Tangible intangibility

October 12, 2013 1 Comment
Aberdeen University Library

Aberdeen University Library

‘Tangible intangibility’: the present and future of research libraries

The Charles Holden Lecture, Senate House, University of London, 10 October 2013




First of all, I’d like to thank the Friends of Senate House Library for inviting me to give this year’s Holden Lecture.

Charles Holden, of course, was the architect of the building we’re in, and of many other distinguished buildings, including several elegant interwar London underground stations.  He seems to have led a life that matched the austerity of his professional work: ‘bananas and brown bread on the table; no hot water; plain living and high thinking and strenuous activity for the betterment of the world’[1]: a rather forbidding model, even for a puritan like me!

Your invitation came in the first month of my retirement from the National Library of Wales, after 38 years of working in academic and research libraries.  By temperament I’m not given to retrospection, but the last few months I’ve found myself looking back on libraries and my various roles in them, and I hope you’ll forgive me for some harmless reminiscing during the course of this talk.  On the whole, though, I want to keep my eyes and yours firmly on the future of research libraries, and to suggest how they might change in future and still remain relevant to their users and their funders, in a rapidly changing world.  This is a much discussed subject at present.  Research Libraries UK, for example, has been debating various possible future models of the research library for many months[2].  Such introspection is a sure sign of existential anxiety in our profession and organisations.  I make no apologies for adding to our worries, and maybe I can bring some comfort.

Much of what drives today’s changes is technological in character, hence my title, ‘tangible intangibility’.  It’s taken from the most enjoyable book about libraries I know, The library at night, by the Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel.  He says in his conclusion, ‘And yet the new sense of infinity created by the Web has not diminished the old sense of infinity inspired by the ancient libraries [like the Library of Alexandria]; it has merely lent it a sort of tangible intangibility’[3].  My main theme is the multiple and complex ways in which physical and virtual knowledge and libraries interact, and to pursue it I’ll be concentrating heavily on the future of the library as collection.  You’ll be pleased to know that Senate House Library has been much in my mind as I prepared the talk.

Two scenes from the life of a young librarian

To begin at the beginning, imagine the scene in the newly opened Arts & Social Studies Library of University College Cardiff on 15 September 1975.  I am an Assistant Librarian and this is my first proper professional job.  I sit behind a trestle table – the permanent furniture hasn’t yet arrived – alongside another new recruit, and our sole job is to catalogue new books.  To catalogue a book we take a slip of paper and write out by hand a basic record for it, checking proper names against their standard forms and adding Library of Congress classification numbers.  We check each other’s work for accuracy and then send the slip to the typist.  She has a room to herself.  Or at least her machine has.  This is a tape-typewriter, a gigantic contraption that can reproduce from an original typed card any number of ‘added entry’ cards and ‘class[ification sequence] cards’.   Monday mornings we spend filing all these cards in the right places in the catalogue: a tiring and tedious two to three hour task.  We are only trusted to file ‘on the rods’.  Our supervisor comes round after us later on and checks that we’ve slotted the cards in at the correct places; a lecture will follow if we err.

All this may strike you as faintly ridiculous, and far from suitable work for relatively well paid academically related staff with one or two degrees behind them.  And you’d be right, except that you should remember that in those days cataloguing was treated by almost everyone with the utmost seriousness.  I remember having arguments of religious ferocity with my colleague about issues of cataloguing principle: arguments not very different, in hindsight, from the supposedly medieval dispute about ‘how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?’

Even in 1975 the digital world was beginning to poke its nose into the academic library.  I’ve mentioned the primitive but, to us, miraculous tape-typewriter.  Nearby, in the corner of the same floor, sat someone called the Systems Librarian – it was Mel Collier, who went on to have a distinguished career in academic libraries in the Netherlands and Belgium – whose job was to prepare the way for a computerised catalogue, initially in the form of the Computer Output Microfiche (COM), later replaced by a live computer terminal.

I laboured in this bizarre apprenticeship for four years.  My dream was to have the job of the Reader’s Adviser, who sat at the front desk all day doing not much more than answering questions (and eventually I did get that chance!).

