New ways of addressing the 'access versus holdings' debate were explored in March at the annual meeting of the University, College and Research Group of the Library Association, held at New Hall College, Cambridge. The topics covered included electronic access, user education, the difficulties faced by distance learners, staff development, budget management and undergraduate access to networked learning resources.
These issues were explored during an intensive three day programme of papers and workshops (and over the odd glass of wine). There were also opportunities to visit the new library buildings at Jesus College, St. John's and the Squire Law Library - buildings designed with some of the features of the 'electronic library' in mind.
The popularity of the 'access' theme, and its ever-increasing relevance to information professionals in the light of the Follet Report, was demonstrated by the fact that over 200 delegates travelled from all over UK to participate in this event (and from further afield - with representatives from Austria, Eire, France, Hong Kong and India).
Thursday 28th March
After a train journey that began at 6 a.m in Dundee I arrived in Cambridge in the early afternoon feeling as if I had travelled from Outer Mongolia rather than the East coast of Scotland. However, after registration I still had plenty of time to find my room, shower, have a coffee and begin to look over some of the literature that had been provided on arrival.
The conference began with Lynne Brindley (Librarian and Director of Information Services, British Library of Political and Economic Science) defining the parameters of the access/holding debate in the Keynote speech. I was particularly interested in her views on the barriers to full implementation of the access model (technical, economic and legal factors and structural issues within libraries themselves) and the strategies, technologies and resources to overcome them. It was also useful to be reminded that the 'just in case vs just in time' debate could prove more important than the 'print vs electronic' argument, and that arguing for electronic access does not necessarily mean arguing against acquisitions.
A very entertaining paper followed on the planning and design of academic libraries. Andrew McDonald (Director of Information Services, University of Sunderland) outlined the key principles and examined some of the problems of providing an accessible learning space for users in the electronic age. A large number of slides depicted some of the successful and not-so-successful design features of old and new libraries from around the world. The graphic illustration of the 'not-so-successful' ones was the cause of much hilarity and in some cases disbelief. My only gripe was that Glasgow Caledonian University was placed 'in England' - but this was corrected in good-faith after protests from the relatively small but vocal Scottish contingent!
The formal presentations for the day were now over and it was time for some activities of a more social nature. First, an early-evening reception organised for 'first timers' to the annual UC&R Conference. This was an excellent idea, especially for anyone like myself who initially found the sheer number of unfamiliar faces a bit daunting. Then a very enjoyable Dinner and lastly, and rather unsteadily, onto the exhibitors' reception for a look around the stands.
Friday 29th March
The second day''s proceedings were kicked off with an report on the current status of the eLib Programme from its Director, Chris Rusbridge. A year after the Follet Implementation Group in IT issued a call for proposals within seven programme areas, over 40 projects are now up and running. Satisfaction was expressed at progress made so far. But thoughts are already turning towards the next stage, with funding being made available for further projects in the areas of grey literature, quality assurance and electronic reserve collections. Turning projects onto actual services and deliverables was identified as the key to the longer-term success of the programme, along with an ability in the academic library community to harness the potential of new technologies and to embrace a deep-seated culture change.
From the big picture to the specific - a talk on the ELINOR project presented by Anne Ramsden (Project Co-ordinator at De Montfort University Library) which has already converted over 120 'high use textbooks' at De Monfort into electronic format for network access. The copyright and licensing aspects of this type of venture were, judging by the number of questions from the floor, of great interest to the conference (particularly the process of negotiating individual agreements with the publishers involved, the various licensing options available and copyright monitoring).
The first of two workshops I participated in was led by Eric Davies (Department of Information and Library Studies, Loughborough University). Using the heading of 'Undergraduate access' a useful discussion and exchange of ideas/experience developed on the use (current and future) of campus networks to deliver a whole range of sources (information, teaching materials) to learners.
I also managed to get a place on one of the Netskills workshops (these proved to be very popular - the available places being taken very quickly after registration). The Netskills project (http://www.netskills.ac.uk/) is funded under the eLib programme to provide training to librarians and other information specialists in making effective use of the Internet. After a presentation on the programme itself some Internet searching techniques were demonstrated and I came away armed with useful new knowledge about the major world wide web search engines.
The evening began with the conference dinner (I couldn't comment on the after dinner speakers as the acoustics were truly dreadful and I didn't hear a word) and ended on a successful note for those from north of Hadrians Wall in the pub quiz. The 'Low Flying Scots' team fought against impossible odds in true Braveheart spirit to win £100 of book tokens (donated by Dillon's who sponsored the conference) and a bottle of champagne. Excellent.
Saturday 30th March
Up early (bright eyed and bushy tailed of course) to visit the Squire Law Library. In July 1995 the library moved from its previous Victorian home to an avant garde building designed by Sir Norman Foster. An impression of spaciousness was contrived through an imaginative use of glass walls and open-plan floors which almost seemed to hang suspended in a void. The books, meanwhile, were so compactly stored as to be hardly noticeable. This library was definitely different.
I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at this conference. The programme was well organised with a good mix and choice of presentations, workshops, visits and social events. My only regrets were that:
- I didn't get a chance to have a proper look around Cambridge. An opportunity missed.
- it was not possible to attend more of the events. Delegates only had three 'slots' in which to choose between seven different workshops and three visits to new libraries. Suffice to say that some hard choices had to be made.
- I had to miss the penultimate and concluding papers on Saturday as I had to catch a train that would get me North of the Border sometime before Christmas. I know, I should have flown. Perhaps next time!