Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The Distributed National Collection Access, and Cross-sectoral Collaboration: The Research Support Libraries Programme

Ronald Milne, Director of the programme, with an overview of the objectives for the Research Support Libraries Programme.

The Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP), a £30m initiative funded by the four UK higher education funding bodies, has spawned 53 projects and a number of studies and other activities. This brief overview aims to give a flavour of the Programme. Articles relating to particular projects will appear in future issues of Ariadne.

But first, some background: RSLP derives from the deliberations of the Follett Review (1993)1 and the associated Anderson Report (1996).2 Although not directly related to the Specialised Research Collections in the Humanities (NFF) programme or eLib, RSLP learned much from each of these initiatives in its set-up stages.

RSLP is managed (ie interventionist), attempts to take a holistic view of library and archive activity in the UK, and has a strategic vision, central to which is the concept of distributed national collections of library research resources (the ‘DNC’ or ‘Distributed National Collection’).

Why work towards a ‘Distributed National Collection’? Quite simply because no library can these days hope to collect comprehensively across all fields of knowledge. We are all aware of the huge increase in the number of hard-copy titles being published, and of journal price rises greatly in excess of inflation. Therefore, in order to optimise the library research resource in the UK, and access to it, we need to work together to share information about collections among ourselves and users, come to agreements about who is going to collect in what area, and create an infrastructure which allows researchers to access the material they require with ease.

There has, therefore, been a strong focus on collaborative work in RSLP, in particular among higher education institutions (HEIs), but also between HEIs and other libraries with research collections, notably the British Library and the national libraries of Scotland and Wales. Among the other non-higher education partners participating are the Public Record Office, Glasgow City Council Libraries and Archives, the Brighton and Hove Museum and Art Gallery, English Heritage, the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland, the National Archives of Scotland, the Tate Gallery, Westminster City Archives and the Wellcome Institute.

Cross-sectoral projects highlight the funding difficulties associated with joined-up activity, and colleagues have quite justifiably asked how we can really begin to fulfil the vision of distributed national collections in particular groups of disciplines or types of materials when RSLP can fund only higher education institutions. Where it has been possible, some institutions, such as the British Library, the National Library of Scotland and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, realising the potential for the Common Good, have funded their own participation in RSLP projects. However, the number of organisations in this enviable position is small. We have got round the hurdle (and it really has been ‘round’ and not ‘over’) by providing complementary funding for, or co-funding cross-sectoral projects with funding agencies such as the British Library Cooperation and Partnership Programme (BLCPP), Re:source and SCRAN. It has also been possible for RSLP to fund the higher education element of eight proposals submitted to BLCPP.

But what is really needed is an independent body funded by central government that takes a holistic view of UK library collections, both print and electronic, and which is able to make substantial grants for cross-sectoral activity including access arrangements.3

Most of the projects funded by RSLP are discipline oriented, although one or two focus on a format. The Programme is concerned with material that is of value to researchers, wherever it is held; whether in one of the major research libraries such as the Bodleian or the Rylands, or in the libraries of one the newer universities, such as Manchester Metropolitan University or London Guildhall. RSLP projects are mainly dealing with traditional library materials but, in almost every case, creating an electronic resource. These take the form of bibliographic and archival records, collection descriptions, digitised images and texts, and web directories and portals.

There are as many as twenty-one partners in a project consortium, many of the projects are multi-faceted, and are working in a number of Programme areas.

Academic fields where the projects are expected to have a particularly significant impact include archaeology, art history, art and design, business studies, geography, history, non-European languages and area studies, the performing arts, theology and church history (including Hebraica and Jewish Studies), veterinary science and women’s studies. There are major collaborative collection management projects for Asian studies and for Russian and East European studies, and projects that seek to facilitate access to such diverse materials as pamphlets, aerial photographs, early manuscript and printed maps of Scotland, cartoons and architectural drawings.

As ever, the library and archive professions have been ingenious in inventing acronyms! Amongst the projects RSLP is funding are: SCONE (Scottish Collections Network Extension project), EGIL (Electronic Gateway for Icelandic Literature), OASIS (Online AcceS to the Index of archaeological investigationS), NAHSTE (Navigational Aids for the History of Science, Technology and the Environment), HOGARTH (Helpful Online Gateway to Art History), PADDI (Planning Architecture Design Database Ireland), and RASCAL (Research And Special Collections Available Locally).

There are a considerable number of other RSLP projects which are likely to be of interest to Ariadne readers:

For example, LSE is the main partner in a project which has provided an online guide to the papers of Charles Booth, the social investigator, by retroconverting existing catalogues and creating online digitised versions of Booth’s Maps descriptive of London poverty and the police notebooks which informed the Inquiry into the life and labour of the people of London. Enhanced indexing allows users to navigate the data and to link the results of searches to locations on the maps. ‘Charting the Nation’ is providing sophisticated electronic access to digitised early manuscript and printed maps of Scotland, and associated material. Because many of the map and archive sources relating to the cartographic history of Scotland are fragile and rare, holding institutions have often not been able to make them as widely available to researchers as they might wish. The wide dispersion of the maps throughout the UK, and the fact that many related textual archives are located in different institutions hundreds of miles away, has also hindered research in the past.