But let’s move on the mid-1980s.  By now, still in the same university and the same building, I am in my ideal post, subject librarian for the social sciences.  This is much more to my taste.  It involves direct contact with staff and students in half a dozen academic departments.  One of my most challenging tasks is conducting online searches on behalf of researchers.  This means interviewing them, constructing a complex search query, and then walking down in the rain to the Science Library, which houses the only online terminal in the library system.  We contact the database host, typically Dialog, by dialling up using the phone line.  With the greatest of care I place the telephone receiver, like a fragile sacred relic, into a padded wooden box.  It emits a constant stream of high-pitched notes.  We hope that the computer in the US responds to our prayers.

Even in these high tech times, though, I seem to spend a large amount of time making sure that the books and articles on lecturers’ reading lists are available on the shelves for the social studies students.  There is no easy way of doing this: it means gathering as many reading lists as you can, checking them for presence and historic use, and anticipating likely student demand through use of a short loan collection and the purchasing of multiple copies of textbooks.

Two assumptions challenged

There are two points I’d like to draw from these two scenes.  The first is that academic libraries felt the digital revolution much sooner than most libraries, and indeed most organisations.  But it was assumed that electronic methods – computerised catalogues, online literature searching and other innovations – were not just beneficial (they could lead to better levels of public service and maybe even improved productivity), they were also amenable to the control of the library: the library could decide whether or not to embrace them, and if so, in which ways, while our users would gratefully accept what we offered them as the only provision they had available to them.

The second assumption, throughout this period and up to very recently, is that the main object of our loving care as library staff was our total collection of books and periodicals.  It was the physical collection that counted, the collection that was the means of satisfying our readers’ expectations, the collection that justified the university’s spending money on the library service.

Cambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library

Now I’ll admit that I’ve exaggerated and oversimplified that was happening in the 1970s and 1980s.  For example, librarians were not totally collection-fixated: they were more concerned than most support services at the time to place the needs of researchers and students at the focal point of their thinking.  I remember publishing in 1990 – by now I was in the University of Sheffield – an article entitled ‘What do we mean by user needs?’[4].  Nevertheless, these two assumptions, that it was collections that defined the library, and that digital technologies were biddable servants, still held sway until the beginning of this century, and later.

To take the latter first, digital technologies are today so ubiquitous and so deeply and widely entrenched, not just in higher education but in society and economy more generally, that they often seem to be our tyrants rather than our pliant assistants.  This is certainly true of academic libraries.

The main features of this revolution are so well know I need do no more than list the most obvious of them:

  •  Virtually all staff and students are habitual users of online networks, computer devices, standard software, learning platforms and social networking services.   This gives them a foundation of operational independence from many of the services their institution provides and the constraints it attempts to impose
  • Scholarly publications, particularly periodicals, have become increasingly digital; not only that, they’ve also become standardised in the way they’re collected by libraries – available in lookalike packages to all customers, reducing the uniqueness of individual collections
  • Many of these ‘collections’ are not in reality collections, for retention locally, but amalgamations of information rented only temporarily
  • The ‘open’ revolution and especially the ‘open access’ movement have allowed researchers and students to by-pass the library’s information channels and locate valuable information for themselves on the open web
  • Global companies of overwhelming power, like Google and Amazon, have transformed the process of discovering knowledge, rendering libraries’ search systems redundant or at least overlooked, and have also provided convenient and often free direct access to that knowledge itself through services like Google Scholar and Google Books.

These and other developments have had the effect of shaking the confidence of librarians, and even reducing their standing within their institutions.

What I’d like to focus on, though, is the fate of the first assumption, that the library collection is paramount and fundamental to the being and the future of a research library.  I want to argue, from where we stand in 2013, that this is at one and the same time a profoundly mistaken and a profoundly true proposition.  And I’ll try to demonstrate this is so with the aid of examples drawn from university research libraries and also from national libraries (which are these days more familiar to me).

To prove my case I need to make a distinction between two kinds of collection.  Not the distinction you might expect me to make, between physical (or analogue) and digital collections, but between what I shall call common collections and distinctive collections.

Common collections

What do I mean by common collections?  They are the printed and digital library materials – the mundane materials – that form the day-to-day information resources used by students, and many of those used by researchers.  What makes them common is not just that they’re everyday but that they’re replicated in many other libraries, and not only research libraries, across the country and maybe across the world.

When they existed in printed form only, as they did back in 1975, this replication was hardly relevant.  Students had no other means of getting hold of the resources except through the library of their home institution, and even researchers valued local availability highly above other, less convenient means of acquiring them, like inter-library loans or personal travel (when I was in Sheffield we started running a weekly minibus service to the British Library at Boston Spa, which was given the name ‘BLzeBus’: I was amazed to discover that the service still runs, though apparently without the satanic name).  When I arrived as Librarian at Swansea University in 1992 almost the first visit I received was from a posse of science professors who were desperate to know how I was going to safeguard the library’s subscriptions to ‘their’ science periodicals.

