RLUK Conference – cultural change through partnerships

This blog post was contributed by Anna Clements, Assistant Director (Digital Research), St Andrews University. This is the second in a series of three blog posts about the RLUK Conference

This year’s RLUK Conference on the theme Reshaping Scholarship: Transformation, Innovation, and Cultural Change was a familiar agenda of change in less familiar surroundings, with the venue moving a few hundred metres down the Euston Road from the British Library to Wellcome Collections.  As always there were excellent keynote speakers and thought-provoking presentations from national and international colleagues. 

Two of the keynotes were quite spell-binding. First, the quietly compelling and utterly inspiring talk from Gwenda Thomas about her time at the University of Cape Town where she was faced with defending artistic freedom or complying with a censorship order from her Vice-Chancellor. Second, the fascinating and sometimes unguarded insights from Charles Kriel, specialist advisor to the Government on social media, on how companies are using our data to ‘manipulate news, radicalise opinion, and break democracy.’   I urge you to look at the videos links above – they are well worth an hour of your time.

What I have chosen though to highlight in this blog are two themes which chime well with my own experience and frustrations in affecting cultural change through partnerships within and outside the library, but which importantly offer realistic ways forward.

Pragmatic digitisation

Two separate presentations explained how digitisation strategies are evolving.

University of Cambridge librarians Mary Chester-Kadwell, Huw Jones, and Lesley Gray presented From Service Provision to Research Partnership, describing how for them, the key has been to work with researchers to understand how they want the library to contribute to digital scholarship. This was illustrated with the example of working with Cambridge Digital Humanities or CDH, located in the library but run by academics. The result has been a move away from mass digitisation to more specialist imaging for specific research questions.  A wonderful example being the first 3D scan and print of an ‘oracle bone,’ a 3000-year old ox bone inscribed with the earliest-known example of Chinese writing. 

Stuart Lewis from the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and Christoph Schmidt-Supprian from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) explored Is there a case for shared digitisation? The NLS has already been carrying out significant digitisation since the launch of their strategy in 2015 which aims to have a third of their collection available in digital format by 2025. In the last year they digitised 200,000 texts. TCD has also invested heavily in digitisation, including a robotic scanner (described on their web pages as a custom designed book robot).

On the surface this may seem a no-brainer as we all know there is considerably duplication in our holdings and so working together to avoid duplicating digitisation is surely cost-effective? The NLS, TCS together with the University of Edinburgh embarked on a pilot to test this hypothesis.

For the pilot, the three libraries selected 100 books from the year 1919 with ‘war’ in the title. Of these 100, they found that over two-thirds were held in at least two of the three libraries; no surprise here. They also checked how many of these were already digitised, and surprisingly nearly sixty percent were digitised. In total, thirty-six percent were freely and openly available from the Hathi Trust, Internet Archive, or Google Books. We should ask ourselves are we missing a trick here in not linking to these digitised copies from our own catalogues?

The project teams had to agree to standards for imaging and sharing digital files, cropping of images, and licencing of images, and they also had to sort out possible copyright issues. The teams digitised three books – one at each library – and total staff time came to 33 days; 11 days a book. . . which is obviously not sustainable!  As this was a pilot much of the time was spent in setup tasks; projected costs with a larger group of libraries came down to £2-£4. The pilot suggests how collaborative digitization may reduce costs and duplication of efforts. One of the concrete projects that has already been influenced by this pilot is the AHRC funded work to develop a network to investigate the development of a global dataset of digitised texts.

Mainstreaming Open 

This was the title of a presentation given by Graham Stone from Jisc and Joanna Ball from the University of Sussex, and has particular resonance with my own experience at St Andrews, where a recent internal library screening of  Paywall: the Business of Scholarship  prompted a great deal of discussion amongst colleagues from across the library, and a surprising amount of incredulity

The central question posed by Joanna and Graham was have we, as research libraries, shifted our own cultures to embrace open content. Open will become ubiquitous in the relatively near future with the adoption of Plan S as well as through the inclusion of monographs within the scope of the future REF open access policy. Are we ready?

This change will affect our supply chain including a cultural change for our acquisitions processes, the metadata we curate, the types of content at our disposal, the training we offer our users, and of course, our budgets. Just one practical illustration is that currently our acquisitions departments cannot see open content within their systems and processes.

It also means we have to rethink how we measure the value of our library to the institution. It can no longer be through the cost spent per FTE student, for example.

Joanna challenged us to think about redesigning research libraries around open content:

  • Consider an ‘open first’ policy?
  • Move away from an obsession with cost per use.
  • Integrate open content into all team roles – it is a shared concern.

Practical examples we are taking forward at St Andrews include making open content more integrated in our discovery tools, adding checks for open content to our interlibrary loan procedures, and working more collaboratively across academic liaison, acquisitions, and open access teams on publisher negotiations and information sharing.

The question of whether research libraries are ready for this fundamental shift was raised in several other presentations, including Manfredi La Manna, Reader in Economics at St Andrews, who challenged conference attendees to take advantage of blockchain technology to count article views as an alternative to the citation economy controlled by large scientific publishers.

In his presentation, Research has changed: have libraries? , Tom Hickerson from the University of Calgary didn’t answer his own question directly – but it was clear that he felt more needs to be done to address the fundamental shift in research practice whereby libraries are no longer primarily about providing resources but are–or should be–about partnering in the research experience. How do we remain relevant to those researchers who no longer frequent our physical spaces or find most of their research material openly online?

A series of workshops with researchers on requirements for multidisciplinary infrastructure held at the University of Calgary as part of a Mellon Foundation-funded study resulted in the library redesigning its services and spaces for researchers – including a visualisation studio, digitising and formatting services, metadata services, spatial and numerical data services, and web development.  Additional funding enabled the library to work with researchers on a series of projects using and developing these services.

Of course, we aren’t all lucky enough to have external funding for such innovation but the message from Tom was clear that to remain central to the mission of our institutions we need to (continue to) redefine our role.

One resource we can all enjoy is the Open Knowledge in HE (OKHE) free online course run by the University of Manchester Library as part of the University’s PGCE course. This was the subject of a very enjoyable and instructive breakout session led by Katy Woolfenden and Jennie Blake – a course designed to promote openness more holistically. 

A question from the audience reminded us all that for some of our colleagues these changes can feel quite threatening. I totally agree with their comments that we need to recognise this and remember that not everyone will move at the same pace as others. However, change is coming and we need to be prepared.