Web Magazine for Information Professionals

A MAN for All Reasons?

Derek Law, the Director of Information Services and Systems at Kings College and chair of JISC's ISSC, details his vision of the cooperation between the library sectors blossoming through the use of Metropolitan Area Networks.

All of a sudden the regions are fashionable. The potential benefits of co-operation and strategic planning at regional level and of providing an enhanced role for Regional Library Systems have been raised in a number of contexts recently. One thinks of the Anderson Report, the Public Library Review, the Apt Review of Co-operation and the Broadvision review of Library and Information Plans (LIPs). The nations of Scotland and Wales also have a well-developed sense of place and the possibilities which lie in co-operation. Regional assemblies, regional development authorities, Metropolitan Area Networks and regional transport systems are all refocusing interest on what might be considered another facet of distributed systems.

Librarians in large metropolitan conurbations are conscious from experience if not experiment of the complex interrelationships between public libraries and university libraries. Whether from convenience, conviction or congenital laziness many students use public libraries, while most university libraries claim some kind of public mission. Even were that not the case the arrival of Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) at the same time as apparently fundamental shifts in educational needs suggests that it is an opportune time to reconsider the benefits to higher education of looking afresh at the requirements of its user base.

Two changes may be seen to line the new landscape. Derek LawThe first is the increase in the number of part-time students. Coupled with this we may expect a rising number of students to move in and out of higher education and employment as a way of funding study, as the state progressively transfers the cost of education to the individual. The other is the general move towards life-long learning. It is not at all implausible even now to imagine a National Health Service manager in York using a university medical library to acquire information on clinical trials, studying part-time for a distance learning MBA at the London Business School, requiring information and materials for the NVQ course which she is setting up in the hospital and reading the Booker Short List for light relief. A personal Compuserve account would also cover everything from e-mail to homework. It is impossible to classify what is the 'home' library in this case and the user at least might feel it not unreasonable to channel any request through the nearest service point rather than working out which request is appropriate to which service.

LIPs were designed to mobilise the resources of a region, and that they have done to greater or lesser effect. The opportunity presented by the MANs is to create the resources for the region. This will not be easy and it requires a leap of imagination which most institutions may find difficult. At present, effort is being concentrated on the physical creation of the MANs, but some thought now needs to be given to how they will be used, the resources which will exist on them, and the arrangements for their use. The erection of arbitrary barriers against particular groups would seem unsustainable as the groups themselves blur, while the provision of services outside the narrow HE community may in any case be seen as desirable as a way of funding the population of the network with rich content.

Higher education is the method by which one gains a higher grade of prejudices, so let me now display some of mine. The average British librarian will leave no stone unturned to see that nothing disturbs the even tenor of their lives, fearlessly grasping the nettle with neither hand. I now live in Kingston-upon-Thames where I am a frequent library user. I have used public libraries in half a dozen major cities and I meet public librarians regularly in Library Association Council. And I fear for them. The great driving force of public libraries for a long period of time was the Carnegie spirit of learning and self-improvement. For a large number of perfectly honourable and selfless reasons, public libraries seem to an outsider to have lost their way, to have been sucked into the morass of local government reforms and placed in leisure groupings. There they have sat, comfortably meeting user needs rather than creating user aspirations. Just as a small example, where on earth have been the UK equivalents of the pioneers of Pike's Peak in Colorado who developed Maggie's Place a decade ago? Or where are the champions of the Freenet movement?

There are of course honourable exceptions but it does sometimes feel as though they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. There seems little evidence that public librarians are negotiating with the cable companies to set up an experiment like the Blacksberg electronic village or responding to the challenge of Compuserve and America On-Line and the growing band of consumer information services. Unless challenges are mounted quickly and forcefully, the public library movement will become the public library couch potato, relegated - in a horrible parody of Brave New World - to supplying Jeffrey Archer novels to the population in order to keep it in a semi-comatose state.

All too many libraries use the acquisition of a cataloguing and book circulation system, (essentially a ledger-cum-mechanised abacus), as a substitute for thought, or prize the possession of a Windows environment over intelligence. Too many blow in the wind (or is it flatulence?) of this week's overhyped technology. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a JPEG file takes longer to transmit. The present position of the regional library systems reminds me of a passage from Milton's Paradise Lost (Book I):

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

I firmly believe that there is an opportunity for the regions to expand and grow and have an important role in information provision, to revive libraries as a force for learning, for education and self-development. But this involves more than looking at the further refinement of interlending systems. As Oscar Wilde said "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Which one? Critical to all of this is the development of the MANs. There are already some bright spots. In Scotland, SHEFC has been promoting initiatives of which perhaps the most notable so far is that linking Lothian Region Schools with local industry and with JANET. In Wales, John Redwood developed a plan, mercifully spared by the new Secretary of State, to link all educational establishments from schools to universities with a broadband network. In the North East their development office is driving forward a regional information network as the vehicle for industrial regeneration. In Manchester, CALIM is linking the major libraries and, unusually,includes the City library in its deliberations. What is notable about each of these developments (save the last) is that libraries are not the leaders. It is others who see the value of networks as a focus for information and who have a vision of the way ahead.

Thus far much of the content provision on JANET has been fuelled by top-slicing. But JISC's ambitions have always been limited and it certainly would never have - nor wish to have - the resources effectively to nationalise HE information provision. ISSC is considering currently a proposal to look at the organisation and management of local campus-based resources, but it has felt unable to become involved in an exploration of how the MANs will populate themselves with resources. Shortage of funds too often conceals a shortage of imagination, but before very long the MANs will have to consider what role they wish to play within a region, how they will manage an information policy and, indeed, what it should be. Pressure is building to open up the MANs as regional rather than HE resources, but even if this is seen as inevitable it does not remove the need to create a vision of how user needs will be supported, from which an agenda for change should emerge.

The focus of the vision must be the new type of library user. These new users will be students who weave their education into busy lives already patterned with career, full or part-time employment and, very often, childcare. Many will be unable to study in 'real time' because of the other demands upon their time, but will log in to seminars, tutorials and, indeed, resources, in the evenings from their own homes.

Can eLib contribute to that agenda? One of the keys to the success of the eLib programme has been its use of a small group of professional leaders who have chosen a path and pursued it in a wholly focused and fairly autocratic manner, although attempting to mobilise and invigorate the staff of literally dozens of universities. To paraphrase Orson Welles, patronage properly deployed brought us the Renaissance and Michelangelo: democracy brought us Switzerland and the cuckoo clock. We badly need leaders who can speak for the regions and develop plans such as the Singapore IT2000 plan for the wonderfully named 'Intelligent Island', which bends the resources of a city state to creating a transparent library system where the citizen can enter the library network of the area at any point to meet any need and where, from kindergarten, children are taught the skills of information management.

The development of regional communications structures will lead to the development of regional information providers. We can then choose to be producers or consumers, to be road warriors on the information superhighway or mouse potatoes at the terminal. If I described the present state of the regions with a quotation from Paradise Lost, we may expect to see their salvation in one of Milton's other great works, Paradise Regained (Book IV), where he describes an early Metropolitan Area Network:

mother of arts
And eloquence, native to famous wits
Or hospitable, in her sweet recess,
City or suburban, studious walks and shades

As the population increasingly fails to fit the convenient pigeonholes which we have used to segregate our client groups it seems a good time to consider how far the network can revivify the common mission of all publicly funded libraries, whether city or suburban, public, government or university, in support of lifelong learning and personal development.