Today, though, the replication of everyday, common collections takes a very different form, with very different consequences, since many if not most of them have migrated to digital format.  University X will subscribe to much the same range of bundled electronic periodicals as University Y.  E-books are similarly available to multiple academic libraries from the same suppliers and in a similar way.  And, as we’ve seen, many of these resources are not in fact being added to an historic collection, for permanent or semi-permanent retention: they’re rented, for only as long as the library pays for their supply.

Next, add the fact that students and particularly researchers now enjoy alternative channels for acquiring the information they need, and don’t have to depend so heavily on their library to supply it.  Open digital repositories were already current in some disciplines, like particle physics, in the 1990s.  They’re now more common, and have been joined by institutional repositories that also include at least the pre-published versions of research papers.  And in addition, researcher-to-researcher contact, so much easier than it was twenty years ago, is also a very common source of scholarly information in all disciplines.  Other resources have been made freely available to researchers by commercial concerns, like the texts of copyright-expired books offered through Google Books.

Finally, how students and researchers discover what they need inevitably has an effect on what they use.  Today they’re far more likely to start the process of discovery on a general search engine like Google than they are in a library catalogue.  Doing so is as likely to lead them away from, rather than in the direction of, the library as a means of acquiring what they’ve found, despite attempts by OCLC and others to expose individual library holdings to search engines.

What are the consequences of all this for the common collections of academic libraries?

National Library of Wales

National Library of Wales

Since for most disciplines digital is now the default channel for scholarly knowledge and scholarly communication, the print part of the common collection in a university library is rapidly becoming invisible to staff and students, in much the same way that in an earlier age books whose catalogue records remained in non-digital form became overlooked and neglected.  Librarians have acknowledged this process.  Indeed, they’ve given it further momentum, through labelling these print resources ‘legacy collections’ and consigning them to stores and basements, often to make way for ‘information commons’ and other facilities perceived to be more relevant to their users.

This mirrors a change in the balance in library materials budgets, which over a lengthy period has shifted decisively away from print towards digital purchase.   It’s increasingly recognised that libraries need to treat common collections in print form in a new way, if the use of them by their readers is likely to diminish and continue diminishing.  It follows that the substantial resources they’ve traditionally devoted to these collections, especially staff resources, need to be reduced to the minimum required to make them effective.  So if there are ‘common collection cataloguers’ lurking in the bowels of your building, ask yourself whether they’re really necessary!  (They could be redeployed in de-accessioning common stock, in the case of journals to the UK Research Reserve, and monographs too in future, if the long-discussed parallel national system for systematic copy retention emerges.)

It doesn’t follow that these resources, if released from supporting a print collection, need to be switched directly into supporting common collections in digital form. As we’ve seen, these operate in a different way from traditional collections: they come ready-packaged and ready-labelled from well-organised large-scale suppliers, and insofar as they’re rented rather than bought outright, they don’t justify the costs of a ceremonial welcome to the library.  Again, I suggest, the library should devote to these collections the minimum resources needed to make sure they’re readily findable and accessible by users.

From collections to service

Common collections certainly have a future – a mainly, though not exclusively, digital future.  But the word ‘collection’ no longer implies a fixed and definitive store, existing in and for itself.  It serves the immediate needs of its intended audience, and if it ceases to do so it must be abandoned or adapted.  And it certainly isn’t the predominant focus of the work of the library as it was in the days when I toiled in university libraries.

So what should the focus of librarians’ work be?  The answer lies in the question I tried to answer back in 1990, ‘what do we mean by user needs?’, and to the more specific question, how can librarians bring their distinctive skills and interests to bear to meet the requirements of researchers and students?  The first step is to put oneself in the shoes of the researcher or student to consider what are the challenges in acquiring and, more important, making effective use of information.  The needs may be articulated as demands or they may yet be unrecognised, but the service should always start from the position of the user.

Let me give some examples of services offered by an academic library that has redirected its resources away from processing common collections to meeting the needs of its users.

