22 Nov 2018

Positioning the academic library within the institution; a summary



Guest Post by Michelle Breen, Head of Information Services at the Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick.

Things have never moved so fast, and things will never again go so slow. 

What a way to open an event!

This was one of the many memorable quotes in the day’s opening address, given by Pat Loughrey, Warden of Goldsmiths College. As CEO of the institute, he oversees academic and administrative activities at the college and he sees the leadership that the library brings, informed by our daily interactions with students as being a distinguishing attribute of libraries in the campus infrastructure. Pat remarked that it is known in many institutions that if you want to ‘take the temperature’ of the student body you just ask the library or the catering outlets. Pat also remarked that other support services on campus look to the library as a model for how to develop their service; anticipating student needs, acting on their feedback and moving away from the “we know what’s best” approach that might prevail in institutions that are in awe of their own history and foundations. A wider perspective than this can help library leaders – that’s all of us by the way – to become what Sarah Brown from the University of Queensland described as ‘University people’. Sarah talked about the ‘One UQ’ philosophy, meaning that all of what they do is in support of the institution’s mission. Northumbria, led by Tony Woolley, aligns all of its library activities firmly with the KPIs as set out in the University’s strategic plan. It is to this set of KPIs that we can look to for guidance when we ask ourselves “what can I stop doing”. Our library activities need to ALL be in some way connected to a University goal. If they’re not, should we be doing them at all? A compelling quote from the day was from John Cox’s talk when he quoted a book (from 2005) that encouraged us to be ‘University people first, Library or IT people second’. We will all have to read John’s article for the full reference!

The day’s first speaker Regina Everitt from University of East London described how she used the McKinsey 7S model to restructure her organisation. In ascertaining what skills set her teams had, Regina discovered that all had a common ‘customer facing’ outlook. Regina expanded on this so that the teams saw what they had in common and then worked to discover other common ground, “cross-identifying” so that they people could see that it was as valuable to be a service provider as to be a technical specialist.  One crucial thing that Regina found in her work was that our libraries need versatile people who can work outside their own specialty. Regina advocated getting teams talking to each other so that they can cross train but she emphasised the importance of and need for formal training also to help us develop the skills to support researchers as ably as we have been supporting students up to now.

Ruth Harrison, Head of Scholarly Communications Management, Library Services at Imperial College, London talked about changing the roles of the faculty librarians. Ruth’s article in the upcoming NRAL themed issue sets out the skills and competencies she thinks library staff need to have impact, citing excellent relationship management, good teaching skills, knowledge of Higher Ed and ability to converse with researchers about scholarly communication.

We heard from Lijuan Xu from Lafayette College about their functionalist approach with liaison librarians while also maintaining a focus on student support. Ithaka S&R noted in 2017 how subject expertise is valued but that researchers expect ‘sub-discipline’ expertise also from the library. You can get more detail on the talk but the general idea is that if a music librarian can give assistance in a general sense about music can they provide it at the same level about performance? Is this a realistic expectation for ALL of a University’s sub-disciplines and are libraries on a hiding to nothing if they persist with ‘subject’ expertise?  The inter-team discussions that Lafayette library now has, with librarians from cataloguing or other areas also being involved in supporting researchers, creates positive collaborative opportunities whereby a researcher could be put in touch with a library staff member that may not have or ever held a subject role but has knowledge, interest or expertise in the area being asked about.

Always a popular speaker, Róisín Gwyer from Portsmouth talked about librarians reinventing themselves by moving out of their areas, encouraging new roles for library leaders. Róisín referenced the SCONUL View from Above report that reports on the perspectives of senior leaders in universities about libraries.  For this report, 12 senior people were asked how they viewed library directors, what strategies library leaders can use in uncertain times, they asked questions about culture and how library leaders can move up to executive positions within institutions. I recommend having a read of the SCONUL report and Róisín’s article next month.

