Let’s Start with Collections

What is a research library? We in RLUK run libraries within research universities that most of us would describe as successful, but which are certainly not all alike. For the duration of most of our professional careers, research libraries have been on a journey of change, both within the institutions in which we work, and at the various collective levels – regional, sectoral, national, international – that apply to us. The stuff of libraries has largely gone digital, and what has not gone digital has gained new status – sometimes positive, sometimes negative – for that very reason.  Some stuff is in the queue to go digital, though we don’t necessarily know who will digitise it. Meanwhile, the services upon the stuff – how it is disposed, how our users can interact with it via self-service systems, the environments in which it is used, how instant the access to it is, and the overall seamlessness with which it is all provided – are being developed within a maturing environment which requires skillsets we as a profession have developed almost without recognising them.

In this research library world, what do we mean by collections? For those of us whose careers began in the 70s and 80s, the striking features of librarianship as we recognised them back then are still at the back of our minds  even as we see them changing: collections is one of these – alongside the catalogue, cataloguing, classification, reference and ‘reader services’. But are collections now what they were then, except that they have just gone a bit digital? What have we realised by pooling our resources via national licensing and procurement agencies? Are our libraries still meeting the requirements of our users for the collections they expect when they arrive as new members of the university in the same way that they always did (except that some of the stuff is digital and behind the scenes it all looks different because of big deals, national licensing and various levels of cooperation)? Or are we providing something different by our collections, and if so is it better or worse than it was when we entered the profession?

Working in the research university sector brings with it a danger of complacency: our libraries are successful because our institutions are. But once upon a time the university library was more than just an appropriate derivative of its institution. It was the reason why some researchers, some academic staff, chose to come to a particular institution. It often had a reputation of its own, distinct from its parent institution, and that would usually be due to its collections, and the spaces in which they could be consulted. Do today’s research libraries still exert that sort of attractive power? If not, then why not, and could they do so again?

We are beginning our project on Redefining the Research Library Model by examining collections. On 1 November, we will hold a day-long meeting at SOAS, organised in conjunction with the RIN: Library Collections: New Concepts And Challenges. Lesley Gilder, who recently retired from the University of Southampton Library, provided a set of papers for a RIN Focus Group last year, and these have already been posted on this blog. There are six of these: Developing the Research Support Library – Why? How?Drivers for Change, The Library and the Institution, Value and Impact, Services and Staff, Supporting Researchers and The Development of Library Research Support. These are all short pieces, which together compose a very useful list of issues and challenges for research libraries to consider at the present time. They summarise much of the recent literature in this field, and lead on to further reading in the form of a number of articles and reports. One reference which recurs is a guest editorial written by Rick Anderson in The Journal of Academic Librarianship last year, entitled ‘The Crisis in Research Librarianship’. This hard-hitting piece presents our profession with a grim choice: change, or disappear. Is he right? Is the UK different? This article, and each of Lesley’s posts, is studded with questions which our Collections theme will be asking over the next few weeks, and at the Workshop on 1 November. If you are coming to the Workshop, or even if you’re not, I would encourage you to read them and comment!

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