Digital Developments Amidst the Tulips and Windmills
Well, OK, being August, there were no tulip fields to gambol through, but one can always dream! To be honest, there were no nearby picturesque windmills to be seen either. But we were surrounded by trees and quiet and yet were not far from the modern town of Tilburg in The Netherlands. So, why should I complain? I was there to attend the Digital Library course run as part of this year’s International Summer School by TICER B.V. (Tilburg Innovation Centre for Electronic Resources) at Tilburg University.
This is the sixth consecutive year that there has been a Summer School, but the first time that three one week courses have been/are being run. The first Summer School was held in 1996.(1) They are run under the auspices of TICER B.V. which is a private company created in 1995 by the University’s Library and Computer Centre and is wholly owned by the University at Tilburg.(2)
The company was created to meet a demand that was stimulated by developments in the University Library (whose new librarian is Mel Collier). Tilburg claims to be the first university in Europe to have developed a strategic vision of the digital library that would provide electronic access to information from users’ desktops. In 1992, a new library building was opened with 450 computer workstations that provided integrated access to various information sources for all staff and students. It is quite amazing to think that this was such a radical development in 1992 – less than a decade ago. There has been such a rapid and vast change in the development of information provision and in the role of libraries and librarians in such a short time. Tilburg’s commitment to digital development is continuing and PCs with flat screen monitors were being installed when we toured the library one evening.
These developments created great interest around the world at the time and stimulated a large number of enquiries and visitors to the library. As library resources did not stretch to helping those asking questions about the developments as much as library staff would have liked, the idea of running a summer school evolved and the new company was formed to run the Summer Schools.
The format and content of the courses have changed over the years. The speakers at the first Summer Schools were all members of Tilburg staff, but it was felt that there should be a wider input from other universities, organisations and countries to develop a more rounded and broader overview of digital developments. Consequently, in subsequent years, international speakers were invited. These represented people who were thought to be specialists in their own fields and who would be able to discuss developments in their home countries. Another change after the first Summer Schools was a greater opportunity for more student participation scheduled into the days’ activities. Judging from the tremendous enthusiasm for the really useful discussions that took place, this seemed to me to have been an excellent move.
I attended part of the week-long Digital Libraries and the Changing World of Education, which was being held for the first time. Even for an institution with such an interesting history, it struck me as being particularly brave to run a course on such a fast changing subject as digital libraries. The pace of change is so rapid in this field that it must have been very difficult to plan as far in advance as must have been necessary. It will also require a considerable amount of updating each year if the course is repeated in the future. The completely new course was advertised as being designed for librarians, reference librarians, library managers, instruction librarians, designers of learning environments, and teaching staff.
There had been a Managing the Change Process Towards Your Library of the Future course the previous week. Both these were run at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. These Tilburg courses had been split into these two separate ones; each running for approximately a week instead of a single one taking place over a fortnight as in previous years. An autumn course is being held on Electronic Publishing: Libraries as Buyers, Facilitators or Producers in Florence in October.
Unfortunately, I only managed to ‘dip my toe in the water’ in sampling the Summer School in the sense that I was only able to attend for the first two days instead of the full week enjoyed by all the participants and most of the lecturers. I was not sure what to expect from a summer school as opposed to a conference on this subject. Two days, however, was sufficient to appreciate an enormous difference.
Everyone there displayed an infectious feeling of enthusiasm for the subject of electronic library developments; an enthusiasm that fed off itself from the very first session of the first day. Indeed, this was already evident during the opening dinner the night before the course started. Of course, enthusiasm is found at many conferences, but the level of exchange of information that took place was very different to any conference that I have ever attended. Everyone was anxious to learn more about digital libraries, to relate everything that they heard to their own situations/potential developments in their own institutions and to share their experiences with each other. There was an immediate desire to talk to each other, to ask questions, to seek and to provide explanations. This level of exchange and discussion was facilitated and encouraged by the fact that participants and lecturers socialised outside the quite intensive lecture/workshop sessions over meals in the evenings and at the weekend.
Everyone appeared eager to participate completely by taking a full part in discussions and workshops. At the ‘ice breaking’ session, during which each participant had to say something about their own work and the course, most had a tremendous amount to say. It was obvious that they had done their ‘homework’ and carefully read the impressive pre-course literature with which we had all been provided. They had all read, at least, sufficient about the lectures to be very clear about which of them they thought that they would find the most interesting and relevant to their own situation. There were no ‘shrinking violets’ unwilling to describe their own work situation and this session overran its allotted time. I could not help wondering, however, how many were in a position to introduce the new electronic services in their own organisations that they all seemed to think would result from their reports of the week’s activities! Or would still have the necessary enthusiasm a few weeks later!
A full range of experiences and ideas was available to share as there was a truly international flavour with 40 participants from 14 countries situated on 4 continents. This was a little lower than the preferred number of 45 delegates which is presumably more cost effective. Previous Summer Schools have suggested that a higher number than this mitigates against full participation and good interaction. 76% of the participants were involved in library instruction or information literature courses. There were few from other areas such as publishing. This may, of course, have been because there is to be another course dedicated to electronic publishing in the autumn. The participants did, however, represent a wide variety of organisations. There were several delegates from The Netherlands, but a far lower proportion than in the early years. There was, however, only one UK participant with four UK lecturers. I could not help asking myself why this was. Do we believe that we already possess sufficient expertise in digital library development? Are we too busy running our digital (or print) libraries to attend such events as participants or are staff development budgets too much of an issue in the UK to permit this kind of expenditure?