  •  Promoting digital and information literacy.  Academic librarians of the 1970s were much concerned with what they (perhaps unwisely) called ‘user education’: equipping students with the skills to retrieve and make discriminating use of information.  In the decades since then this need has not declined: in fact, it has increased, since so much more information is so readily available, and schools still seem to neglect information handling as a core skill.  Digital literacy – the skills needed to make the best educational use of digital technologies – is similarly an essential, for teachers and students alike, and is not necessarily universal.
  •  Promoting collaborative learning.  One of the most striking developments during the last ten years has been the growth of collaborative learning spaces in academic libraries.  Sometimes called ‘information commons’ these areas cater for new models of learning, where print, media and digital resources are used together, and where group learning is as natural a mode as quiet individual learning.  Librarians find themselves in an ideal position to observe, to influence and to become experts on the conditions for effective learning in this new environment.
  • Intellectual property. The library has long been the locus of the university’s expertise on copyright issues (one of my first jobs in the University of Sheffield – set, I think, as a beginner’s task, to test his mettle – was to overhaul the library’s copyright policies).  Today intellectual property is even more critical to how a university operates.  Students need to know how to respect the rights of copyright holders, and of course avoid plagiarism; even more important, teachers and researchers must be aware of the basic rules, as they publish their work or their teaching materials in digital form.  (I recently chairing a working group for the Welsh Education Minister on open online learning, and it quickly became clear to us that familiarity with copyright licensing is essential to those publishing open educational resources.)
  • Research communication.  Patterns of scholarly communications are in major flux.   I hesitate to predict whether or not open modes of research publication will become the norm in this country, let alone in the rest of the world, as a result of the open access movement and the UK government’s endorsement of the ‘gold’ version of it.  But what is obvious is that librarians are in a good position to give advice on how their universities should approach their own researchers’ scholarly publications, and possibly to manage digital institutional repositories on their behalf.  A recent SCONUL publication[5] gives case studies of libraries that are taking the lead in their institutions in developing policies and practices in the wake of the Finch Report on ‘gold’ open access.

No doubt there are many other examples, but these examples serve to show how an academic library can operate in a service-based rather than a collection-based way and hence retain its relevance to its users and its institution.  This model also allows the library to go beyond the provision of a static service, and to act as an innovator, or a champion of innovation, within its institution.

The shift from collection to service is particularly important when the library and what it offers in their traditional forms can seem to lack relevance to some parts of the university.  In an article I published in 1997 I wrote:

One day last month I had a glimpse of the future.

I was in my office with some library colleagues and two members of the Department of Physics.  We were there to discuss electronic journals, but the conversation broadened to include all scholarly communication in the area of particle physics research.  After a few minutes an awful truth dawned: that in the eyes of the physicists I – and for that matter all of my colleagues – were utterly redundant to their information needs.  Those were supplied almost entirely by Paul Ginsparg’s electronic physics archive at Los Alamos …’[6]

If libraries are serious in wanting to make this shift they will need to think about the implications for their structures and their staffing.  A service orientation presumes a close relationship with the university’s management and also with individual academic departments.  The latter might suggest that there is a continued role for the subject librarian, a figure who normally enjoys close relationships with academic colleagues, but whose work in the past has been centred on collections[7].  Another model would be to develop separate teams or individual experts devoted to each service across all disciplines in the institution.

Distinctive collections

You may have concluded by now that I’ve been too severe on the collection as a focus of library work.  But I want next to return to the other kind of collection I identified earlier, the distinctive collection.

I should first say what I mean by ‘distinctive’.  I do mean the kind of collection that’s traditionally labelled ‘special’ in university or public libraries: collections of manuscripts, archives, rare books, or multimedia material long ago identified as requiring separate treatment from common collections.  But I don’t mean just those special collections, and I don’t mean just collections of items that are unique.  Libraries may own distinctive collections that are hidden within their common collections, identified or not identified as such: a good example would be research books and periodicals amassed systematically long ago but no longer the subject of current study or research.  For national libraries a distinctive collection might equate to the sum of the collections relating to its nation: that’s certainly true of the National Library of Wales.

Aberdeen University Library

Aberdeen University Library

During the past couple of years Research Libraries UK has made a special study of this area, with the help of a survey kindly conducted on its behalf by OCLC, and with the assistance of specialist staff from member libraries.  In its early phases I had the privilege of helping direct this work on behalf of the RLUK Board, and it made me rethink my assumptions about distinctive materials in research libraries.

