fredag 12 november 2010

Change in academic libraries - comments on a new report

Public libraries are often in focus when it comes to discussions on change in the library sector. Today their nervous relationship to social media is a constant matter of concern. The question is, however, if the changes we see in public libraries come anywhere near the complexity and profoundness of those today being seen within the academic libraries. Being an integrated part in higher educational systems in great flux these libraries seldom get the space they deserve in discussions of library development. In a new report published by the Swedish Library Association conclusions are drawn from various sources on the condition of today’s academic libraries, and the expectations of those of the future. It is a good and thought provoking read. Three areas are hightlighted as more interesting than others, in terms of change and development:

- User relations. Traditionally, academic libraries have served researchers, but today students are the prime user group. This makes it necessary to rethink the very mission of the academic library.

- Relations to universities. Development has gone from libraries being a central part of the universities to them being more and more integrated in the core activities of the university – teaching and research.

- Technology. New technology has for long now been the most overwhelming change factor in academic libraries. With it comes not only new forms of documents and document distribution, but a whole new way of scholarly communication, in which libraries traditionally have had a very clear role.

None of these findings are new, nor unexpected. It is, however, when they are brought together that we can clearly see the massive change that is taking place in academic libraries today.

One of the things that is mentioned in the report, but not thoroughly discussed, is the relation between academic libraries and other parts of the national library system. This is something of a core issu, which has bearings into all three areas mentioned above. The dramatic increase of students at under graduate level – most notably perhaps distance students – makes it necessary for public libraries to handle the same users as the academic libraries. In itself, it is an old problem, but there seem to be no real will to discuss it seriously today.

Organisational change has made academic libraries increasingly dependant of the activities of the local university. Not only do libraries develop its traditional roles as support to diciplines, but they also tend to be a more engaged part in research itself, for example as physical hosts for research groups etc. This becomes important as, for instance, issues like inter-library co-operation both locally and nationally, may be complicated – if there will not develop some kind of structure for this in the library sector. It is important that both relations to other libraries and to the local university are cared for. The report claims that the development we saw about a decade ago, where public libraries and academic libraries became closer and closer not least in organisational terms – think joint use libraries – now seems to have more or less stopped. This is interesting as the areas where the different forms of libraries intersect today is more obvious than ever. Academic libraries become increasingly “popular” due to the mass acceptance of students, and public libraries has to serve these students in more and more sophisticated ways. The common denominator we find as library educators is the increasing demand for pedagogical perspectives in formulating the “new” librarianship in our LIS programmes.

Despite all, academic librarians seem to be a happy group of people, as they experience no threat to the existence of the library, although user behaviours tend to decrease the value of libraries as we know them. The fact that today’s academic libraries do not look at all like those from only a few decades back – mostly due to the new user patterns and the new technology - does not seem to bother anyone. Can we expect anything but a similar speed of change in the future to come, and if so can we in just a few years time speak of these libraries in the same terms as we do today – or that we did just a few years back? Is such change necessarily a good thing?
No doubt, we here see a sector that embraces change for the sake of change itself – as do public libraries. The difference is that change in academic libraries aims more to the very core of their activities as in public libraries change is taking place around them. Well - that may be a discussion worth returning to in another entry of this blog…

The issues discussed in the report focus on the Swedish situation, but they are in most cases genuinely international – the same developments can be seen in most parts of the world.

The report, Universitets- och högskolebibliotek – nu och i framtiden [University and university college libraries – now and in the futeture] is in Swedish, and you find it on the website of Swedish Library Association.

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