Posts Tagged ‘ higher education ’

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.

Flatpack university

The University of Doom is running out of space.  Not just for its library books, which continue to laugh at all vain attempts to get the collection to fit on shelves, but for its students, for living space and teaching space.  The library situation is being addressed, in the form of a swanky new Learning Resource Centre which will be built, eventually, on the present site of an ugly concrete monstrosity of an office building from the mid 20th century.  This being an old town with more History than you could shake any number of sticks at, this will involve an archaeological dig at the site before reconstruction begins, and the destruction of the building is already behind schedule, so it is most definitely the ‘mythical new learning centre’.

The students are a rather more tricky proposition.  A large herd of them has been stabled in accommodation belonging to one or other of the London universities, which randomly has a satellite site in a small town which is only three stops away on the train.  Free transport is provided (in horseboxes for all I know) and I’m sure that every effort is being made to ensure that these youngsters don’t feel too cut off from the rest of the student body.  A series of e-mails also came the way of all staff of the University, imploring us to offer any accommodation we could in return for a farthing or two.  Sadly, given that my house is (due to a mad conversion project, transforming it from a dental practice to a shared home) mostly a large pile of boxes with a few beds hidden here and there, I didn’t feel I could help in this matter.

Teaching accommodation is also at a premium.  Local residents have been remarking for years that we seem to be buying up half the property in the city, and it is true that our logo appears on a wonderfully random selection of buildings and we may well rival the cathedral for ‘most property owned’.  But no matter how much the University buys, it never seems to be enough.  Particularly when a new room bookings software package is purchased and then throws a wobbly, hiding bookings under the sofa and behind the fridge every so often.  And so, this week, the University of Doom has begun the wonderful process of dealing with the problem.  Temporarily.

A fleet of flat-bed lorries has been making its way through the twisty turny streets with the shells of mobile classrooms on their backs.  Fantastically air-conditioned, as they have no side walls, these have been winched by crane over the flint walls that surround the campus and moved into position.  However, it was observed on Friday that there seemed to be far more mobile classrooms arriving than could possibly fit in the two places which have been set aside for them – the back of the student support services building and the tennis courts.  No, no more tennis for anyone – I’m sure the Sports Sciences department doesn’t mind.  Even assuming that side walls are going to arrive for these classrooms, what are they going to do with them?  Pile them up on top of each other and allow access via rope ladder?  Float one on the pond?  Set up an outpost in the neighbouring prison’s exercise yard?  The mind boggles.  The Head of Library Services suggested that it looked like they were setting up a very large-scale game of Jenga.

The University, needless to say, seems to have been surprised by this space crisis, as one assumes it would have been more useful to address the issue in August.  The cause seems to be a mystery as well.  Not to library staff, though.  We spotted a slight clue in the most recent staff newsletter.  “Record student numbers recruited.”  I think that may have something to do with it…

Higher education = Big Brother?

It has occurred to me that there are disturbing parallels between my work in the Library of Doom and the world of so-called ‘reality’ television. Both provide a vital social service, but the populace at large is probably blissfully unaware of this. We keep strange people out of the workforce and off the streets for a period of time, contributing to the overall sanity of the nation.

I do not watch reality shows very often, but it is sometimes unavoidable due to friends, relatives and housemates who devour them greedily, thrilling to the exploits of the publicity-hungry folks these shows tend to attract. Increasingly, the cast list of these shows (I’m looking at you, Big Brother) largely consists of strange, unpleasant people who I’m very glad I’ll never have to meet. For anything up to three months, these people are locked away in a secure environment, meaning that their interesting social skills are only inflicted on a dozen or so people. Thankfully, it seems that the British public decides en masse that nice people should win these shows as often as possible. And also, I have to admit (grudgingly, mind you) that Big Brother has probably done wonders for tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, in that the past winners have included a gay man, a male-to-female transsexual, a working class chappie and even, of all things, a practicing Christian.

Higher education performs many roles, but at least where I work, it fulfils the same vital function as reality TV. I see disturbing numbers of people every day with bafflingly low levels of knowledge, intelligence and common sense, people who surely could not function in the workplace. For three years, or possibly more, we shield society from these people and attempt to teach them the skills they’ll need to survive. We try to show them how to think for themselves, demonstrate how to interact in polite society and force them to fend for themselves without mummy or daddy to cook, wash and clean for them. “How long can you borrow a 7-day loan for?”  “Have you got any photographs of the Great Fire of London?” And of course the brick wall people, who make you feel like you’re either talking to or bashing your head against said edifice. Don’t you feel glad that the valiant staff of higher education institutions are keeping these people away from the rest of the world and at least attempting to turn them into functional members of society?

Maybe the analogy’s not valid, but it struck me recently, so I thought I may as well share it.

%d bloggers like this: