7 May 2011

Libraries at the crossroads ...

This post began its life as a wrap up for the current ebook meetings.  I've tried to shove several quarts into a pint pot and summarise below some thoughts about the challenges for ebooks at Cambridge.

Let's imagine we are at a four-way crossroads; the kind of place aspirational blues guitarists hang about at, waiting for the Horned One to appear and turn them into Robert Johnson.

Look ahead.  You’ll see, rushing towards us if not already upon us, that we are in the middle of an unpredictable digital revolution, of which ebooks are just one part.  Since handheld e-readers like the iPad and the Kindle hit the market there has been a huge growth in the sale of ebooks and at the moment probably dictate most peoples' idea of what an ebook is.  Maybe it’s worth remembering that these devices are essentially portals for marketing product.  Where they will go and how ebook content will develop, we can't say.  I’m not sure how or where UK academic libraries will fit into future developments, certainly we aren’t getting the pick of the titles we want and acquisition and access is often a struggle, but I'm aware that more and more stuff is becoming available electronically and certainly from a College librarian's point of view I want to take advantage of the savings ebooks offer us, providing it's what our students want.  Mind you, just about anything you want to read can be found on the net at no cost, if you know where to look and aren’t bothered about legality.

Look to one side. 

Student fees are going up, and with it their expectations that the stuff they need will be available quickly and at no extra cost to themselves.  University funding is being cut and with it the amount available to library budgets.  Universities won't want to be seen to be cutting back on resource provision at a time when fees are increasing ...

Look to the other side.  In taking both these considerations on board we in Cambridge have particular issues because of our institutional framework.  We need to ensure that services tailored to suit individual institutions are valued and supported;  the research Andy Priestner and Libby Tilley are carrying out into boutique libraries may be helpful here.  At the same time, we want to make sure we share the benefits of cost-effective, efficient and responsive University-wide provisions, where appropriate.  

And along the fourth way, librarians have to consider how we manage our dealings with each other. 

Negotiation skills weren’t taught on my library school course, I wish they had.  The ebooks team can be justly proud of its success in bringing librarians from different institutions together for the common good.  Other projects (Cam23, TeachMeet) have also been strikingly successful.  But it has also illuminated differences in the way we do business.  My observation is that top down management, exclusive decision making and inability to fully disclose information impedes progress and effective decision making.  This has to change so that our critical success factors of team working, communication, open discussion and trust continue to be employed in the development of University-wide services.

Yes, this is a very brief summary of important issues, but I hope that it brings together four points which, in my view, need to be considered together. Without selling our souls to the Devil.

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