ALISS: Academic Librarians in the Social Sciences

Christine Dugdale reports on a conference held in the University of Wales, Bangor.

The 1999 Annual Conference & AGM of ALISS (Academic Librarians in the Social Sciences) was held at the University of Wales at Bangor 30 June-1 July.

The conference theme was the very current and increasingly important one of provision for non-traditional students in academic libraries. Indeed, the concept of flexibility and diversity in learning and the great variety found in today’s student population in the age of lifelong learning was highlighted at breakfast - before the conference actually started. The hall was full of a bewildering number of people of all ages - from school parties to the more ‘mature’ who appeared to be taking different outward bound courses as well as others who were merely enjoying Bangor’s summer holiday accommodation. The school parties, however, probably did not enjoy the same high standard of superior ensuite student accommodation as the conference delegates. This had superb views over the Menai Straits from the bedrooms and of Snowdonia from the kitchen.

All the speakers presented very informative papers about working examples, problems, experiences and demonstrations of initiatives with which they were involved to show how technology and new services could be introduced to help today’s students. They made a number of recommendations as to what changes should/could be made to increase students’ access to services and resources and the type of new services that could be introduced. It was very much a practical conference which discussed and demonstrated solutions for practising professionals.

Although the conference was about non-traditional students, it quickly became apparent from the papers that were presented that there was a great deal of confusion as to who and how many actually were non-traditional students. One speaker presented figures to illustrate the growing number of students in older age groups and of the growing number of part-time students. Sarah Ward, in talking about provision for non-traditional students at Sheffield Hallam University, suggested that it was difficult to identify distance learners. In an age of flexible learning a person might be defined as a ‘distance learner’ because they were physically distant or because they were studying at a distance. A home part-time student might feel dis-enfranchised if they were unable to enjoy any special provisions offered to distance learners although they were living at a distance. A number of other speakers and delegates made similar points about anomalies caused by changes in the make-up of the student population. Other speakers emphasised that, in practical terms, there was no such person as a traditional student in that many traditional students now had non-traditional attendance patterns.

It also became apparent that IT could provide access and learning enhancements or even solutions for some students, but that the introduction of IT ‘solutions’ could also give rise to difficulties and problems for others. It cannot be assumed that all staff and students wish to use IT. Nor can it be assumed that all have the same degree of knowledge and skill in using IT.

Ian Davidson, Community University Co-ordinator at Bangor very successfully set the scene in his intriguingly entitled paper, ‘From the finishing school to the service station: the policy context for lifelong learning’. He suggested that there was a basic degree of uncertainty within education, which effected provision in our libraries, as to where we are now and where we will be/wish to be in the future. Education must reflect the changes that are taking place in society - both in the work place and in the leisure sphere. The Government is trying to simultaneously address a number of issues such as upskilling, personal development and economic regeneration that encompass issues of citizenship and social inclusion. Academic librarians, as members of educational institutions, need to incorporate these issues into their policies about service provision and not act in isolation. Education must be in tune with changes in society. As librarians, academic librarians also need to initiate programmes that enable users to access the information and gain the skills that they will require for lifelong learning.

He listed some of the changes that are taking place in our educational institutions at the moment to facilitate a more flexible approach to learning. These included modularisation, credit accumulation and transfer, work-based learning and distance-learning. He suggested that, together, these led to a more abstract and/or diverse system of learning than the more traditional approaches pursued in the past towards educational patterns. There was a move from on-site tuition at a single institution over one block of time towards more flexible and distributed learning offered at different times by different institutions that were more geographically spread. These were often members of consortia and may be different types of institution.

Many of these thoughts were picked up and illustrated through descriptions of current initiatives by later speakers and in the workshop/discussion that took place on the first day. It was agreed that it was difficult to define and differentiate between traditional and non-traditional students and that there was a great need for IT training for all users - library and academic staff as well as students before IT could become an effective tool to help users to learn or to access and retrieve information available through our libraries. There is a great skill differentiation between different users as to both IT skills and research skills. A number of delegates felt that many users did have IT skills, but lacked the research skills to enable them to understand their own information and IT needs and to evaluate the information they retrieved. There was a tendency to value recall over precision.

