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Of Arms and the Man We Sing

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John MacColl talks to Chris Rusbridge about the eLib programme.

Almost four years ago, the Follett Implementation Group on Information Technology (FIGIT), brought Chris Rusbridge back to the UK from his post as Information Systems Coordinator in UniSA Library, Australia, for the second time in his career (he had previously returned to become Director of IT Services at the University of Dundee). This time, the challenge was to direct the newly-born FIGIT Programme, shortly to be re-christened the Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib), a major pump-priming initiative following the recommendations in the Follett Report of 1993, funded to the tune of £15 million per annum for three years. Around forty projects were sparked into life over the first few months of Rusbridge's appointment, rising to about sixty within a further year, in programme strands devoted to subject gateways, document supply, electronic reserves, training and awareness, electronic journals and on-demand publishing. Ever eager to throw himself into hard things, Rusbridge managed to break his right wrist in his first year of office, and the left wrist three years later. This latter adventure had the effect that the interview which formed the basis for this article had to be conducted by telephone, since even for the intrepid Programme Director driving around the country with his arm in a sling was unwise. This did not stop him from continuing to enthuse about the work of the Programme which he has successfully steered to a point where rather fewer larger, aggregated projects continue to be funded by JISC (with the title 'eLib phase 3').

Writing recently for D-Lib Magazine in the US, Rusbridge drew a contrast between eLib's essentially developmental approach, in which projects were based in real library and information services (LIS) operations and were intended to result in products and services often of almost immediate benefit to the HE LIS community, and that of the US Digital Libraries Initiative (DLI), which has been running over the same period. DLI has been much more research-oriented. "But it's wrong to think that means there's a major difference between UK and US digital libraries development, because DLI's background was in computer science, and it was only one specific initiative. You must not forget that there are a large number of other initiatives going on, much more library-oriented - Making of America, American Memory, the National Digital Library Federation, and so on." A difficulty for many of the DLI projects in the US has been the interest of their funding agencies in research rather than deployment. But the second Digital Libraries Initiative (DLI2) is likely to address this, as new product-oriented funding agencies, like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Library of Medicine, have been brought into the frame. "In any case, the difference is not so great if you take a European perspective. There are so many projects in the US that some duplication is almost inevitable - but if you look at Europe you find the same. There are European Telematics projects going on which eLib people should know about, but don't."

One criticism of the programme's design has been the large number of small projects which it spawned. The initial design was laid out in the catalyst JISC circular '4/94', and over 320 submissions had been received in response before Rusbridge arrived on the scene in January 1995. Was there a danger that so many projects could cause the Programme to run out of control? "I thought many times that I would rather have had a small number of big projects because they can be monitored and encouraged much more effectively. There are some projects, for example, which have started and finished, and they never received a visit from me. That's not really acceptable. Having said that, there have been real benefits in the slightly 'scatter-gun' approach, not least in the lessons learned as we've gone along. There's often no right and wrong here, and one project does not give you all the answers. Those lessons have been applied in the successive stages of the Programme, with Phase 2 and Phase 3 increasing the emphasis upon reporting, project management and evaluation. It has been a way of spreading the risk."

Rusbridge believes absolutely in the value of digital library development in the higher education context. "Digital libraries will profoundly change the way universities work and the way people teach, and the way people learn over time." But universities are also in the business of reducing costs, and there must surely be an economic justification for so much time and resource expended on a national programme lasting several years? Yet the Director of the Programme will not commit himself to the cost-benefit argument. On the question of the economics of scholarly research publishing, for example, has eLib brought us any closer to breaking the publishers' stranglehold on journal pricing? "I would love to say 'yes', but I find I can't. In order to make that happen, we would need a business model in which people who don't pay currently would have to start paying. In one model, for example, they'd have to pay to publish where at the moment the library pays for them to read. So far, I've seen nothing to suggest that librarians are likely to grasp the nettle and begin to pass on the cost of subscriptions to departments. Departments therefore have no motivation to pay either to publish or to read. If it could be done by decree, I think everybody would be reasonably happy with the system within a year or two, but to get there from here requires crossing a gulf of self-interest."