Another way in which the Summer School varied from the conferences that I have attended was in the length of presentations and workshops. Often these are only scheduled for a short time at a conference instead of the one and half hours given at Tilburg. This allowed lecturers time to develop themes and thoughts and to invite questions and comments. Often, conference presentations are for such a short time only that speakers degenerate into demonstrating or ‘advertising’ their own projects with little thought for developing the concepts behind them for their audience. In this ‘showcase’ environment it is difficult for delegates to gather thoughts, to devise questions and to try to think how such developments might be used in their own situations. The aim of the Summer School, however, is to do this very thing - to prepare librarians for setting up their own digital library.
The course looked at the possible roles of and opportunities for libraries in education and focused on practical experiences and case studies of libraries around the world. There was an exploration of the importance of merged roles and the fact that digital libraries provide opportunities for merging roles and convergence of services and departments to offer a more integrated, efficient and better service to meet organisations’ aims. It was stressed that the digital library is the natural complement of digital learning environments, and that there are opportunities for library staff in co-designing digital learning environments. During the week, participants examined the role of libraries in education, paying attention to issues such as virtual learning environments, digital portfolios, the physical library as a learning space, information literacy, and new roles for librarians. These themes were of obvious importance and interest to many of the 13 lecturers who stayed for the whole week; thus lending the course a new dimension.
During the first two days, which were the only ones that I was able to attend there was a great deal of discussion about the changing HE environment, the changing make-up of the student population and their different needs and about changing teaching styles and, especially, about digital learning environments. It was stressed that digital library/digital learning environments were complementary and that they offered new opportunities for librarians. Speakers recognised that digital libraries were not a new concept. The technology for their development had been available for a long time. However the ‘c’ word – cultural change – often got in the way of such developments which were now needed even more than ever to complement the new digital learning environments. Of course, this still needed the ‘c’ word since faculty and librarians need to co-operate if they are to support each other’s work in these new environments. As at all LIS conferences, it was stressed over and over that librarians need to ‘infiltrate’ the decision-making bodies in their own institutions if integration between information providers and information seekers and their respective systems and needs is to take place. Any real digital library development may require a dramatic change in the organisational culture. Different groups need to hold a shared vision. Librarians and academic staff in educational institutions need to share their visions about education.
As always, when hearing these ideas expressed, I could not help thinking that I had heard all this before and that so, probably, had all the other participants. There is nothing wrong with preaching to the converted, of course. They often enjoy hearing the same ideas expressed again or might like hearing new arguments that re-enforce their own deeply held views. But we still need to preach this basic message to the unconverted. Unfortunately, the ‘converted’ are librarians and the ‘unconverted’ frequently tend to be the people with whom we wish to integrate our services. They, of course, do not regularly attend LIS conferences or international summer schools. It is very difficult to persuade someone who thinks of the library only in terms of a draining cost centre that it is really a very positive asset that will help them to achieve goals set in the organisation's mission statements. Constantly telling each other is only of benefit if we all leave from hearing this message sufficiently enthused once again to try to move what can often appear to be unmoveable objects in our own institutions. I often wonder how many of us not only mange to do so, but also keep on trying weeks after the initial enthusiasm has subsided and we have become engrossed in the old routines.
Information literacy became something of a buzzword while I was there with all the well-rehearsed ideas such as the ‘knowledge economy’, ‘problem-solving’ and ‘real and virtual learning environments’ being bandied around. There was also discussion about the social context of learning. It was pointed out that the virtual world can be a lonely one. A number of people believed that to be the case. Learning often takes place more efficiently when there is face-to-face contact with lecturers and where there are exchanges between fellow students whom one meets. Others thought that the virtual world could be a less isolating one than the ‘real’ learning environment. Although something might be lost without face-to-face contact with lecturers, most lecturers make themselves available at certain times and may take more care to reply to e-mails than to linger after lectures to talk to students. In a sense, therefore, they are more accessible to students requiring help and advice. E-mails and other on-line exchanges between students can also draw even the shiest student into exchanges that are beneficial to their studies.
During the two days other themes were explored. In a particularly lively session we considered the question of what a library actually is and what constitutes a digital library, and how easy they are to access, and we considered world-wide systems and more local ones. There was also discussion of the different ways in which we can get information to users and about how technological developments enable us to make information that was previously only available to the few visitors to a physical site available to large numbers of people globally. We also considered the flexibility of new systems.
