Research Support Libraries Group Call for Evidence
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Research Support Libraries Group call for evidence. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience in this area.
The RSE welcomes the establishment of this new strategic advisory group and the development of a national plan for library and information resources. Library research support, however, must be viewed from an international viewpoint as research library co-operation has for decades been an international practice, and this must be given every encouragement to continue. The plan should also take account of devolution through liaison with Scottish Executive initiatives such as ‘Digital Scotland’. In this context, a ‘one plan suits all’ approach might not be the most effective and will need to encompass university and national libraries as well as a variety of other bodies.
The specific questions identified in the consultation document are addressed below:
What are the needs of UK researchers, working at the forefront of their discipline, for access to research information sources?
The answers to this question will vary between different subject groups. In the Sciences, the information technology revolution has had an enormous impact. Networked journals and research reports, and the facility for electronic conferencing and instant communication with other researchers world-wide, has transformed research in the sciences. The major information focus for most researchers in the sciences remains the academic journal, which is increasingly expected to be delivered to their desktops in electronic form and which can be searched with powerful engines. However, scientists also need electronic access to published proceedings, to various databases, to reference data, to ‘grey literature’ and to trade and technical literature including patents and standards. While for most researchers the currency of information is vital, some groups, for example mathematicians, regularly consult papers which are 30 or more years old. In most subjects, however, only a limited amount of material is available in full text form prior to 1997, and it is unclear to what extent commercial publishers will be willing to provide or maintain electronic archives of literature in the longer term, as usage levels decline. UK scientists will, therefore, require increasing access to the various computing skills to access these electronic records, and a base from which to work, but demands for a conventional library with stack-rooms, as currently replicated in many universities and hospitals, may decline.
In the Humanities, and to a considerable extent in the Social Sciences, the situation is different, with currency of information being less of a factor, with a continuing need for access to 'original' material of considerable diversity. The technological revolution has, however, benefited the humanities too, by making possible networked catalogues of libraries and archives, and electronic full-text versions of rare books and manuscripts. Far fewer researchers in the arts and social sciences, however, have immediately available the sort of equipment which allows them desk-top access to electronic information, especially if such information requires sophisticated manipulation of images.
How do you envisage them developing over the next ten years?
Over the next ten years, scholars across all disciplines will wish to make more effective use of information technology, and, especially in the sciences, electronic journals will become an increasingly important source of information. The need for very rapid access to large quantities of data will also increase. In the arts, the demand for growing back-files of digitised texts, photographs and films will increase as departments shift their thinking towards using electronic sources and the sophistication of software to bring these forms together in a virtual learning and research environment will be crucial in stimulating demand. It may be unrealistic, however, to think of converting all possible materials to electronic form, or even providing microforms or photocopies routinely for what may be a once-in-a-century need. The UK should also be working with other countries and international agencies in developing standards for non-national content and the use of metadata standards at international level.
What provision is required to meet these needs?
The move from holding to access, from ownership to licensing and from multiple providers of information to large international aggregators requires a new approach to the acquisition of information. For small or large institutions, researchers often require access to a wide rage of literature from outside their own main discipline, which can often be difficult for their libraries to provide. The most effective way of ensuring that universities of all sizes can provide a suitable library service would be through a centrally-funded national site licence for a critical mass of data sets and electronic journals. This would provide access to this material, free-at-the-point-of-use, to staff and students in all higher education institutions. In this, as in other areas, it is questionable if the UK is significant enough to challenge multi-national aggregators on its own with any chance of success. The need to work collaboratively with international agencies is, therefore, very important. Such a national site licence could be EU, UK or Scotland-wide. Training and awareness will also need to be provided to researchers to allow them to make best use of the electronic resources available.
New modes of delivery of information, however, will not necessarily eliminate older ones, but simply add to the richness of accessibility. Researchers will, therefore, still want access to print material, as well as easy access to electronic resources. Libraries should find better ways of promoting reciprocal access arrangements to researchers (who can often be ignorant of them) and, in this context, the facility to search a number of library catalogues at once would be valuable.
The role of libraries outwith the public sector should also be remembered. In some instances university libraries have taken private and semi-private libraries under their wing or even taken them over and maintained them at their own cost for the benefit of researchers, but there are many instances where unique resources remain in private hands, their catalogues, where catalogues exist, not available on the internet, their collections deteriorating. An example of such a situation is provided by the many library collections based (but not readily accessed) in stately homes, some under private ownership and some managed by the National Trust. Mechanisms for identifying such collections and funding their cataloguing and conservation, as initiated by the British Academy, should be increased. Similarly, societies and institutions outwith the Higher Education sector which are building databases of research sources in their fields need to be encouraged to make them publicly available.
Another important issue is that funding for conservation will become more urgent, not only the meticulous restoration of rare documents but also the routine rebinding of nineteenth and twentieth century books and journals, especially those published in the years of wartime restrictions and post-war poverty. Copying, by whatever means, puts a strain on the original and the likely escalation of conservation costs in research libraries with the increasing ease of research and growth in the number of researchers has to be considered.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: The British Library’s Strategic Review (September 1998); The Learning Process in 2020: Point and Click - learners in the ICT driving seat (October 2000) and Devolution and the Arts, the Humanities and the Social Sciences (May 2001).