Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Developing the New Learning Environment

Stephen Town welcomes this new text on a key issue for the future of academic librarians, and suggests some broader questions for consideration.

This work promises to 'capture' and 'critically discuss' the changing support role of librarians in the current 'rapidly changing environment' where boundaries between roles are 'becoming increasingly blurred'. There is clearly a market for such a work, given that librarians in many educational contexts are indeed faced with new forms of learning environment and a significant growth in electronic, distance and blended learning. 'Capturing' anything in a time of rapid change is difficult, and it may be that boundaries and roles are only 'blurred' where there is insufficient clarity or definition of concepts, strategy, process and thought. However there is enough confusion and uncertainty around these issues to require a timely and helpful text for those working at all levels of library and learning activity.

Philippa Levy is a well-known academic and researcher in the Department of Information Studies at Sheffield University. Sue Roberts is Head of Learning Services at Edge Hill CHE and relevantly is the Chair of the SCONUL Task and Finish Group on e-learning. The editorial conjunction reflects the fact that the book is constructed of two halves. The first presents the context and theoretical background of the new learning environments. The second addresses the issue of librarians providing 'learner support' from a practical viewpoint. There is evidence of a team approach throughout the work, and effort has been made to link all the contributions to the common purpose.

Peter Brophy begins the first half by critically reviewing the policy framework and points up the issues with his usual clarity. The publication schedule clearly fell before the publication of the DFES strategy on e-learning, which is not covered [1]. Philippa Levy provides a sound introduction to pedagogy and its relevance to developments in HE teaching and learning, and the consequences for information and librarian interactions. Dorothy Williams provides an excellent summary of recent developments and debates in information and related literacies, and links these effectively back to pedagogic conceptions. Williams perceptively picks up broader information and knowledge issues, and rightly points out the lack of distinction between 'information skills' and 'learning' itself.

Allison Littlejohn's chapter is the first from an academic unconnected with librarianship, and this is laudable and desirable in a work that seeks a broader collaborative perspective. I found this chapter interesting and I liked the use of models such as the Mayes cycle. Some of the content is likely to date rapidly given recent VLE market developments, and I might disagree that the 'integration of virtual spaces will inevitably be accompanied by a merging of responsibilities and roles'. One of the key questions on which the book might have taken a stronger position is whether we are only to see currently identifiable roles changing and collaborating more with others, or whether new converged professions will emerge.

Sue Roberts concludes the first half with a chapter on new professional identities, and also starts the second half with Mark Schofield and Ruth Wilson on new academic teams. Roberts correctly sums up some of the role issues for academic librarians. From my perspective I do see a future problem for librarians who are neither proactive nor academically 'connected', but I see this as a long-standing people and process issue, rather than one only arising from recent technological developments.

The second half of the work moves immediately into case studies, and perhaps unavoidably this is where some focus is lost. Case studies will inevitably draw different reactions from readers depending on their own experience, context and stage of local institutional development. I personally found much of interest and value in the contributions of Susannah Quinsee, from the perspective of an e-learning unit Head, and Judith Peacock, as ever, on information literacy in practice. Philip Payne provides a thoughtful survey on library management implications.

My own response to the second half of this work is inevitably influenced by close involvement in knowledge service and e-learning development. Many of the issues raised were therefore clear to me some time ago, and maybe some already resolved. It might have been beneficial to have some cases from institutions or organisations with very large-scale distance or e-learning experience to draw on, and also more on the knowledge management role opportunities for librarians in relation to research- related developments. In a desire to be practical the focus sometimes seems only low-level and structural.

Overall the first half of the book is good, and provides some accurate diagnosis of the problems and issues. However the decision to impose a distinction between theoretical and background chapters seemed ultimately unsatisfactory to me. It perhaps also meant that some relevant recent work seemed to be omitted (see for example, the INLEI Project [2]). Consequently the second part was unable to answer completely some of the very big questions raised in the first.

Perhaps the key concepts for the book were interpreted in too narrow a way. This may have been unavoidable in order to create a manageable text. But if the thrust of the book is to consider 'convergence', then limiting the discussion to only the 'learner support' role of librarians might not be a broad enough basis. In particular I believe 'learner support' for blended learning requires deeper consideration of the librarian's role in repository developments from knowledge management, technical and process perspectives. In addition, the 'learners' in this volume seem to encompass 'researchers' only occasionally, and academic staff rarely. Convergence seems to me to be about the positioning and boundaries of institutional library services in toto as well as for individual learner support librarians. Some of this might have been addressed in an additional chapter providing a clearer synthesis of the contributions, as opposed to the summary and reflections chapter provided.

This is a thought-provoking book, and in this sense it fulfils its objective and was a pleasure to review. It might have benefited from some of the more challenging visions current in e-learning (for example, see Salmon [3]) to bring out the consequences of future potential scenarios for librarians, and also a final position which could have been used to allow readers to draw more specific conclusions. These in turn might also have generated a precise agenda for professional education in relation to these new or enhanced roles. However this work should form a part of the essential reading for those engaging with the implications of the new learning environment for librarians.


  1. The e-Strategy 'Harnessing Technology: Transforming learning and children's services'
  2. Bricheno, P., Higgison, C. and Weedon, E. The impact of networked learning on education institutions. (JISC INLEI Project) http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=project_inlei
  3. Salmon, G. (2004), Reflecting the Future of e-Learning. Scaling up e-Learning Symposium, 5 - 6 October 2004, Shrivenham: Cranfield University RMCS.

Author Details

Stephen Town
Director of Information Services,
Defence College of Management & Technology,
Defence Academy of the United Kingdom
& Deputy University Librarian,
Cranfield University

Email: J.S.Town@cranfield.ac.uk
Web site: http://diglib.shrivenham.cranfield.ac.uk/

Return to top