Web Magazine for Information Professionals

View from the Hill: Birkbeck

Ariadne interview with Philippa Dolphin at Birkbeck, about how IT issues are tackled there.

Birkbeck College

An institution owing its origins to a 19th Century Mechanics’ Institute, yet with 40% of its work at postgraduate level, a high research rating and only 5% of its fte drawn from full time students is a place where you might reasonably expect a pragmatic mix of the old and the new in its attitude to widening access. You would not be disappointed as Philippa Dolphin begins to describe her approach to the issue.

“All of our students are highly motivated, and the majority are in full time employment. The pressures on them are those of time and studying in the evenings in addition to everything else. Some of our approaches, particularly the way we combine conventional access measures with a developing an IT based strategy, will be of interest.”

It is clear that the approach is not ideological or dogmatic in any way. “We still currently have a traditional view of teaching, with an emphasis on face to face classroom teaching, and this is sometimes reflected in our support services. Until comparatively recently our two open access libraries were predominantly hard copy collections with no audiovisual material and very little electronic information. Our extra mural courses are still supplied with book boxes and these are serviced from a separate closed access library which ideally would be merged with our other collections.”

The things you would expect to find in an institution which teaches from six to nine every evening are there: as well as the book boxes there are the long opening hours and an experimental postal learning service for distance learners. This supplies books, articles and searches. Alongside there is a developing IT based approach. There is remote access to several databases including BIDS, Uncover, Index to Theses, and CD ROM databases via Silver Platter’s ARC system. The library catalogue can also be accessed remotely, and using the Horizon system, controlled by a Pin number, allows online renewal and reservation. From the start of next session there will be a CD ROM network which will enable users to dial up to access a Web based interface. The heart of the strategy, however, lies in OPEL. “I think our OPEL (Organisational Psychology Electronic Library) Service might be unique, certainly outside eLib. It delivers copyright material electronically to students who are learning at home via computer conferencing.” Designed to support Masters courses in Organisational Psychology and Occupational behaviour, and Diploma courses in Careers Counselling and Consultancy, the database contains examination questions and model answers by lecturers, journal articles and information about the course modules. The intention of the library is to extend it to other courses.

“There are financial problems, but we’ve got to be flexible and implement new services. A heavily decentralised system such as ours creates many pockets of excellence, but it can result in the marginalisation of central services. Academics are starting up new Web based courses whose students cannot benefit from traditional library services, so we need to devise ways of providing for them, otherwise we will become redundant.{photo of Philippa Dolphin}

The cost of OPEL is about 37.5K per year, from College Development Funds. Without a database manager, Birkbeck buys in any expertise they need, and existing staff resources are mainly used to deal with copyright clearance, scanning and proof reading. HTML is currently used in order to reduce downloading and printing time, but the Project ACORN team, which recently assessed the service, are recommending a change to PDF Text. Their report also said that Birkbeck has been able to “explore many of the issues surrounding the electronic delivery of high-demand course materials to distance learners. Indeed, it has been particularly successful in negotiating permission for remote usage of materials.” This is done through direct negotiation with the publishers, and is helped by the fact that many of the academics in the Department of Organisational Psychology are on editorial boards of the main journals and are also retaining the right to supply copies of their material to their students.

For the future, a number of improvements are planned. The electronic resources will be catalogued and made available from the Horizon Web OPAC when it is instituted. OPEL will then be integrated into the mainstream library activities, it will be seen as a library service, and its use will increase when it is accessible by subject and keyword searching. Dolphin is clear that this is only the beginning of major change. “We have a new Master who is enthusiastic about the use of IT in teaching and learning, and sees the digital library as central to this strategy. All the Library staff have PCs on their desks and the majority are fairly IT literate, but we will still have to buy in skills and we will be looking over time at the development of design skills and perhaps CD ROM production skills. Apart from setting up electronic collections for other disciplines such as geography, where a new Web based Masters is under development, and absorbing the closed access library into the Malet Street Library, we’d also like to see an extension of the distance learner service to include other groups such as disabled students, and an improved telephone enquiry service.

Providing support services for part time students is seen as a pragmatic and refreshingly theory-free zone. At Birkbeck there is a simple and effective strategy based on a number of approaches. Central to this are a range of focus groups, surveys, feedback forms, departmental questionnaires and what the Library calls “dialogues” with users. They know what the users want and what the implications are for the library.” emphasis on flexibility, the front line, good publicity, an increase in business, possibly charges, and learning from other businesses.”


The Birkbeck College website is at: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/Departments/Library

Author details

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