Thursday, July 31, 2008

University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

This visit provided the most extraordinary resource for my research, as the library lecturer who spoke to us, David McMenemy, has focused his career on public libraries. His expertise and research into the history and current state of public libraries in Britain were impressive, and while our previous site visits have been amazing, this one made a refreshing chang from the historical nature of those, providing us with topics more in line with what those of working in front line public service face every day on the job.

There are 4,515 public libraries and 846 academic libraries in the UK. The class was shocked to learn that there are no statistics on school libraries, because there is no requirement for public schools in the UK to have libraries. It made our struggle in the US to require all schools to have a certified library media specialist seem a little less desperate (although I'm still hopeful we don't give that fight up). In the face of continuing evidence of the positive effects of certified librarians on student achievement, this really was a surprise.
Libraries in Scotland and Wales are funded through their local governments, along with other public services, since devolution created separate parliamentary systems for the two countries in the late 1990s.
According to Mr. McMenemy, ther is currently a "crisis of confidence" among library professionals in the UK. The professional organization for librarians in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) has been trying to find a way to deal with the problem, but there is little involvement in the organization by the majority of UK librarians. Mr. McMenemy has attended ALA as well as CILIP conferences, and has found them to be completely unalike in terms of attendance, involvement, and enthusiasm. He did not go into great detail about the possible reasons for this feeling amongst librarians, nor did he discuss exactly what CILIP is trying to do about it. I wish now I had asked, but we were running behind anyway. I may email him about it later. It would have been very interesting to do comparative research on public librarians themselves, and the profession, rather than (or in addition to) services. That is the biggest problem with hearing about other people's areas of research: it makes me wish I could research several topics. In any case, whatever the reasons, I find it very sad that librarians here are feeling discouraged, or apathetic, or however it is they are feeling. I know there are a lot of problems in a large number of US libraries, too, that are making librarians feel disheartened; but it seems that the frustration, mainly directed at non-MLIS administrators, brings librarians together to fight for themselves, rather than giving up. I hope the profession in the US never reaches such a state.
So, Mr. McMenemy summed up the key professional issues facing public libraries in the UK today:
  • Significant drops in circulation
  • How to attract non-users
  • Coping with the digital divide
  • Deprofessionalization of libraries
  • How to measure library services effectively
This last point lead directly into the presentation by graduate student Christine Rooney-Browne, who is conducting research on exactly this issue. She treated us to a wonderful PowerPoint presentation outlining her project, called Measuring Social Value of Public Libraries. I did not take extensive notes on the presentation, because right from the beginning, I knew it was something I would be interested in having a copy of, which she readily agreed to provide for the whole class. Her main thesis was that the social value libraries provide can not be measured using traditional, market-based performance indicators; and, in fact, that applying such measures to public library services will lead in a dangerous direction, since this serves to overlook or devalue such outcomes as self-esteem and impact on community. Finally, she stressed the need to create a relevant model, so that these things can be measured.

Two other members of the department, Alan Poulter and Alan Dawson, spoke about two different areas of IT affecting libraries. Mr. Poulter discussed Forensic Informatics - simply put, tracing what people have been doing on a computer - and its use in public libraries an alternative to filtering as a way to prevent misuse of Internet computers. Mr. Dawson gave us an overview of some of the current technology-based projects and initiatives the university is involved in, including the Glasgow Digital Library. This project has published ebooks (in HTML) with linked indexing, and links to publications about digital libraries. One of the most interesting points he stressed was how little technology is required to accomplish this: "The key is not expensive equipment, the key is knowing what you're doing" (A. Dawson).

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