Sarah Brown from the University of Queensland described the hybrid model where subject librarians provide teaching, learning and research support. Training and placements, peer mentoring and the use of PDRs to identify training needs are all elements in the transformation of subject librarians to a more hybrid model at the University of Queensland. Sarah described the ways that the library facilitates knowledge transfer within their library team but emphasised that inter-team communication is vital to the continuing development of the individuals in the teams. Formal training is a must in the development of subject librarians if they are to support researchers; we can not create experts overnight. The library at the University of Queensland through its very strong relationship with their campus research office will deliver digital skills to PhD students and early career researchers. This moves the library and its staff up the value chain in the university, delivering what is prioritised and needed in their University right now. I really like the UQ motto, ‘One UQ’ and I would say it is fundamental to the success of their inter-departmental collaboration.

Cambridge’s Helen Murphy and Libby (Elizabeth) Tilley reported on what they called ethnographish research to find out how English and Arts faculty perceived the library. They focused on established faculty members and uncovered some really interesting stories to understand the experience of their academics. I must admit that the talks moved at an incredible pace and I did not catch all their examples but you can read about it yourself in NRAL in December.

John Cox opened his talk by saying that trends and pressures in Higher Education impact how the library positions itself.  John presented his detailed literature review article in a very clever way, choosing his top 10 quotes from his research as a summary of his work. There are thought-provoking insights in John’s paper including this quote from Murray and Ireland in a CRL article: “Academic libraries are no longer the symbolic heart of the University”. Lots of John’s points would be good conversation starters with senior university personnel.

Nick Woolley from Northumbria delivered an invited paper for the themed issue. He asked a couple of fundamental questions such as what is a library for? What is the value proposition? What does the library do for the institution? Northumbria created teams around their major value propositions including a Reading Lists team whereby any competent member of the team goes out and does the liaison work and can also be a technical contributor in the management of the reading lists.

Tim Wales, the Head of Library & Information Services at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire opened the afternoon session of the conference. This is Tim’s third role as a Library Director and he provided the audience with some practical insights on strategic planning gained through his experiences in quite different libraries. Tim’s article in New Review of Academic Librarianship describes how he used a reflective cycle model looking at his experiences at the three libraries in question and will be an interesting article to read for people who face a challenge about where to locate a library building, the merits of moving to a new site or refurbishing an existing library.

In summary
Michelle Blake from York posed a very direct question in the early stage of the day; why are liaison librarians slow to take on advocacy work with researchers? The libraries that have made strides in this area have reported that their staff are enjoying the change and the challenge that being a research support librarian can bring. Liaison librarians are very good at what they do but their contributions can go up a noticeable notch by focusing efforts on talking to early career academic and researchers about RDM, copyright, collections, licenses, and scholarly communications. What are we afraid of?

Much of what was discussed resonated with me because it was a definite theme in the research I did with Johanna Archbold about Amplifying CONUL’s voice. Our interviews for that project, with leaders of library organisations, particularly in RLUK, CILIP, LIBER & SCONUL, gave us insights in to how non library people view libraries. Our interviews revealed that libraries could be described as the black box of institutions, knowing what goes on, recording valuable information and being robust and fairly indestructible. The challenge we have is how we take advantage of this really unique position, how do we get involved in the management and leadership of those more tricky areas within the institution, lending our expertise where it is most valuable.

Throughout the day, over lunch and on in to the afternoon reception, there was serious chatter and networking and the hosts really looked after us well. Thanks to Leo Appleton and his team for hosting this most interesting event.

The seminar marked the launch of a special themed issue of NRAL which promises to be a very informative and useful set of papers on a very relevant topic to all academic libraries. This issue is due out in December, sign up on their website to receive an alert when it comes out.  Editor in chief of NRAL Graham Walton was OK with the fact that the journal does not have an impact factor as NRAL has enough altmetric data to confirm that the journal is being read and is making a very important contribution through its practitioner style publications from across the globe. Downloads are at about 3,000 per month at present and the journal has very international coverage and if the event at Goldsmiths is anything to judge by, the journal is still in a growth phase. The mix of international authors, many of them present at the event, is a strong signal that this journal has a global reach. The events speakers are all featured in the upcoming issue and today just gave a 10 – 15 minute snapshot of their research. Take a look at some of the tweets at #NRAlAcadLib to see how lively the conversation was on the day.

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