It seems to me that as its common collections become less central to a research library’s role its distinctive collections begin to assume a much more important position than they’ve occupied in the past.  And just as the former, as I’ve argued, should consume a reduced fraction of a library’s budget, so the latter, I suggest, should attract much more management attention and more resources than they’ve received in most institutions.

In a globalised, digital world of knowledge, while common knowledge assets lose their worth, unique and distinctive objects become more valuable.  They’re unlikely to have been hoovered up by Google or other mega-companies.  If people wish to use them they need to make the pilgrimage to your door, physical or virtual.  As the Frenchman Gabriel Naudée said in 1627 in his Advice for setting up a library, ‘There is nothing that renders a library more recommendable than when a man finds in it that which his is looking for and cannot find anywhere else’.[8]

So, rather than let their distinctive collections hide in dusty obscurity in a basement or attic, starved of staff and cash resources, libraries should cherish such collections as what helps to give both them and their parent universities a special flavour, and potentially a special attractiveness, particularly to researchers.

My picture of neglect, of course, is a caricature.  To be fair, UK research libraries don’t neglect their special collections.  During the last decade, often with the help of funds from the Wolfson Foundation many RLUK libraries have built new and attractive accommodation for their collections of archives and rare books.  And many university libraries who are not members of RLUK have also committed themselves to caring for their collections.  If you’ve visited the campus of the University of Lancaster you’ll know that the first building you encounter is the handsome modern building that houses the library of John Ruskin.  When I was at Swansea I was aware that the South Wales Coalfield Collection and the South Wales Miners’ Library were of major, indeed global importance to the university and did all I could to secure resources to develop it.  My successors there have continued the commitment, encouraged by one of the founders of the collections, now an MP and, as it happens, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History.

So what am I suggesting libraries should do with those collections they’ve identified as distinctive?  (Or, rather, distinctive and significant: there are some collections it’s very difficult to forecast a successful future for!)

The first challenge is to make the collection visible, both physically and virtually.

If distinctive collections are worth retaining and developing, then they deserve a prominent position with the library’s building, and a visual setting that’s likely to attract the attention of the passer-by as well as the intending researcher.  An excellent example is the Special Collections and Archives on the ground floor of the Sydney Jones Library in the University of Liverpool: it’s not a huge space, but it’s easy to spot and welcoming in appearance, with plenty of glass to encourage the curious, ample exhibition space, and human help close at hand.

But what if Liverpool, despite its science fiction collection, isn’t a place you often visit?  A virtual presence that’s similarly appealing and informative is now essential for any distinctive collection that seeks to be used.  What this means is increasingly not just information about the collection, but detailed metadata about the items in it, and at least sample digitised images and/or transcriptions.  And, on top of that, the obligatory social networking services like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.  The John Rylands Library has over 2,000 Twitter followers.  Senate House Library is an excellent example of a library that gives Page 1 prominence on its website to what you term your ‘historic collections’, and of course you maintain an excellent regular blog on the same theme.

I want to return to the question of visibility later on, in the context of the public role of distinctive collections.

The second challenge is staffing.  The special collection has traditionally – again I caricature! – been the home of the scholar manqué, the anally retentive archivist, the cataloguing pedant, communing with a small number of favoured readers but otherwise reluctant to engage with other people.  Things have changed, of course, but I suggest libraries need to be much more demanding of those they employ to look after distinctive collections.  Their traditional skills are still needed, of course, including collecting, cataloguing and conservation (which will increasingly extend to include the conservation of digital material).  But extra ones need to be added: the ability to negotiate the acquisition of new collections (including those in digital and hybrid forms), the capacity to engage with researchers inside and outside the institution, explanatory and teaching skills, mastery of publicity and marketing techniques, expertise at attracting finance to fund their activity.  In short, distinctive collections need to cease being a guarded secret, and to face outwards – to the institution and to the wider world – with the professional skills to match the ambition.

This brings me to my third challenge.  How do collections engage with their users?  Let’s take researchers first.  The old role of curators was to look after their collections and keep the doors to them open – or at least ajar.  But the new curator will be doing more: she’ll be actively seeking out academic attention, stimulating researchers to discover an interest in subjects they didn’t know they had.  This means becoming familiar with the general directions of academic research, inside and beyond the institution, and also being familiar with those emerging methods of humanities and social studies research, often labelled ‘digital humanities’, that are applicable to studying documentation: areas like digitisation, crowdsourcing and big data analysis.  But the new curator isn’t just an observer and interested colleague of researchers.  Rather than just providing supplementary fodder for projects originating elsewhere she should also be thinking about how the collections she cares for can inspire new research ventures.  Excellent projects often emerge from the creative conversations between library specialists and researchers, and are developed and brought to fruition likewise by close collaboration between scholar and library specialist.

