What does it feel like to be [your library name here]?

March 18th, 2011 by John

It’s now around six weeks since I swapped the bird’s-eye view of the research library sector internationally, which I had as a member of the staff of OCLC Research, for the perspective of a University Librarian, working within this small, research-intensive university in Scotland. The photograph shows me looking up at the seagulls from the pier at St Andrews. These birds’ eyes scan some beautiful sights, though they seem to induce little more than outputs which are troubling for university buildings.

It has been a fascinating transition. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, since it was working with the higher-level perspective, for OCLC Research, which was unusual within my career – even though I have had a fondness for it throughout, as my involvement in many JISC-funded UK-wide projects over the years had demonstrated. Reflecting on this, I consider one of the greatest challenges for organisations like the OCLC Research Library Partnership to be that of appropriate engagement. I am in no doubt about the value of the work performed by the staff of OCLC Research. I worked among them for three years, and was impressed day and daily by their intelligence, dedication, and powers of analysis. And so I am sure that we in the Library of the University of St Andrews will want to continue to take advantage of our membership of the Partnership. But to do so does require some virtuous behaviour on our part – a little like going to the gym regularly, or eating yogurt every day. We need to clear some space in diaries thick with meetings and commitments, to read the reports, attend the webinars, take part in the Working Groups, and – every once in a while – book some days out of the office to travel to meetings somewhere else. As a University Librarian I can now see how difficult it can be to make the spaces which these virtuous behaviours require. This is difficult for me, and in some ways it is even more difficult for those members of my Library staff who would benefit from and enjoy the aerial view over sector-wide problem analysis and resolution.

The challenge of behaving virtuously is differently shaped, according to type of research library, and by territory. A small research-intensive library in the UK, I can say with feeling, is likely to be quite different from a small research library in the US. A publicly-funded university will have a different shape from a private. A UK university library will have a different shape from a North American, or northern or southern European library. National libraries have their own shape – but there too the differences are significant (as is very evident in the UK). St Andrews already engages with the Partnership, but I look to OCLC Research to understand my particular difficulties in behaving virtuously, and to shape its way of engaging with me appropriately. As my friend and former OCLC Research colleague Lynn Silipigni Connaway regularly says in her presentations, ‘One size fits … nobody’. I know that the reshaped OCLC Research Library Partnership is already onto this, but there need to be plural forms of engagement within the Partnership, in order to deliver our dedicated and highly capable Partner professionals to the airspace in which the bird’s-eye views can be shared and the problems revealed and tackled.

I thought it would be good for some of our Partner ULs, AULs, etc to post about their own perspectives, and I am grateful to Jim Michalko for offering the pages of this blog as a venue. So – what does it feel like to be St Andrews University Library? Watch this space.

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