Libraries and reorganisations

April 15th, 2011 by John

Lorcan Dempsey has often pointed out that a university library is the creature of its parent institution. This is most certainly true, and is a reason why – though we can think of ourselves as a ‘sector’ – we are certainly not all alike. I worked at the University of Edinburgh before joining OCLC Research in 2007. A year or two earlier, Edinburgh made the decision to converge IT, Management Information Systems, Learning Technology and the Library into Information Services. Organisationally, this led to a carving up of the previous library structure, so that – for example – the Liaison Librarian team joined a new User Services division, while a separate division called Library & Collections appeared. This organisation resulted from a new approach to service based upon a view of information as a central resource. The Library continues to have a strong physical existence and branding, but the unit within the university structure that takes responsibility for a (very large!) set of services, and which leads on innovations within its constituent parts, is ‘Information Services’.

Here at St Andrews a similar but short-lived restructuring happened a few years ago, but – as is quite commonly the case – it did not last. So once again we have the Library as a primary organisational unit, as well as being the name by which our main and subsidiary premises are known. As the Library, however, we are perfectly capable of being innovative and collaborative. The physical Main Library includes a centrally important IT Help Desk, and we collaborate with IT Services over a growing range of ‘information services’. Being a small research library obliges this, since our resources are weighted towards the work we do in liaison and collections management, leaving us with a very slender Library Systems resource.

On the theme of reorganisation, the UK university system is in turmoil at the present time over a range of political challenges. In Scotland, it is the forthcoming Scottish elections to our Holyrood Parliament that are exercising it – in particular the question of how higher education is to be funded here, with the parties most likely to form the next government (which will almost certainly be either a minority or a coalition government) setting their faces against English-style tuition fees. Various senior academics have been pointing out the difficulties of sustainability presented by this stance. One of the most prominent is Professor Lord Stewart Sutherland, who gave a public lecture in St Andrews earlier this week, calling on UK universities to develop greater autonomy, and at least to partly privatise their own operations as government funding is progressively reduced. He also called for a debate in Scotland on what the purpose of universities is, and thus what society could reasonably expect of them, before we go any further with deciding how much funding they should enjoy from the public purse. Without that understanding, universities become victims in an endless ‘blame game’ – held responsible for a range of social problems, including economic under-performance, graduate skill shortages, and lack of social mobility. Are all of these central to the purpose of our universities?

This was a provocative lecture, delivered with eloquence and humour, and it provided a blast of cool common sense to an overheated pre-election atmosphere in Scotland. Stewart Sutherland was Principal of the University of Edinburgh when I first arrived there, in 1998. I’m sure he would want the views of librarians – and information services staff more broadly – to be heard on the purpose of their parent institutions, and thus on their own.

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