The point

What is the purpose of an academic library?  Why do universities sink so much money into them, buildings and services which bring in little or no revenue and eat up staffing, equipment and stock resources at an alarming rate?  Why are they one of the key points in many students’ decision-making processes when they’re applying to university?  What are they supposed to achieve?

I specify academic library, because I believe the key functions of a library in a university are not necessarily very closely related to those of a public library, a school library or a private library in a large firm.  Each of these has a purpose and each involves vastly different challenges for the people who work for them and different levels of expectation from the people who use them.  The stakeholders, for want of a less ridiculous word, in an academic library are many and varied.  The students, of course, make extensive use of the library’s services, but even they have differing needs.  A first year undergraduate fresh out of school wants some things, but the desires of a doctoral researcher returning to higher education after decades in employment barely overlap with those.  Then there are those who teach the university’s subjects, the members of the local community who may or may not have access to the facilities and the university’s management who need the library in order to meet the objectives on their strategic plans and long-term policies.

But what is it there for?  An academic library should, I believe, be many things, but it should not just be a building where books and periodicals can be found on shelves, a repository.  Physical stock is very important, and access to information is clearly one of the defining features of a library.  But the information doesn’t necessarily have to be in printed form in row after row of shelves, much as I adore books.  Information exists in a near-endless variety of forms.  Audio-visual information on cassettes, CDs, DVDs and other media is increasingly vital for many subjects, and information stored electronically even more so.  In addition to the traditional printed word, the shelves and cupboards in my own library house CDs of classical and world music, video documentaries, language learning cassettes, films and operas on DVD, educational posters, CD-ROMs, maps and probably more that has slipped my mind.  All of these resources are needed by the students and all of them are an important part of what the library provides.

Libraries also provide access to a wealth of electronic resources these days, in the form of databases and repositories accessed via the internet and hidden behind a wall of passwords and usernames.  These electronic resources include collections of periodicals which can be read on-line, collections of archived sound, photography and video, interactive maps, backdated newspapers and electronic facsimiles of documents which no undergraduate student would normally get within a few yards of.  There is an increasing move towards providing electronic access to these resources, even when academic libraries could provide the physical alternative.  With ever-increasing student numbers, with many of these being part time or learners at a distance, it can be more efficient and cost effective to provide electronic access to something, allowing more users to view it than could be achieved with even two or three copies of a book.

But none of this is the key reason for an academic library’s existence, as far as I see it.  Libraries would be pretty useless if they didn’t provide students and staff with the books, articles, films and so on that they need, but there is a greater role in the value added by a library.  The skills, expertise and time of the staff.  Librarians are experts in the realm of information – how to find it, evaluate it, store it, use it and so on.  In public libraries, this is generally used to answer questions on behalf of the users, but in academic libraries, there is a greater emphasis on imparting these skills to students.  Through skills sessions, enquiries, casual encounters, documentation and tutorials, the library staff can, and should, provide another strand to the learning undertaken by the students in their university life.  Those on a history course should not simply learn about (and maybe even understand) history, they should learn how to search for relevant information effectively.  Students of film should learn how to track down particular works they wish to analyse.  Scientists should be taught how to keep on top of the most recent research on their subjects.  There is so much more to information-seeking than a quick Google search, a glance at imdb or a read of the New Scientist.  Google is good, but librarians can teach students how to use it to find more relevant and useful information, or they can point the way to a search tool that is specifically targetted to their subject area.

That is the point of a university library – to provide access to information and to provide students with the tools they need to find and use that information to best advantage.

    • Phil
    • February 18th, 2008

    Perhaps you should be asking what the purpose of a university (or other academia) is.
    I would go that a university is a place for the dissemination of knowledge (teaching, academic papers etc), the generation of knowledge (research) and the holding of knowledge (libraries as well as the knowledge in the staff).
    The library is obviously a place for the holding of knowledge – be it books, cd, film or electronic archive. You point out it’s a place for teaching as well – passing on the knowledge of how to get the best out of the various resources. Some also work on research into conservation or teaching.

    I must say I do like the fact that I am part of the special collections bit of the library here at work.

  1. I hope I didn’t diminish the ‘access’ side of the library’s role, which is indeed very important. In a way I wish I worked somewhere with a more frequently-used set of special collections, which shows that I want to have my library cake and eat it, I suppose…

    Different universities have differen purposes, with differing emphases on research, teaching etc, and very different emphases within these areas. Perhaps I feel strongly about the teaching role of the library because my institution largely teaches vocational courses, so the skills we teach are often used in continuing professional life by those teachers, healthcare professionals and police officers who need to continually update their skills, knowledge and awareness using the same or similar tools as the ones we introduce them to.

  2. One of the things that I have been learning in my MA is the importance of access to original material. Some of the things that can be learnt from seeing the ads in periodicals (which aren’t provided with e-copies) about attitudes and cultural markers are very valuable to academic research.

    I think academic libraries are a wonderful resource but what really make them are the expert staff who are able to point you at items you may have never thought about before.

  3. One concern is that if information is not available on the internet and accessible via google, it is becoming invisible and risks being ignored or discredited. I enjoy listening to the National Archives podcasts and occasionally shock myself when I catch myself being surprised that the original records aren’t online and searchable.

    Another podcast I was listening to recently (Point of Inquiry on the subject of Scientology) exhibited a peculiar piece of doublethink. The interviewee had been a member of the Church of Scientology for 30 years and had been involved in their attempts to subvert and remove information from the internet and yet she kept on telling her interviewee to “look it up on line” when she needed to provide extra information or sources for what she was saying. She was otherwise credible, I was just curious about the implication that the internet was a reliable source of information, particularly in the light of her own involvement in attempts to subvert it.

    One of the things I dislike about doing my Masters 200 miles from the University I’m doing it at is lack of information to just the sort of informal skills transfer that you’re talking about.

    Interesting post. Thank you.


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