Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Libraries Without Walls 5

David Parkes reviews the fifth compilation of the biennial Library Without Walls Conference. He finds how far we have come and how far we have to go in delivering services to distributed learners.

This is the 5th collection of papers from the biennial Libraries Without Walls Conference (LWW5). Reference to the preceding 4 volumes published in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002 respectively is rewarding to see how discourse and practice has developed.

Access collaboration is now commonplace; 135 institutions are members of the UK Libraries plus access scheme, 157 are signed up for Sconul Research Extra. The Peoples Network has put 4000 Internet centres into public libraries, Athens passwords and off-campus access to databases has provided access to a growing collection of electronic content. The last year has seen a doubling of UK domestic broadband Internet access, the parallel growth of digitised content, images, e-prints and open archives. All this plus the shift of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) from the fringe to the mainstream and, more recently, the growth of interactive Web technologies such as portals and blogs, have provided learners with unprecedented access to resources, services and learning interactivity. All of which would have been difficult to imagine when the first LWW took place 9 long years ago.

The emphasis in earlier papers on replicating existing levels of service enjoyed by on-campus students for those unfortunate to be studying away from the library has morphed and shifted, now describing technical projects as well as operational strategies of support.

Librarians' roles too are changing, moving away from the more familiar activities. They are now carving new niches and describing imaginative new arcs of activity in supporting learning in the distributed electronic environment.

As with the previous editions, this is edited by the prolific Peter Brophy and Shelagh Fisher both of whom have a formidable track record of contribution to the canon of library knowledge and literature. They have been joined this time by Jenny Craven, Research Associate at the Centre for Research in Library and Information Management (CERLIM), and a previous contributor.

The editors chart the amazing progress made in distance learning, and describe how definitions and foci have changed. They provide a succinct summary of the long journey made. (It will be the tenth anniversary for LWW6). As with all editions, this focuses on the international perspectives on the delivery of library and information to learners who are not 'in the building'. This focus on the user, notes Brophy in his keynote paper, eventually led us to the realisation that it is the library that is distant and not the user.

The range of papers, more than in any other edition, come from nine countries and a wide spectrum of Higher and Further Educational Institutions, national and public bodies and libraries and research units. There are case studies from the UK, Netherlands, Nigeria, Greece, USA, Nigeria, Denmark, Portugal and Italy.

The book as the conference has 5 themes:

Theme 1: the integration of library services and VLEs

In the first paper Black and Roberts from Edge Hill describe an interesting example of the use of a VLE (WebCT) for staff induction and training, which allows, both for a vehicle for staff to learn about the institution, and in the process allows them to understand the VLE and thus be better placed to support students in this environment. This is an excellent and imaginative strategy which embeds e-learning activity within the daily routines and culture of a service.

Koositra et al from Delft and Utrecht Universities provide a case study demonstrating how they support scientific researchers with the detailed information they need and a place where they can interact with this information and share it with other researchers. It is not enough for libraries to teach people how to use libraries, they maintain, we must provide user-focused integrated access to a substantial number of resources along with the ability to store, exchange and share information.

A rather difficult appendix of tables takes some effort but it is worth persevering.

Scantlebury and Stevenson's brief paper describes the JISC-funded project work of DEViL (Dynamically Enhancing VLE Information from the Library). DEViL created tools which can be embedded within search repositories to create resource lists. Eschewing the technical aspects of the project, Scantlebury and Stevenson seek to identify the key issues in VLE development and explore the often competing perspectives of academics, libraries and learning technologists, They reach some sobering conclusions, there is little evidence of a genuine teamwork approach, a failure to engage, a focus on content rather than outcomes, barriers such as access and authorisation and copyright issues.

Ahtola from Tampere University in Finland reflects on the environmental changes that affect libraries and the activities Tampere University library undertakes. There is little that is particularly innovative here but Ahtola does describe a comprehensive and interdependent array of services which add value to teaching and learning.

Garoufallou et al write of the experience at the University of Macedonia in Greece, and of the unfortunate experience of having a VLE foisted upon them which they originally felt was inadequate for their needs. Their perseverance is admirable and the case study describes typical developments in the country.

If there is one criticism of the papers in theme 1 it is that there is little mention of engaging the silent army of IT support workers on help desks and in the background who contribute so much to the distributed learning experience.

Theme 2: the relationship between user needs, information skills and information literacies

Theme 2 opens with a paper from Moore. This is an overview of the experience at Sheffield Hallam in embedding information skills in the subject-based curriculum. Moore describes the InfoQuest online information skills package delivered through Blackboard. Sheffield Hallam has adopted a customised and integrated approach which is, they admit, costly and time-consuming, but the dividends they find, are worth it. Learners don't tend to engage with generic skills. And as Scantlebury and Stevenson found, faculty engagement can be difficult too. Both learners and academics are more likely to engage with customised and targeted product.

Widening participation is increasingly an issue which concerns us all and Rutter and Dale provide an overview of interventionist activity in embedding information skills in a foundation degree and a professional social work qualification.

