Walking into many information centres these days is like a journey into multiple schizophrenia. Work areas are zoned by degree of noise, and users work (or not) singly, in pairs and in any combination up to battalion size. In the midst of all this energy staff often operate in the same way. Yet this is part of the synergy that is sometimes a welcome advance on the monastic silence of 35 years ago.
A visit to the library of SOAS creates another impression. It is calm, relaxed and friendly, and talking to Mary Auckland confirms that rather than looking for a single model most institutions will need to find their own way of dealing with the emergence of new organisational forms and new ways of working with electronic data. Mary began our conversation by emphasising her occupation of the middle ground, after a long involvement with various applications of technology in librarianship: " I hope [I] take a very broad and catholic approach to developments and not focus on one particular area. I hope this always allows me to hang on to the human side."
This is reflected in Mary's management of the library at SOAS and she has brought the same eclecticism to her chairmanship of the Content Working Group of JISC's Committee for Electronic Information. Although she has only been in the job for a little over a year she has clearly moulded an effective group of experts representing different sectors of the academic and information communities: "I come with a clean slate...it means I can ask naive questions with no history behind them and no agenda. I can often go back to first principles and ask 'why this?' and 'why that?'..."
The group facilitates the development of the subject content of a range of learning packages for the academic community. It is focussed on developing the content of the nationally distributed electronic resource and has to its credit a number of impressive achievements which place it at the forefront of developments. Mary is very positive about the growing links with commercial publishers such as Chadwyck Healey and other partnerships for example with the JSTOR project, and work on imaging and video. For her, the preparation of a collection development policy for the creation of electronic learning and research resources is most critical. When this is released it will form the basis of a further systematic development of the resource.
The actual brief of the group is difficult to describe because of the enormous range of its coverage, but what is interesting is how the disparate interests and backgrounds of the group are harnessed: "...we are content, content, content...there is an impressive balance and marrying of skills and expertise so that people who are interested in the delivery of content feel confident that they can go to the people with the technological skills and say 'how?' and the people with those interests feel confident that they are partners and they can say 'we've got this idea for doing this whizzy thing, how could we use it to deliver something useful?'
Unsurprisingly, this balanced and catholic approach extends itself to general issues to do with electronic data and the electronic library . Mary is a strong advocate of the retention of traditional skills and is very positive about the continued need for the conventional skills of the library professional. She refused to rise to my proffered bait of the electronic library's potential to deskill and even make redundant the traditional librarian, and continued to affirm the combination of professional and technological skills that are reflected in the business of the Content Working Group: "I hope the [Departments of Information Studies] will also continue to educate people in the more established traditional skills...education in the skills of cataloguing and classification...this is how you organise knowledge...we're moving into a new environment but it's one where technology allows us to do it better. The underlying skills are similar." Her attitude to how we organise the results of the Content Working Group's efforts is the same: " Institutions will need to find their own way based on their particular mix of academic disciplines and research interests...there is no one way." She identified the development of a cross-sectoral role as a crucial element in the future of the profession. For electronic sources she sees a converging of needs in the higher education sector, the further education sector and the public library sector.
There is also a refreshing note of realism to be found in Mary's assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Group's activities. While she stressed the achievements so far, she was also sharply aware of what still needed to be done.
I asked Mary what she considered to be the biggest weakness of the CWG's position, and she saw this as a communication problem. "The community knows we exist, they don't know enough about us." Although there are links with various discipline groups, research groups and other bodies such as the BUFVC and BFI which share some common concerns, there is insufficient general awareness of the activity of a group which is demonstrating an internationally acknowledged expertise. To rectify this, the CEI has appointed a Collections Manager. He is Jason Plent, and he can be contacted at Warwick University or via his email address which is firstname.lastname@example.org