In defence of libraries

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Take a look at your college library, and what do you see? Is it a bustling centre of activity and learning? Or do you see a drain on your college's precious resources?

Some senior college managers hold the view that, since everything is now freely available on the internet, the library or learning resources centre is no longer as important to college life. This view is compounded by the fact that the college library service features very little in the current inspection regime and libraries are not seen to be contributing to the income of the college. I know of college libraries that have had their budgets slashed and have lost staff. A few colleges have closed their library completely.

In the age of the internet, colleges need their libraries and their staff more than ever. There is clearly a wealth of excellent information available on the web and plenty of students whose use of electronic resources adds enormously to their learning. But we still have a huge amount of work to do to persuade students to use the internet with a view to the quality of the information they are accessing. Their use is too often indiscriminate and unfocused, because often they have not been guided about the best ways to approach the information.

And this is where the library comes in. Library and learning resource staff know which resources are appropriate to their students' needs, which are good and which are not. The electronic resources that they make available have all been through the same quality-assessment procedures as the library's printed stock. Guiding students to these sources of information - teaching students what information can do for us and what it can't - is the key to harnessing the power of the web for all of us.

Library staff have the knowledge to be able to pass these skills on; many have even gained accreditation for the courses that they have developed, thus, in some cases, gaining funding for the college and also the respect of tutors who are happy to hand over this part of their busy role.

Many library staff are also providing staff development sessions and helping to ensure that high-quality resources are at the heart of them. In this way, they are promoting the library services that are available locally: in the staff room, in the classroom, at home and outside of library opening hours. The 247 library service.

Partnerships are growing, too, through the Exchange for Learning programme across dozens of colleges and universities where librarians and teachers are together creating learning materials in a range of subjects; negotiating with publishers and other content providers for use of some of their content in learning materials; providing staff development for teachers working on the projects in evaluating and extracting useful content for their learning materials; and writing reports and case studies to support the re-use of learning materials by teachers themselves.

But we need to continue to strengthen the links between teaching and library staff in order for our students to benefit. While teachers need to appreciate fully what a crucial role library and learning resource staff can play in this digital age, so the latter need to continue to gain the skills and the qualifications needed. In moving from the physical library to promoting library services that can be accessed from anywhere in the college, library staff need to be prepared to move out from behind the desk to make others aware of these services. They should be aware that funding for some of these activities might be available elsewhere, for example, the staff development department or marketing department, and that opportunities abound to sell these services to senior managers, inspectors and course verifiers.

The FE sector has undergone many changes in the past ten years, taking on new students and courses as the government agenda shifts. The use of electronic resources for learning is a huge change, and one that holds many opportunities for the college and its staff. I sincerely believe that we can rise to this challenge, and take full advantage of the opportunities to enhance our skills and services to become key agents for change.

Susan Eales is a qualified librarian, and is currently working at the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) as Programme Manager for X4L and Digital Libraries in the Classroom

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