Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Minotaur: Widening Access

Lyndon Pugh argues that there must be much more to widening access than changing rules and regulations.

Looking at the ACRL web pages I noticed that their set of guidelines for extended campus library services was drawn up in 1981, revised in 1988, approved by the ALA Standards Committee in 1990 and is still on their web site. It is a noble and earnest document stuffed with investigation, assessment, profiling, planning, consultation, co-ordination, implementation, finance, personnel, services and standards. I know that librarianship is essentially a practical calling. I know also that one of our besetting miseries is over-management, but this seems to me to be symptomatic of a malaise that affects a lot of our activities. We are too concerned with process and it is often a comfort to take refuge in the practicalities rather than indulge in a little bit of iconoclastic behaviour that might pay dividends in the future. It is not surprising that the ACRL can post a document about distance learning support that is well into its second decade and might as well have been written by a Martian for all its awareness of some of the things that have been happening over the last 10 years or so.

Among the intriguing things about how we deal with widening access the most striking is a reflection of our almost terminal inability to understand the nature of change. It is our great misfortune that along with the army of Ancient Rome, some of the Chinese dynasties and the Roman Catholic Church, libraries are bureaucracies sans pareil. Until the recent past, there has never been an activity more suited to a bureaucracy than running a library service. The army of Ancient Rome and the Chinese Emperors have gone. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church it is too soon to judge its success, and it will in any case be set against a different kind of yardstick.

Widening access is a part of technological change, and the worry is that we will misjudge the nature of this process and its consequences for our organisations. What is coming out of the flurry of activity over the last 18 months or so is to do with partnerships, sharing, new concepts of ownership, new roles, new skills, differentiation, potential competition, diversity and so on. Although there are exceptions there is plenty of evidence to support the contention that our traditional and conventional organisations will trundle forward to deal with things that are unpredictable and present a serious threat to the status quo. Technology itself offers us an opportunity to create flexible organisations that possess fast decision making processes and make the best of all the abilities of all the staff through structures that are flatter, more responsive and have power centres that are closer to the user. If we are going to deal with disparate, often non-traditional groups of users, increasingly controlling their own learning, with different delivery mechanisms and tutorial functions, with minimal structural needs, and in a situation where the idea of the library as a physical entity does not make sense to an increasing number of people, then organisational change is needed on our part.

Widening access is also a campus issue. The ACRL Guidelines for Extended Campus Library Services specifically excluded the use of distance learning delivery mechanisms on campus. Yet the virtual library and the virtual university are upon us. Coming along with them are a breed of super technicians emerging from the general development of on line services and the electronic and digital library. Some of these new men, and women, are trained librarians; others are not. This brings us to another problem with widening access, which is that we are horribly misjudging the future skills issue. This one is different. Until now, the professional skills of the librarian have always been esoteric: very few people, even the anoraks of the profession, actually used these skills outside work. The skills of new technology will increasingly become a part of everyday life, and more and more of the information organisation, retrieval and exploitation skills will be done by machines following simpler and simpler command mechanisms. Not only will users in general be able to control the supply and use of their own information needs, but so will academics. It is increasingly possible in the new world of the web for teaching departments to set up, maintain and deliver their own databases related to their own courses. The departmental library is coming back in a different guise, and the balance of power, aided by technology, is shifting away from centralised control and distribution. By agreeing to crazy things like devolved budgets we have actually helped this process of decentralisation along, while at the same time we are trying to maintain the rigid organisation patterns that have worked for over 100 years but will not work for the next 100, or even 10. Yet you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of serious and perceptive contributions to the skills debate in the professional press.

Widening access is going to be a key development for information services, but only if we look at it in its context. This is as a part of organisational change equipping us to deal with the unpredictable and to cope with the unforeseen changes that will surely come as technology develops and patterns of study and learning change. It will not be enough to tinker with borrowing regulations, use positive discrimination to assist groups with special problems, embrace customer satisfaction, wheel on focus groups and user surveys or extend quality assurance and quality control. This, in the words of Basil Fawlty, is “ the art of the bleedin’ obvious.” We need something more.

Author details

Lyndon Pugh,
Email: lyndon@pewter.u-net.com