The themes for the different days were:
- Digital libraries and digital learning environments
- Virtual and real learning environments
- Information literacy
- The library profession
In addition to the lectures there were a number of workshops during the week to encourage discussion and thought. At the one that I attended, the participants were divided into 8 groups of 5 and asked to think and, then, report back what they felt were two very important current issues that interested them from the two general opening lectures. The aim was to create learning goals for the week by thinking of the themes covered in these lectures in respect of home organisations. I thought that this would have produced far more duplication than was the case. After all, everyone had just sat through the same lectures and these should have set their thoughts going in similar directions. But I was wrong. There was a large amount of variety. I suppose that this shows what a lively and stimulating profession LIS is – very far removed from the image of the silent old-fashioned librarian ‘guarding’ and ‘preserving’ their stock from unruly borrowers!:
The ideas that were suggested were:
Relationship between stakeholders in educational awareness of clients of potential libraries.
What is the library’s core business. Should the library play a more positive role in providing education or should it limit itself to helping/providing information. (This, of course, raises many questions about where one draws the line between teaching users how to use the library and teaching them information literacy).
How do we get faculty staff to naturally work with library staff without library staff pressurising them.
How do we encourage non-users to start using our services.
From where do we find resources.
How do we encourage the best possible use/exploitation of resources.
There is a changing role from the traditional library to the instructional library.
What is the effect of library instruction on end users. Has there been any research about this.
What role can the library play in bringing about cultural change in an organisation.
Should we/how do we teach the teachers rather than the students.
How de we market library services to effect co-operation between faculty and library staff.
How do we market a change within the library for library staff to change to meet the needs/demands of the institution.
How do we introduce new students to the library.
How do we organise life long learning for librarians/keep abreast of staff needs.
Should the library be involved in the pedagogic issues of faculties.
How do we make communication between staff/librarians visible – how do we ensure that the library is considered when courses are being developed.
It was decided that these represented ideas that could be grouped under three headings:
- What constitutes the tasks of the library and how far should we go/what are the boundaries.
- Building relationships with long established academic staff, new staff and students.
- What is our personal goal in the library as a librarians.
Later, another workshop was planned to look at ‘What’s wrong with Tilburg University Library?’ I wished that I had been able to stay to participate in this. I would imagine that it generated a large amount of input and helped participants, away from home and with others thinking about the same things, to consider their own organisations very carefully from a less biased viewpoint than might normally cloud their vision.
On a purely personal note, I was very impressed by the excellent organisation which also marked the Summer School out from many conferences and other teaching situations. There were no IT breakdowns as can be found in the most well organised conferences. Lecturers’ slides were mounted and ready for viewing before each session. This saved me from my usual survival tactic of seeking out a technician well in advance of a talk, confessing my technical ineptitude and asking them to remain in the room in case I needed someone to help me out.
The domestic organisation was equally good with excellent meals and plenty of pre-school information about transport and accommodation. And I have found that this ‘customer care’ has continued after the Summer School through a ‘follow-up’ service that provides additional information. This encourages continued networking after initial enthusiasms have declined. In particular, I was very impressed by the way in which a Blackboard demonstration was introduced into the day’s scheduled events after one group requested it.
It was, however, nerve-racking, as a lecturer, quite unexpectedly, to hear that course auditors from the Tilburg campus or library would appear unplanned and unannounced at the start of individual lectures to watch the lecturers! On the other hand, it was such a relief to see the total lack of laptops and mobile phones, the twin curses of any conference presentation!
It would be very unfair of me to mention any particular session that I found most the valuable or which I most enjoyed since I only heard a few. But I can honestly say that I found them all stimulating which is far more than I can say about attending most conferences or the postgraduate library and information course that I followed!
One aspect that troubled me was the concentration upon looking at separate digital or electronic developments. We talked about many global services and highlighted the vast changes that are taking place in information provision and, in particular, access to information. Systems/services that were described or demonstrated were very impressive. Some were smaller developments attached to a single institution.
But there was no mention of hybrid developments while I was there. Of course, I was only able to attend for a small part of the course. It may be that there was discussion about hybrid libraries later, but I was concerned about this large gap and regretted that I did not have more time to explore the importance of integrating print and electronic information provision more in my own talk. I felt that my causal mention of the word ‘hybrid’ was interpreted as meaning merely a mix of print and electronic rather than the seamless integration I was suggesting that we should all be striving to achieve. Of course, I had been asked to talk about the ResIDe Electronic Reserve (http://www.uwe.ac.uk/library/itdev/reside) at the University of the West of England and this has been and will continue to run as a separate electronic service until autumn. Perhaps others were similarly handicapped by their own briefs and would have liked to have introduced more discussion about the development of and need to develop hybrid libraries.
Despite this latter lack, which, after all, was outside the theme of the Summer School, I would recommend attendance at next year’s course(s).
(1) For an account of the first Summer School by the only UK delegate, see van der Zwan, R. (1996) Ticer Summer School on the Digital Library, 4-16 August 1996, Tilburg University, The Netherlands, Ariadne, Issue 6 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue6/tilburg/intro.html
(2) For further information about the background to the development of the summer school, see Prinsen, J.G.B. & Geleijnse, H. (1999) The International Summer School on the Digital Library: experiences and plans for the future, D-lib Magazine, Vol 5 No 10 October. http://www.dlib.org/dlib/october99/prinsen/10prinsen.html
University of the West Of England, Bristol,
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