National Library of Latvia

National Library of Latvia

I first came into contact with this ‘new curation’ when I moved to the University of Sheffield in 1989.  The Librarian there, Michael Hannon, was instrumental in founding what was called the Humanities Research Institute, intended specifically to unite research collections in the library with researchers interested in making significant use of them.  One of the early projects concerned the creation of a digital edition of the papers of the seventeenth century encyclopaedist Samuel Hartlib – papers that were housed in the Library.  The HRI still flourishes today as an interdisciplinary centre with a focus on digital humanities[9].

A similar model exists in Manchester.  The John Rylands Research Institute ‘brings together experts from the University of Manchester Library and the University’s Faculty of Humanities in a unique partnership to uncover, explore, unravel and reveal hidden ideas and knowledge contained within our world-leading special collections’[10].  Current initiatives include projects on Greek and Roman papyri, magic and the natural world, and William Blake: nearly all of them are based on John Rylands Library collections, and most involve the output of digital material.

Trinity College Dublin Library is part of the Long Room Hub research institute for the arts and humanities within the College.  One of its projects is the 1641 Depositions[11].  The Depositions form a remarkable collection of witness statements taken following the Catholic rebellion in Ireland in October 1641.  They’re kept in the College’s Library, and the Project came about in 2007 through close collaboration between the Library’s specialist staff and Prof. Jane Ohlmeyer and other researchers, in Trinity and in Aberdeen and Cambridge universities.  It was funded jointly (€5m in total), with the Library as one of the contributors.  The resulting digitised images and digital transcriptions will have a permanent home in the Library’s Digital Collections Repository.

Sometimes it’s possible for libraries to take the lead in a more dramatic way.  The National Library of Wales is not attached to or associated with any particular academic institution and so lacks a supply of ‘home researchers’.  (There is a partial exception: the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies[12] occupies a building next door to the Library, linked by a corridor I used to refer to as an ‘umbilical cord’ of knowledge: much of the Centre’s work is based on Library collections.)  But in January 2011 Lorna Hughes joined the Library, thanks to a funding agreement with the University of Wales, as its Professor of Digital Collections[13] – the first such post, as far as I know, in the world.  Lorna’s aim is to develop the uses of the Library’s extensive existing digital, especially digitised, collections, and to add new collections, by forging alliances with universities across the world.  Many new projects have been developed, including a collaborative initiative with other institutions to digitise research material about the period of the First World War in Wales.  Four PhD students from partner universities are based in the Library and focus their studies on Library collections.  And work has been done on the evaluation of the actual use of existing digital collections, still a neglected field, and on enhancing them through crowd-sourcing.  In my view the Chair has been outstandingly successful so far: it has brought substantial extra resources into what is a critical area of work for the Library, it has increased the number and reach of its partnerships with academic institutions, and it has enlarged its profile not just in the UK but much further afield.  And it has grounded digital humanities, which can often appear an academic plant without firm roots, in the soil of real digital collections.

National libraries are different, of course, but I wonder whether university libraries might adopt some of their ideas.  For example, just as they’re used by now to catering for several types of undergraduate space needs in their buildings, could academic libraries set aside space for teams of researchers who are working on a collections or set of collections, especially now that humanities research is often much more team-based than in the past?

The research library and the wider public

Now I want to consider another facet of distinctive collections, one that takes us beyond the realm of collections to the wider purpose of academic libraries.

But first I’ll give you the last of my career scenes.  It’s 1 October 1998 and I’m newly arrived in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  After 25 years in universities this is a very different place.  It’s a stand-alone, parent-less institution, it operates mainly through the Welsh language, and it’s much more exposed politically.  We’re a year away from the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales, which will be responsible for funding the Library directly through a new Culture Minister.

It’s clear to me that in this new context the Library is in a far from ideal position.  It’s almost entirely an ‘analogue’, paper-based institution, limiting its user base to those able to reach one of the remotest parts of Wales, and its users are mainly academic researchers and local students.  A new direction is urgently needed – one that’s going to engage with the likely concerns of our funder and hence help ensure our survival.