Architectural drawings and their associated records are important to many academic disciplines including history, geography, engineering and planning, as well as for the study of design, art and architecture. ‘The Drawn Evidence’, a Dundee University-led project, is scanning and cataloguing a core section of circa 10,000 selected Scottish architectural drawings and related textual archives and associated material and making them accessible through a dedicated single web-based search interface. Another large-scale digitisation project, ‘The Visual Evidence’ aims to provide access to the very substantial and important photographic archives at universities of Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews.

The ‘AIM25’ project, led by King’s College London, provides a single point of networked access to descriptions of the archives and manuscript collections of the principal colleges and schools of the University of London, of other universities and colleges in London and the surrounding area bounded by the M25 motorway, and of some of the principal royal colleges and societies of medicine and science based in London. The archives of more than fifty institutions are covered. The overall purpose of the project is to make it much easier for researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines to locate information about archival collections held in London and the M25 area, and to assist in cross-disciplinary use of archives.

These examples merely serve to give a taster of the diversity and interest that Ariadne readers will find in RSLP projects - Do look at the RSLP website <http://www.rslp.ac.uk> for further information. You will find hotlinks to project websites from the RSLP site.

Mapping and co-ordinating collections and their acquisition, cataloguing, subject-indexing and preservation is only worthwhile as part of a national strategy if readers who need access can obtain it. But there are real additional costs attached to providing access to research collections for users who are ‘external’ to the institution holding the resources. Major holdings libraries within the UK higher education sector have until very recently received no compensation for the ‘burden’ imposed by visiting research-active staff and students from other UK higher education institutions. The RSLP Access strand (worth £5m per annum) seeks to compensate major holdings libraries for extra costs incurred in providing access and services for ‘external researchers’.4

One view that was consistently voiced in the focus groups that formed part of the consultation exercise during the early days of RSLP, was that the availability, on the Web, of descriptions of collections would be very valuable. There was a desire within RSLP, that if descriptions were going to be produced for the Web, then they should be created in a consistent manner. The collection description work undertaken for RSLP by UKOLN aims to enable projects to describe collections in a consistent and machine-readable way. Although, within RSLP, the main benefits are being felt by those wishing to describe print collections, it was intended that the results of the project should be applicable to physical and electronic collections of all kinds, including library, art and museum materials. This activity has gained some considerable momentum and RSLP, JISC and the British Library are now jointly funding the ‘Collection Description Focus’ service, the purpose of which is to provide authoritative advice and guidance on collection description implementation to the UK library, information, archive, and cultural heritage, communities. An account of the work of the Focus may be found elsewhere in this issue of Ariadne.

RSLP has funded, or co-funded, a number of important studies. Together with JISC and the British Library, for example, it commissioned the Feasibilty Study for a UK National Union Catalogue. Further scoping work for SUNCAT, a national serials union catalogue is currently underway.5 The RSLP-funded study, Barriers to Resource Sharing in Higher Education Libraries, 6 reported at the beginning of February this year. With JISC, the Programme is, in addition, co-funding a study entitled The DNER and the DNC – the Human Element,7 which is examining human resource issues relating to project work. RSLP is also running a series of seminars on ‘Experience of running collaborative projects’ in order to learn what managing collaborative projects has really been like, at the sharp end.

These studies, and reports of RSLP activity, are helping inform the deliberations of the new Research Support Libraries Group (RSLG), chaired by Sir Brian Follett. Among other matters, it is expected that the RSLG will review the operation of the RSLP access model to recommend options for a long-term scheme to support integrated access to resources of national importance; consider further development of a co-ordinated strategy for and provision of materials in printed and electronic form, and assess how best to use the resources of JISC and the Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) team to facilitate this strategy.

The very fact that we have such a group augurs well for the future and one can but hope that the bedrock that RSLP has helped create will provide a solid foundation for future developments.


1. [Follett Report] Joint funding councils’ libraries review. Joint Funding Councils’ Libraries Review Group: report (1993). Available at <http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/papers/follett/report/>
2. [Anderson Report] Joint funding councils’ libraries review. Report of the Group on a National/Regional Strategy for Library Provision for Researchers (1996). Available at: <http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/other/anderson>.
3. Cross-sectoral funding arrangements are discussed more fully in: Ronald Milne. ‘Joined-up funding: promoting and facilitating collaborative work’ in Stella Pilling and Stephanie Kenna (eds) Co-operation in action. London: Library Association Publishing, 2002.
4. For a full account of the survey which provided the data on which the RSLP Access strand annual allocations for the academic years 1999-2000 to 2001-2002 were made see: Ronald Milne and Gill Davenport. The Research Support Libraries Programme Access Survey. New review of academic librarianship, vol. 5 (1999), 23 – 39.
5. The final report of the UK National Union Catalogue study , and the serials workpackage, is available at <http://www.uknuc.shef.ac.uk>.
6. The Barriers to Resource Sharing report is available through the ‘Publications’ section of the RSLP website, <http://www.rslp.ac.uk>.
7. The Invitation to tender for the Human Element study is available through the ‘Publications’ section of the RSLP website, <http://www.rslp.ac.uk>. The study is expected to report in July 2002.

Author Details

Ronald Milne
Director, Research Support Libraries Programme