May 282008

…this was the theme for an event held at Murdoch University Library on Monday night. The Academic and Research Libraries group for Western Australia invited library leaders from five university libraries to give their reflections on future challenges for academic libraries.

Dan Archibald, Manager of Library Services at Edith Cowan University talked about the challenge of staying relevant. He quoted from two of OCLC’s reports – College Students’ Perceptions of Library and Information Resources (2005) study and Sharing Privacy and Trust in our Networked World (2006) about the starting points for college students doing searches (not us) and our recognised brand – books. Although we may be more effective and findable combining our efforts and putting our libraries into Google, he was not convinced that we could maintain control or that Google would continue to “do no evil”. He pointed out that Google’s mission statement is very much like a library’s: “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.”

I’m not sure I agree that this puts us in competition, as I can see benefits that would not violate our mission or Google’s. The divergence, I guess is that we are funded by our parent bodies to provide our search services for free to end users whereas Google wants to make money by providing its search services for free to end users.

Lynne Vautier, Associate Director Flexible Delivery and Learning Services at Curtin University, talked about the future of physical space. Like most academic libraries in our state, Curtin has just remodelled part of their library. They had to take into account client behaviour and preferences, the greater focus on the library as a social space, the demands to install and accommodate new technology and to justify the Return on Investment to the university. Students, staff and academics all wanted different things, so they had to make careful judgments with their pre-building feedback. Their focus has been on space and furniture that students can configure how they want. A desirable aim for libraries is flexible, functional, beautiful spaces.

I liked the idea of laptop lockers that is being investigated – a place you can slot in your laptop and have it recharged. I liked the idea of their staff going to the Graduate Art and Design show and picking pieces to buy and display in the library.

Ralph Kiel the Associate Librarian, Information Systems from University of Western Australia, talked on the future of print. He referred to OCLC’s Library Storage Facilities and the Future of Print Collections in North America. The number of books in print has grown from 1.1 million in 1993, to 2.5 million. Print books remain at the core of the collection of academic libraries, even though only about 15% of the budget now goes on monographs. Nonetheless, OCLC is predicting fewer items in academic libraries. Ralph floated the idea of how Western Australia might apply the model of sharing holdings data and jointly managing storage for single archived “last print copies” . He mentioned the challenges of moving a library to a more online environment – new systems and services, more PCs and other tech, , organisational structures, positions and roles and the use of physical space.

I was interested that, rather than face constant restructuring, UWA has a generic “librarian” Position Description. This PD describes generalist skills, so that staff can reasonably be deployed into different areas and projects.

Margaret Jones, Director, University Library Services at Murdoch University, contextualised library challenges within global and national ones. Global – energy crises, food shortages, technological change. Australian – inflation, water shortages, future of rural sector, aging population, social inclusion. Australian higher education – funding changes, valuing pure research, encouraging collaboration when competition is ramping up, retaining staff in an academic environment, growing maths and science, how to keep the curriculum agile. She mentioned the challenges of coping with changing generations and changing usage patterns. She talked about some of the measures that Murdoch library is taking to cope with these challenges, focusing on integrating the library into the larger life of the university and on honing staff skills.

At the end of her talk, she asked a very useful question: “How do we ensure we know what clever people are doing globally and locally, and how do we apply this to our local environment? “. Some interesting snippets – the average age of librarians at Murdoch Uni Library is 53, the Australian dollar was around 96c this week but was less than half of that in April 2001, Gartner analysts are predicting that in all likelihood most users will be customising their own information tools in the future.

Question time afterward raised some interesting questions about the aging of the library workforce. Is it really a problem, given that librarianship is often a second or third career? Is it more important to ensure that staff of all ages have skills and attitudes to match new challenges? What happens if a whole bunch of librarians retire suddenly in one batch? Do we have succession plans in place to deal with this? I liked the comment of one mature aged library student – “At entry level, I’m not paid enough to even think of retiring in the next 20 years”.

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