Trinity College Dublin Library

Trinity College Dublin Library

The key to survival was to throw open the Library, in as many ways as possible, to as large an audience as possible.  We set out to achieve this in two ways: first, by creating a visitor centre, with new exhibition and education spaces, auditorium, café and shop, in order to attract people, including children, who would not necessarily have any interest in becoming readers in the Library, and second by building an alter ego, a digital library available to users with no necessary desire to come to Aberystwyth.  Here we placed a heavy emphasis on digitising our distinctive collections: not just selecting ‘special collections’ as traditionally understood (although many of them, like the canonical medieval Welsh manuscripts, were included), but taking a wider perspective.  We developed a programme called ‘The Theatre of Memory’ with the ambitious aim of republishing digitally, as far as copyright restrictions would allow, the entire printed heritage of Wales.  Even more ambitiously we agreed on the principle that all this material would be freely available online, and if possible we wanted to allow re-use of the digitised material using Creative Commons licences.  Needless to say, only a part of the whole programme has yet been realised, but two of its component projects, Welsh Journals Online and Welsh Newspapers Online, have succeeded in reaching very large numbers of readers who would never have found what they wanted in the original versions and who might never have come to Aberystwyth to read them.

The result has been that, at least to some extent – I’d be the first to admit that there is still a long way to go – the National Library has been ‘turned inside out’.  It still operates effectively as a resource for researchers, though we’ve succeeded in expanding the definition of ‘researcher’ well beyond the academic context, and in drawing into the Library’s orbit a large number of people who would not previously have dreamed of using it: family and local historians, schoolchildren, tourists, journalists and media companies, community groups, artists, writers and musicians, and many others.

Now, I can hear you thinking, this is all very well, but it’s very different in a university library.  A national library is an open, public institution, it carries a specific cultural function, it has no parent institution with pressing needs.  None of these is necessarily true of university libraries.  But I suggest there are several good reasons why appealing to a wider audience is a proper aim for any research library, and especially one holding rich distinctive collections.

Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, National Library of Wales

Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, National Library of Wales

Firstly, most universities, even if their extramural duties are less of an imperative than in the past, still feel a responsibility to serve the local communities in which they are situated, through departments of adult continuing education, campus arts centres, public lectures and in many other ways.  Second, distinctive collections almost always find research uses and users outside their home institution; this may impose a burden of service on the library, but it’s also an opportunity to gain kudos far beyond the walls of the institution.  And third, in certain key areas universities come under external pressure to be relevant to wider society.  Here I’m thinking especially of the Research Excellence Framework and its insistence that research, to be graded highly, must demonstrate its impact outside the academy[14].  Libraries with distinctive collections that have contributed to research submitted to the REF should be in a good position to help researchers demonstrate the public value of their work, for example through mounting exhibitions, arranging educational activities or publishing digitised original materials.

Some research libraries are now becoming more ambitious in their thinking about public engagement.  The one to watch is one of the largest, the Bodleian Libraries.  In Oxford, Giles Gilbert Scott’s unloved New Bodleian building is being gutted and reinvented as a completely new kind of facility, and will reopen next year, not only to members of the University but also in part to members of the public.  New public exhibition galleries and learning spaces will display many of the Library’s treasures for the first time, and the building will become one of the University’s most prominent public faces.  Visitors used to wandering the central streets of the city and being rebuffed by ‘no admittance’ signs at the entrances to every college will find themselves welcomed and encouraged to share some of the country’s greatest documentary jewels.  Likewise, scholars from outside Oxford will find it easier to study the Library’s distinctive collections, for which the New Bodleian will provide a new home.

The new New Bodleian will be an interesting test for the thesis that a research library has the capacity to become a magnet for visitors to a university.  Much will depend on how immediately appealing are the collections available for display, and on the skills of those responsible for creating the displays.  But if the experience of the National Library of Wales is anything to go by – and I have to admit that its collections are exceptionally wide and appealing – it is far from impossible to attract large numbers of visitors while safeguarding the interests of researchers and students.

The other obvious way of throwing the research library open to the general public is to construct and promote a virtual, online version of the library, free for all to use, whenever and wherever they choose.  Most research libraries display on their websites copies of items from their special collections, often ‘treasures’ with which they’re usually associated, or online versions of exhibitions, or the product of externally funded digitisation projects.  These can give a flavour of what the visitor will find in the physical library, but don’t amount to an alternative digital collection.