This third phase of eLib is devoting a considerable portion of its funding and effort to the goal of realising the 'hybrid library', Rusbridge's own coinage. To some it seems ironic that the electronic libraries programme has concluded that electronic libraries still embrace traditional forms. Not so Rusbridge, however, who sees the 'library' as a triad of forms. "There is library as concept, library as organisation, and library as place." All will survive for at least the next 20 years. The concept fulfills the need to provide information on the one hand, and the need to build the academic record on the other. The organisation exists as a compromise between the need to contextualise learning (which might suggest that the library be disaggregated and replicated in individual departments) and the need to be able to afford the cost of the information and to manage and provide service. One of its chief roles is to manage a key university budget in a focused way. And the library is place because we cannot ignore the fact that there is still a huge quantity of information on paper, and because the physical plant provides an enormously valuable shared study and IT space. "I haven't heard any thinking librarian really say that we can abolish this space. Real estate for information access is a serious issue."

One of Rusbridge's regrets is the funding politics in HE which have kept the programmes designed to spread good practice in teaching and learning technology (the Computers in Teaching Initiative and the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme) separate from the Electronic Libraries Programme. "This has not been good for higher education in my view. It's a tragedy, actually. We had a visit from some Finns recently, and I envied them the fact that their electronic libraries and teaching and learning technology developments were melded together into a whole. It is by far the most sensible way to approach the teaching and learning requirement of the student."

Nevertheless, working for JISC has been rewarding on the whole. Rusbridge is full of praise for the staff of the Secretariat who have provided him with sterling support. The Committee itself has had its share of structure changes which have not always made his life easy as Programme Director. Having placed significant emphasis on the training and awareness element of eLib 1 and 2 - the 'people aspect' - Rusbridge was disappointed to find that the decisions on eLib 3 were allocated to two different committees, and the Committee on Awareness, Liaison and Training (CALT) could not sustain the same emphasis, leaving the newest phase without a significant training and awareness component.

ARIADNE was itself one of the casualties of this decision, although CALT did support the continuation of the publication in its Web-only form. Throughout the life of this magazine there has been a question asked about whether its parallel form would 'evolve' into a Web-only publication. Although this was not the view of the people behind ARIADNE, Rusbridge admits that he was not initially convinced of the viability of a continuing parallel publication. "But in the end I thought the parallel format was very effective. It maybe could have been exploited a bit more, but it was an intelligent response to the realities of life in a number of ways. It has been used opportunistically, and picked up in coffee rooms all over the country. The use of the electronic version to give fuller texts of articles and more technical material I also thought worked very well. I was really pleased with it and am disappointed that we're not going to have ARIADNE continuing indefinitely."

Alongside his excitement at the latest phase of eLib, Rusbridge is also enthusiastic about the new International Digital Libraries Programme, in which large-scale projects will be funded for joint UK and US teams. "We've been discussing this with the National Science Foundation people for a long time. This is a visionary move on the part of both JISC and the NSF."

As he reaches the end of his fourth year in post, Rusbridge betrays no sense of having had enough. Does he still get a buzz from being at the centre of eLib? "Most definitely. The work of the Programme is not over. There are so many technological changes in the way universities deal with scholarly information and the flows of teaching and research material, that we will need serious development for several years to come. This is not a done deal. And if my post were a permanent one, I feel I would never want to leave it."

Author details:

John MacColl
Production Manager, Ariadne
Email: john.maccoll@ed.ac.uk
Date published: 
19 December 1998

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How to cite this article

John MacColl. "Of Arms and the Man We Sing". December 1998, Ariadne Issue 18 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue18/rusbridge/


article | by Dr. Radut