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University of Oxford
Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian

IT and the Academic Library: Guest Editorial

From: Axis, 1996, pp.2-4.

A Time of Unprecedented Change

What began in the 1970s as a relatively leisurely application of computing technology in academic libraries (we called it 'mechanisation' in those comparatively early days) moved on rapidly in the 1980s from the introduction of office-type 'housekeeping' systems (for acquisitions processing and for cataloguing and lending systems) through the development of integrated systems - based on single machine-readable records for multiple purposes - to the present generation of networked information technologies, in which the computer-literate user takes centre-stage, and where the possibilities for information storage, handling, dissemination and retrieval are just beginning to be realised. The once-distant vision of the digital library is becoming more of a reality with almost every day that passes. For academic library managers, the changes that such developments have entailed are quite without precedent in the long and complex history of their profession.

New Horizons

Whereas the early automation of library housekeeping systems generally began to be undertaken by individual libraries for entirely 'local' purposes, the rapid development in recent years of technologies that have permitted the relatively cheap and efficient exchange of data in electronic form between libraries and information utilities, has opened up vast new horizons, making it possible to bring terabytes of relevant (and also much irrelevant) information to the scholar's desktop. University libraries, which began to provide information retrieval services from remote commercial databases on a 'pay-as-you-go' basis in the 1970s by means of the slow and often unreliable public packet-switching networks, have widely seized the opportunity provided by advanced networking to form library co-operatives, to share bibliographic records, to accelerate the production of their own online catalogues by the inward transfer of data in machine-readable form, and to provide campus-wide access to locally held electronic data resources (mostly in CD-ROM format) and to a staggering range of remote resources, both bibliographic and, increasingly, full-text.

The establishment of the Joint Academic Network (JANET) by the Computer Board in the 1980s, together with the sizeable development funding released in the 1990s in the wake of the Follett Report (through the e-Lib programme), has driven this revolution at an increasing pace, and is moving the whole sector inexorably towards the 'electronic library' concept, encouraging most university libraries consciously to develop an 'access' policy in relation to an increasing proportion of their users' information needs. These developments have even begun to cause some seriously to call into question the very future of the book-based library and the culture of the book itself.

Even making due allowance for the 'hype' that seems inextricably bound up with this information revolution, such is the global impact of technology on life in our post-industrial society that there can be no doubting that further colossal changes are on the way. Whereas print on paper (not to mention the even older 'technology' of manuscript) is likely, in this writer's opinion, to remain an enduring medium, only an ostrich would deny that the future is clearly digital. Certainly, in the academic information services world, this inexorable move towards ever more sophisticated electronic technologies is tangibly evidenced by the growing prevalence of 'convergence', manifested in a variety of organisational forms, between the physical library and its principal support counterpart, the computing service.

A Case in Point

The experience of the library of the University of Leeds in the last decade is by no means atypical of its counterparts elsewhere in the higher education system in the United Kingdom. At the end of 1996 it was in the process of procuring the fourth in its series of automated housekeeping systems; yet the specification of its requirements for the new system was almost unrecognisably different from the circulation system it procured as recently as the early 1980s. The online catalogue of its 2.5 million holdings, started on a small scale in the mid-1980s, is now virtually complete, its establishment having been accelerated and made affordable by the library's membership of CURL and of RLG, and by its ready and cost-effective access to machine-readable records worldwide. It is the centre of a large campus-wide CD-ROM network; it is a key partner in national and international digitisation projects; it is developing the provision of electronic access to its high-volume counter collection; it makes an ever-widening range of full-text digital research materials available to its academic community, including numerous electronic journals and collections of metadata; and it jointly manages (with the computing service and the media services) a post of networked information officer.

Early in 1996 its Librarian was appointed as Dean of Information Strategy, overseeing all aspects of the application of information systems throughout the University, and with a remit including the promotion of further evolutionary convergence of the information-related work of all the academic services. In the context of a predominantly book-based library the changes over the last decade could hardly have been more dramatic.

Pointers for the Future

Whereas the benefits of all these developments for library users are beyond dispute, the continuing downward pressure on library budgets seems certain to create genuine problems in the management of what, for want of a better word, is now being called 'the hybrid library' - the inevitable and continuing mix of 'traditional' and electronic resources. It is generally true that automation was initially introduced in university libraries with the hope that efficiency savings might quickly accrue, both in terms of library staff costs and of user convenience. There is no doubt that efficient, and considerably more effective, use of libraries has been achieved, with much user time being saved and with the exploitation of and access to information being greatly enhanced and widened, but net savings in library costs have simply not occurred as a direct result of the automation of library systems and services. The two biggest reasons for this has been, first, the greatly increased cost of books and periodicals and, secondly, the unprecedented increase in library use - which itself has been the direct product of the greater convenience of automated systems, an increase in the number of students, and the growing awareness of the value and availability of information generally.

Automation has therefore simply enabled university libraries to cope with demands that would otherwise have been extremely difficult, if not completely impossible, to handle at such increased levels. With the need to employ specialist systems staff, to redeploy existing staff as systems managers, and/or to pay considerable recurrent maintenance sums to commercial computer suppliers, any savings in staff numbers that may have been directly attributable to the introduction of new technology have been completely outstripped by the costs of automation itself.

University library information technology has simply not paid for itself in cash terms. Instead, the additional costs of automation have been met in practice from many parts of the budgets of individual universities, and of their libraries, with considerable inroads being made into book and periodical funds, and with expenditure on 'running costs' consuming a growing proportion of library resources.

As far as future costs for university libraries are concerned, therefore, information technology seems highly unlikely to create any savings in real terms. Computer hardware may well continue to become relatively cheaper, but new software will be relatively more costly, enhanced telecommunications will require considerable additional capital investment and running costs, and the owners of intellectual property rights appear likely to become more, rather than less, hungry to profit financially from the publication and networking of their materials. If, as seems likely, the funds available nationally for the development of university libraries continue to decline in real terms, the system as a whole will have to find ways of reducing costs, and perhaps principally through enhanced resource sharing by electronic means.

All of this will imply, amongst many other things, that some libraries (among them no doubt many of the larger ones) will continue to develop their 'best' local collections whilst providing enhanced access to those collections for the rest of the HE community. In such a context, the current efforts of the e-Lib programme to sponsor discipline or subject-based national scale resource-discovery mechanisms, and of the funding councils to develop the CURL database as well as a national strategy for the library support of research, are three of a number of straws in this particular wind, and could well mark out a future development path.

There is one thing, above all, that we ought to have learned, however, by living through these 'interesting times' that the well-known Chinese curse seems to have wished on us: nothing is more certain than continuing change. And if we have learned nothing other than this from our experience of the past decade of IT in libraries, then we should at least be reasonably well prepared to face the future, however different it may turn out to be.

Reg Carr