The speakers represented a number of different approaches and initiatives which led to a very informative conference with speakers describing a wide variety of initiatives to help users. These ranged from plans to support distance-learners through greater flexibility in more traditional services such as posting loan copies of books to more innovative video-conferencing services.

Although a number of successful projects and working systems were described, notes of caution about using IT to help students also figured large. An IT system cannot be introduced as a blanket ‘solution’ for everyone without a great deal of help for all users and without the development of multi-disciplinary and multi-skilled teams working together. There must also be a blurring of workplace and university boundaries for part-time or placement students accessing study materials from work.

In describing successful learning support partnerships for distance learning at Bangor, Sian Edwardson, Jane Mannion & Eileen Tilley revealed a number of problems that had had to be overcome. Initially, only half the students on one course used the video-conferencing system. A number of issues were raised. In many cases, lack of use was due to the tutors not using the system because of their own lack of knowledge despite training that had been offered and received. Some students perceived the slowness of the system as a barrier and there were technical difficulties such as those of linking to some students and the fact that different students used different e-mail systems. Preliminary survey results, however, revealed that the system was successful when individual problems were addressed separately.

Kathleen Pounder from the web-based information skills teaching LIST project at Canterbury Christ Church University College also stressed that it is easy to overestimate the level of skills and knowledge that students might have and, therefore, to be over-ambitious as to what can be achieved through IT to help students. The demonstrated LIST web site appeared to be a very impressive site full of information skills help. Like all such systems, however, integration into course curricula would make it far more effective.

The conference provided some delegates with the opportunity to experience distance-learning through the medium of video-conferencing for the first time. This was scheduled to take place in Bangor’s impressive video-conferencing suite. Despite the high degree of expectancy, at first it seemed that we were to experience one of the barriers to using IT to support distance-learners at first hand when the telephone connection failed before Veronica Adamson of the University of the Highlands and Islands was able to address us! Ironically, this was due to a new telephone exchange being installed at Swansea and nothing to do the longer link between Wales and Scotland.

The Highlands and Islands project is not seeking to provide a virtual library, but to communicate and to help keep different groups and communities together in what is probably the largest educational group in Europe. It is very much a hybrid library - using existing print stock supplemented by digital information. Electronic information is not always the answer. It can be cheaper to buy multiple copies of items than to digitise a book and obtain copyright clearance, although electronic information is purchased whenever possible. Despite its many successes, however, the project still faces a number of problems. As with many innovative systems, these tend to be of a cultural rather than a technical nature. Although only four partners originally had electronic catalogues, they are hoping to have a new catalogue live as early as September and yet there is now some doubt as to whether it will be possible to issue a UHI-wide ticket as some institutions wish to maintain local identity

‘People’ problems, of course, loom large in the area of copyright. Gwenan Owen from UWB clearly illustrated the difficulties that might arise in the area of copyright whilst trying to provide additional help for the non-traditional student. There are issues around defining whether a ‘student’ not actually attending an institution is a registered student for the purposes of copyright. There are also a large number of unresolved issues around clearing copyright for digitisation to place material on a network to help distance learners. Copyright clearance is also a very time-consuming and potentially expensive problem for electronic reserves such as the ResIDe Electronic Reserve at the University of the West of England. An electronic reserve, however, does offer a number of advantages to address the issue of too many students chasing too few books in academic libraries. It also offers the potential to embed IT skills into teaching and information provision and to develop new partnerships between library and academic staff to achieve a variety of learning outcomes. These are beneficial to traditional and non-traditional students alike.

All-in-all this was a very valuable conference that produced much to think about. What emerged above all from this wide variety of approaches was the need to provide for flexible learning as opposed to traditional learning and to use IT intelligently and sensitively to support such an approach.


Further information about ALISS can be found at:

Author Details

Christine Dugdale

Email: Christine


Date published: 
Thursday, 23 September 1999
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