Web Magazine for Information Professionals


Derek Law talks to Lyndon Pugh about the print / electronic transition, networking, eLib and other matters.

picture of Derek LawThere are a number of ironies to be savoured while talking with Derek Law at Kings College London. The library of what was a well known religious institution preparing Anglicans for teaching and the church is now run by a scion of a Scottish Presbyterian family. Known for its strengths in the humanities, the College has produced five Nobel Prizewinners in topics including X rays, DNA and beta blockers. The route to Derek’s room passes the chapel, where the sound of a requiem mass filtered out. Against this background, the conversation ranged across the print/electronic transition, networking, eLib and the Research Assessment Exercise.

We began with the current research programmes in information science and librarianship, where optimism is tempered with caution: “There are threats. One is that we will spend a lot of time ignoring research outcomes and reinventing wheels, because we are not always linking practitioner-relevant research and the libraries. I think this is because we take a narrow view of what is relevant and in particular ignore groups working in the areas of business information and health information research. Practitioner research cannot only be done in research centres. Major research initiatives such as eLib also have a human cost. We create work for people, but offer them no long-term future. It is appropriate that anyone who wants to do research, has a valid project, is good enough and can find the funding, should be allowed to do so. But what happens when the programme ends? We will have a large number of well trained people without jobs. The talent is there but there is a danger we will waste it. In this respect the old BL R&D Department evinced a healthy approach to closing research centres and opening new ones to ensure that expertise moved around.”

The debate also encompassed the impact of eLib, much of which would be considered to be research if it had been funded by anyone else: “The influence of JISC in general and eLib in particular has been seminal. Critics may say that many eLib projects have not delivered on time or have not delivered what they set out to do within their original budgets. Some of them have come back and asked for more money to do what they were first commissioned to do. Nevertheless, the impact on professional thinking in a time of transition has been massive. Everyone gains, and we now have an enormously richer set of resources with a well of experience. The hybrid library projects in particular will be crucial.”

Q: Do you think we’ve reached a consensus on how we manage our organisations? A: “Convergence will wax and wane, but I doubt that there will be a wholesale return to the old patterns. One thing that intrigues me is why convergence is largely a UK phenomenon? I think the big issue is integration lower down the structures, and things might not have been helped by the fact that there are often local and ad personam reasons for converging.”

Some institutions are taking things further, and virtual university projects are appearing in eLib and in strategic plans. I asked Derek how he viewed this: “I look at it with a degree of ambivalence when based in a university which will recruit highly qualified school leavers into the foreseeable future. For me distance learning equals out of the line of sight. The typical university, if there is one, has four campuses. Is remote teaching between sites distance learning? I don’t think that the university as a physical place will vanish, although there is a different argument that says there are too many universities and we should get rid of some. By extension, although it used to be said that all you needed to run a medical library was a pad of ILL forms and a telephone, the library will also survive as a physical entity. The role of the library as a social space is much undervalued”

The issue of skills is bound up with the changes we discussed, and here Derek is firmly upbeat. He considers it unlikely that the burgeoning use of IT skills will lead to a loss of influence for librarians: “Mediators will be needed to filter information, just because there’s so much of it. The old gag, that half of my library is useless but I don’t know which half, applies to the net too. The information - user link is not strong if it is simply bilateral; it is influenced by the institutional background.” He believes that the old professional skills will still be needed in new forms. Where he does see a change is in the requirement to “restyle training and user support. We also need to understand that training in the use of electronic sources of information will involve a radical departure from current practice and here Dearing’s Institute for Learning and Teaching might play a role. Our professional bodies should be lobbying for information managers and information management skills to be included.”

There have been times in the past when Derek Law has been acerbic about public librarians. I asked him if he wished to consider the matter again: “That’s true, but my comments have always been well meant and intended to be supportive of the public library service. I’m critical of the apparent realignment of public libraries with leisure services, but in the last 18 months things have changed, although I’m not totally clear on the vision that encompasses the public libraries. Things like EARL and The People’s Network obviously make a difference, and the message that is now being understood in many public libraries is that the Internet is the window on the world.”

We started with High Anglicanism and had arrived at the WWW. This seemed an appropriate place to stop.

Author details

Derek Law is Director of Information Services and Systems at Kings College London.