National Library of Wales at the National Eisteddfod

National Library of Wales at the National Eisteddfod

One of the best examples of what I have in mind is the Wellcome Library, an intrinsically distinctive collection, where a well-funded and coherent programme, linked to its parent’s research priorities, is starting to make available free and online a large corpus of digitised collections.  The Library explains its thinking thus:

‘… the Wellcome Library has followed a transformation strategy to make the Library digital. The ambition was not to create an online shop window, but instead permanently break the bonds imposed by a physical library and provide full access to our collections in new and innovative ways. We aimed to create an entirely new digital presence based on the Wellcome Library’s historic foundations and modern personality.

At the heart of this transformation strategy are two key elements: mass digitisation of unique collections and the creation of an online experience that transcends the generic offerings of mass distribution and offers a unique value.’[15]

‘Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics’, the pilot phase of the programme, which brought together 20 archival collections from the Wellcome and partner institutions, was published in spring 2013, and will be followed by other projects.

The Wellcome, of course, is unusually fortunate in being able to draw on internal funding amounting to millions of pounds.  Most libraries aiming at a coherent digital programme have a harder furrow to plough.  To change metaphors, funding has to be stitched together from different sources to create a coherent pattern or programme, a process that calls for patience and perseverance, and a long time frame.  But it can be done.  The National Library of Wales’s Theatre of Memory programme began 2006 and so far has drawn on finance from JISC, the Welsh Assembly Government, the European Union and several other external bodies, as well as a regular flow of funds from the Library’s own budget.  The programme also works in collaboration with other institutions, especially academic libraries within Wales.  The important thing is to keep ones eye focussed on the overall programme, and to build it into a resource with the mass and the richness to become an asset of real and direct benefit to anyone interested in it.

In conclusion

This, then, is my very personal view of the direction at least some research libraries may take in the future:

  •  common collections will decline in significance in the priorities of individual libraries
  • instead, libraries will increasingly offer specific information-related services to their users and their institutions, which may or (more likely) may not be based on collections
  • distinctive collections will increase in prominence and use, and as markers of a university’s overall distinctiveness
  • distinctive collections will form a more visible part of an institution’s relationship with its wider public.

The shift to digital will continue, and affect all parts of their work, but most research libraries will never dematerialise completely.  Some collections, and some parts of some collections, will always be valued in their analogue format, and I suspect we have barely begun along the path of reimagining the library as physical space.  The tangible and the intangible will intertwine for many years to come.



Andrew Green / October 2013.



[1] Ashbee journals (24 June 1906), quoted in Charles Hutton and Alan Crawford, ‘Holden, Charles Henry (1875–1960), architect’, Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2007.

[2] Redefining the research library model: http://rlukrrlm.wordpress.com/.  SCONUL and other bodies conducted the ‘Libraries of the future’ exercise in 2009-2011 (http://www.futurelibraries.info/content/), and in 2010 all three UK national libraries produced ‘visions’ looking ahead 10-20 years.

[3] Albert Manguel, The library at night, New Haven: Yale UP, 2006, p.322.

[4] Andrew Green, ‘What do we mean by user needs?’, British Journal of Academic Librarianship, 5 (2), 1990, p.65-78.

[5] http://www.sconul.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/SCONUL_open_access_briefing.pdf

[6] Andrew Green, ‘Towards the digital library: how relevant is eLib to practitioners?’, New Review of Academic Librarianship, vol. 3, 1997, p.39-48.  The e-print archive is now hosted at Cornell University Library and is called ‘arXiv’: http://arxiv.org/archive/physics

[7] See Mary Auckland, Reskilling for research: an  investigation  into  the  role and skills of subject and liaison librarians required to effectively support the evolving information needs of researchers, Research Libraries UK, 2012


[8] Quoted in Manguel, p.81.

[9] http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/hri

[10] http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/jrri/about/

[11] http://1641.tcd.ie/

[12] http://www.wales.ac.uk/en/CentreforAdvancedWelshCelticStudies/IntroductiontotheCentre.aspx

[13] http://www.llgc.org.uk/index.php?id=6004&no_cache=1

[14] Impact is defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ (REF 2014, Assessment framework and guidance on submissions, 2011, p.26).

[15] Christy Henshaw and Robert Kiley, ‘The Wellcome Library, digital’, Ariadne, issue 71, July 2013


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