Virkus from Manchester Metropolitan University takes us on a theoretical discourse through the literature on information literacy and learning; it is a useful primer on current thinking and has an excellent references list.

Gill Needham from the Open University asks the question 'Information Literacy - who needs it?' in this final paper in Theme 2; she answers by saying 'that everybody needs it'. The Prague Declaration 'towards an information literate society' would certainly concur and Needham provides a sound research case study based upon the free-standing short course in Information Literacy called Making Sense of Information in the Connected Age (MOSAIC).

Theme 3: usability and accessibility of digital library services

The opening paper from King et al focuses on an evaluation framework for digital libraries, research which was supported by a grant from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). Good Digital Libraries should support task-based information-seeking behaviour and be highly organised. The framework is a useful tool to apply and the authors recommend further research and application for researchers and practitioners.

Kolawole describes the relatively low level state of ICT in Nigeria, but the author touches on the critical universal themes of key skills and employability and the roles libraries can play in supporting them.

A research case study from the Italian National Health Institute finds that there is a significant move towards the use of online resources. Toni recommends monitoring user satisfaction, efficiency and effectiveness of online services, the adoption of federated searching and access to full text.

Botha discusses the impressive African Digital Library which allows free access to anyone living in Africa and has about 7800 e-book titles. It is the start of a very long journey says the author.

From a continent to a state, Moen et al demonstrate the Library of Texas Resource Discovery Service (LOT RDS). The LOT RDS is a metasearch application which enables users to identify, select and access or acquire information through a state-wide virtual library. The usability framework proposed by Moen et al is a more in-depth and resource-targeted tool than the framework proposed by King et al above, though they could be used in tandem. The authors suggest that users may require new mental models in order to contextualise meta-searching, a veritable challenge for information literacy advocates.

Theme 4: Designing the information environment: national and institutional perspectives.

Williams provides a case study from the Library at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) demonstrating how they support institutional objectives in learning and teaching, research, widening participation, outreach and knowledge transfer. This is a useful overview of the challenges facing libraries in the context of institutional and national drivers in the UK.

Proenca and Nunes provide an evaluation of Internet services in Portuguese public libraries and make sensible recommendations that are applicable in all circumstances, specifically that there should be clear and precise guidelines for implementing online services and for evaluating quality.

The Danish Electronic Research Library, a national virtual research library is described by Ohrstrom and offers an exemplar of activity for the UKs forthcoming Research Libraries Network with the potential for common licensing, common access and a common portal.

Following on the research theme Wallis and Carpenter survey researchers and resources. They find that online resources are becoming increasingly important, that researchers need better tools, and that access to print is still important and will continue to be. They emphasize the important role subject librarians should play.

Theme 5: the creation of digital resources by user communities

The fifth theme challenges the traditional perception of users as passive receptors of information.

Kelly and Butters, research associates at MMU, describe the Cultural Objects in Networked Environments project (COINE). Cultural memory institutions are a growing phenomenon , the rise of Wikis, Blogs and the success of the BBC People's War Project, for example, demonstrate that individuals and communities can and are willing to contribute to the growth in online information and resources.

Another JISC-funded project, DAEDALUS (Data providers for academic e-content and the disclosure of assets for learning, understanding and scholarship) is discussed by Ashworth and Nixon of Glasgow University. A welcome look at open archives, this e-prints service was actually launched in June 2004 and provides free and unrestricted access to resources using the Open Archives Initiative's protocol for harvesting metadata (OAI-PMH). Ashworth and Nixon describe the liaison, mechanisms and culture change within the institution.

Cox and Morris explore new roles for librarians in virtual work communities or 'communities of practice'. A community of practice (CoP) is a group or network of people who share a common interest in a specific area of knowledge or competence and are willing to work and learn together over a period of time to develop and share that knowledge. These groups probably exist in some form in almost every organisation - whether they have been deliberately created and labelled as such or not. Librarians can play a positive role in communities by creating and sharing organisational knowledge.

The JISC-funded Exchange for Learning Programme (X4L) is an ambitious development. X4L consists of 25 projects and involves more than 100 institutions and teams from FE colleges, universities, libraries, local authorities and commercial companies. The programme aims to assess whether re-purposing content -the reuse of learning material after metadata treatment to permit relevant use across different audiences or mediums- can become a popular and sustainable way of producing e-learning materials for the future. X4L also addresses the challenges and training associated with re-purposing content, and further still provide a national repository with re-purposable learning materials. Susan Eales the programme manager provides a useful project overview and asks some stimulating questions.


The papers included here serve as helpful stand-alone case studies and discourse in delivering services to the distributed learning communities. But by being brought together they interweave; ideas sparked by reading one paper are further provoked and challenged by reading another, resulting in a cumulative effect which leaves the reader with a critical overview of the contemporary issues and practice. I'd like to see some future discussion take place on non-users, invisible learning, and as mentioned earlier, the role of IT or merged help desks in providing support. LWW6 should be very interesting indeed.

Author Details

David Parkes
Head of Learning Support
Information Services
Staffordshire University

Email: d.j.parkes@staffs.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.staffs.ac.uk/uniservices/infoservices/

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