pre-specified output at least cost) can be improved ad nauseam. What if one is already “efficient?” “Slack” and “fat” have long since been removed from library systems. Indeed staff cuts made to meet financial targets probably reduce efficiency measured any other way. There is also the problem of what constitutes output, never mind effectiveness. Outputs can be excellent, satisfactory, adequate and even inadequate. Leaving aside who decides these matters, we all know that our users aspire to higher levels of service. Demands appear to be infinite - including personal, one to one, assistance.

Libraries lack specific, definable, tangible, objectives which can be measured and related directly to cash inputs and which are recognised by our masters as being pertinent. We just manage. We keep the lid on things in a situation of increasing uncertainty.(14) We have nothing equivalent to an airline service’s objectives. They can fly us to New York and we will know when we have got there. We then choose on the basis of times of flights, duration, comfort, service and costs. We can say we will satisfy 75% of our users’ information needs yet have few means of discovering those real needs (which themselves will alter as service expectations change), of quantifying them, or the cost of raising the proportion to 80% or 85%. We have the dilemma of providing many services - books and journal supply, tuition in information use, reference and advisory services, photocopying, PCs, printouts, study space and so on. There are no simple, overall, measures over which library managements have some control. While supply does create demand, we are still largely demand-led. There is little library managers can do to influence demand in order to accommodate it within given resources. Electronic access is presenting more problems than solutions.

It all seems so painfully familiar.


1. Downing, Richard: Capturing the curriculum, Library Association Record, 100 (6), June 1998, 310 - 311 2. Downing, Richard: Librarians left out of HE debate, Library Association Record, 100 (4), April 1998, 170
3. Further education for the new millennium : response to the Kennedy Report, Department for Education and Employment, 1998, 13
4. Higher education for the 21st century : response to the Dearing Report. Department for Education and Employment, 1998, 13
5. Ibid. p41
6. Ibid. p41
7. Ibid. p38
8. Electronic Libraries Programme: Electronic document delivery : the integrated solution (http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/servicecs/elib)
9. Clegg, Sue: Converged enquiry/help desks: rhetoric or reality? Relay, (45) 1998, 7 -10
10. National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education: Higher education in the learning society : the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education. Chairman Sir Ron Dearing, 1997
11. Statistics of polytechnic libraries 1977 - 78. Council of Polytechnic Librarians, 1979
12. Standing Conference of National and University Libraries: Annual library statistics 1995 - 96. SCONUL, 1997
13. Higher education for the 21st century. Op Cit. p 53
14. Irving, Ann: Beyond Dearing : handling certainty uncertainly. Relay, (45) 1998, 11 - 12

Author details

By Don Revill
formerly Head of Information Services
Liverpool John Moores University

Responses to Article

16 December, 1998
First, sorry about the demise of Ariadne - I always make the effort to read it and it has been both interesting and useful.
Please could you pass on my thanks to Don Revill for his article - I’m sure he can hear the sound of librarians (though many may not have this word in their job titles) saying “Yes!”
I loved the pre-Gutenberg comparison, forwarded to my colleagues on the Electronic Information Licences Working Group (affectionately known as earwig), and the summary of user complaints is perfect.

Val Hamilton
Faculty Librarian, Human Sciences
University of Stirling