Libraries and Learning

Richard Evans looks at the college library of the future

What should the library of the future look like in the further education sector? An important question that needs to be asked and answered by staff in the institutions within the new sector. The sector has at long last been recognised by the Government and has been required to expand its student numbers by 25 per cent over the next three years with 16 per cent additional resources over that period. It will play a significant role in achieving the National Education and Training Targets (NETTS) which set out the level and magnitude of the qualifications to be possessed by the country’s future work force. Some of the manifest problems which continue to blight this country’s education and training system must also be tackled by the sector along with other partners. We need to produce more highly qualified people, especially at the technician level, if we are to stand any chance of surviving in an increasingly competitive world which depend on products and services based on new technologies. This country must accept the shift that is required from manual skills to a high technical knowledge base.

The sector, like many other organisations, is confronted with rapid changes and a future possessing great turbulence and uncertainty. The only certainty is change, and this will continue at an ever-increasing rate. The sector must come to terms with the information technology revolution, the accelerating growth of knowledge and the increasing costs of book and non-book materials. Institutions must deal with these changes and attempt to obtain ‘value for money’ (VfM)whilst maintaining the quality of the service. The sector should ‘do more for less’ and continue to maintain and improve quality of service to all its users.

The library and other related learning resource facilities will need to make a significant and essential contribution to how the sector responds to these challenges. They are pivotal in any educational institution’s life and I would argue will become even more important in the future. The library and learning support services must be the hub of any learning institution. It is not insignificant that large private sector companies which have renewed investments in training have done so by establishing their own learning resource centres.

The accelerating growth of knowledge will have a major impact on the shelf life of learning material, both book and non-book material. It is now stated that the knowledge half life of an electronic engineer is four years and decreasing – many other disciplines are following that trend. This will impact on the world of work and its workers — they will need to be constantly updated and colleges will increasingly be required to provide retraining programmes. This, coupled with the expansion in the student population which will be much more differentiated, will present challenges to the management of learning and the way it is offered. Learning support material must be profiled to recognise this differentiation.

The sheer complexity of knowledge will also impact on colleges. Donald Hayes’ has published some interesting research into lexical complexity which raises some fundamental issues associated with the profiling and differentiation of information sources. In particular this issue presents difficulties to colleges who subscribe to specialist journals. These texts are becoming increasingly inaccessible to people other than those at the frontiers of their subjects. Technical journals especially in science are becoming more dominated by jargon and abstractions. This is perhaps acceptable for undergraduate students in the later stages of their studies or indeed for postgraduate students, but their value is questionable for FE students or those in the earlier stages of their HE studies unless the management is carefully selected, sequenced, catalogued and stored in ways which are easily accessible as learning resources. Journal subscriptions can present a significant proportion of the library’s limited budget and it is therefore essential that the learning resources are managed more purposefully and precisely and as a result achieve greater value for money. This will require effective partnerships between teachers and ‘library professionals’ who will need to constantly monitor, review and update the organisation and availability of the information sources within the constraints of the budget. Colleges will need to develop and more fully exploit partnership arrangements with Higher Educations Institutions (HEIs) and other colleges to maximise available material.

Returning to the question of lexical complexity, Hayes attempted to quantify this by analysing the proportion of jargon and uncommon words within various texts. He assigned an arbitrary scale for all English newspapers, zero being the average. Any value under 10 is considered a general read and values for a typical day (3 June 1992) were as follows:

Newspaper Value
The Sun -11.02
The Daily Express -2.7
The Economist 0.0
The Times +3.4
The Guardian +5.85
The Financial Times +9.6

Hayes extended his analysis to scientific journals. Nature, a journal commonly subscribed to by libraries has a lexical complexity of +40.0 and Scientific American, often perceived as reading material for the lay person has a value approaching +15.0. Other journals score in excess of +50.00.These high scores ensure that only specialists with an esoteric area can hope to comprehend the content of these journals. As mentioned above, colleges must rethink the purpose of purchasing and stocking such materials which are both expensive and bulky. Colleges must surely invest in generalised/less specialised monographs and when required draw on their partnerships for the more specialised materials. It is therefore essential that colleges operate and subscribe to valid and reliable databases networked between partners.

The institution of the future must be more student/learner centred and such a principle is enshrined in the philosophy of library and support services. Colleges need to give these services greater emphasis in order to radically reform traditional ways of operating. Colleges must shift from course based provision to individual learning self motivator programmes for its students. The services must be easily accessed and provide a quality service to all users, both internal and external, and be delivered on a basis of value for money.

The continued high cost of books and especially journals will mean colleges will have to resort to other forms of providing this material. They will increasingly develop links with other institutions and need to exploit networks more fully. Even universities are finding it difficult to maintain vast collections of specialist journals — many of which are seldom used and occupy valuable space. Consortia agreements could mean institutions agree to purchase certain journals and books whilst the others link electronically with them to retrieve the material. Networks like JANET promise much and will become more important. Colleges in the FE sector will face the same problems as the universities, even if they are on a different scale. Institutions in the sector which offer Higher Education provision must link with local HEIs to improve the learning support services,- they have no alternative. If the colleges are operating franchised programmes of study or ‘2 + 2’ programmes, then it is essential such arrangements exist.

One stark factor is that the library and learning environments of the future need more user spaces and must not be cluttered up with rows of shelves, many carrying material which contains redundant and/or obsolete information and which is infrequently accessed. Learning material must be maintained and continually audited -quality standards should be set. Examples of such standards could be: how old is the book, how often has it been taken out over the past three to five years? Learning support staff should play an important part in maintaining these standards. They should not be fobbed off by teaching staff who inevitably want to collect massive collections of questionable material and boast about the ‘number of volumes’ to visiting revalidation or validations panels. The quality of the material should override the quantity. Books could be removed from the main study areas and kept in ‘book stores’ for easy and rapid retrieval on request. This would release valuable space for the learners.

The other developments, like college-wide or local computer networks, will greatly assist the learning process. The increasing introduction of CD-ROM will revolutionise much of the way learning is managed. This technology possesses many advantages: it is small and compact, can be simultaneously accessed by the learners by way of networks and the relative cost compared with book material is decreasing. Computer scanning techniques will condense all the bulky journal and book material thereby making more effective and efficient use of space.

Increasingly with more flexible learning approaches multi-media techniques will be introduced which will offer exciting learning opportunities to students whether college/dis-tance/home based. Again, the staff in the learning support areas of colleges have a major role to play. Librarians should become information providers and assist to facilitate learning.

So what should the college’s learning support services look like in the future? The college should develop what I call the ‘model of complementarity’. There should be a significant central facility which can be open throughout the learning day and year. Both these will need to be extended to cope with the expansion in student numbers and the new needs of the learner. Such a central facility brings about many benefits such as better security and economy of scale. In addition the central service should be complemented by a series of other units, both general and more specialist. The network so established could be linked by computer networks, either college-wide or more locally, depending on purpose.

College managers must recognise the importance of the library and the learning support services and broadcast that fact in their institutional mission and make the necessary resources available. The staff must be supported by up-to-date training and this includes the traditional teacher/lecturer. Like the FE sector, the learning support service has come of age.

Lexical Complexity – see for example D. P. Hayes. ‘The Growing Inaccessibility of Science.’ Nature. Volume 356. 1992

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