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10 April 2011

UKSG and the monks of Rievaulx Abbey

This is a library ... or rather, it used to be.  It was the library at Rievaux Abbey in the days when monks copied out manuscripts and stored them in a cupboard in the cloisters until political, religious, economic changes brought monastic life there to an end.

I visited Rievaulx this week, having just attended the UK Serials Group conference in Harrogate, a fantastic opportunity to catch up on recent developments in electronic publishing and librarianship.  So now I have a few thoughts to share.

John Naughton in his keynote speech emphasised how the web is of itself disruptive and unpredictable, something which perhaps we all sense but the implications of which John expressed very concisely.  Later, in his presentation, Sir John O'Reilly, Vice Chancellor of Cranfield University, emphasised the uncertainty engendered by proposed changes to the funding of UK universities.  Listening to them, I was reminded of discussions at the recent excellent symposium Personalised library services in HE, which discussed the opportunities for academic libraries to add value, tailoring their services more closely to the needs of their members, and especially how ebooks might fit into the "boutique" library model.

We've been dealing with the opportunities offered by the disruptive web for years, albeit with occasionally inadequate tools. inflexible institutional structures, and escalating prices for electronic products, especially ejournals. What the web should be offering the academic world (as it seems at the moment) is the opportunity for researchers and students to access a vast amount of material, to personalise and own content and to share it via social network tools. 

But a comment from the symposium stuck in my mind, about the negative impact of "irritants" - things that block effective use of libraries and put people off them.  With ebooks, irritants abound.  Librarians select and order content, publishers limit the titles they offer and/or access to them; finding them online requires lengthy treasure hunts with passwords and personal account creation as clues; viewing is clunky, and so on.  Of course, these obstacles are there for "good" reason : librarians order material to ensure the institutional spend matches its mission, publishers have responsitilities to profits and copyright, etc.

So I wondered where we should be going, given the uncertainties of the electronic future and reduced funding.  It seems to me that eventually we have to achieve a "just in time" model, where material is selected and ordered at the point of need by the reader for the period required.  Library staff would enable this establishing the licensing and budgetary framework within which it would operate, and would then be able to deploy ebooks as part of their boutique service; specialist knowledge would be crucial to its effective implementation. Print (via POD) and electronic could be provided according to individual need; the library "collection" would be an evolving and changing organism.  But how Cambridge achieves this just as funding becomes ever more restricted is a bit more than one blog post can describe ...

Visiting Rievaulx after the conference, I wondered whether the the last remaining monks felt the same sense of apprehension in 1538 as I do today, and what became of them when their beautiful monastery was destroyed.  Did they reinvent themselves, and if so, how?