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INFORMATION SERVICES: THREAT OR OPPORTUNITY?

ABSTRACT

Information Services Directors in United Kingdom universities are now faced with a new threat: submergence in paper and electronic data. The introduction of electronic aids, from publishing to e-mail, has actually increased the amount of information to be handled by staff and students in higher education. This presents a very real risk that depth of scholarship will be subordinated to volume of activity. Information Services Directors may actually be adding to the problem by their quest for improved information handling. But is it in fact a problem? And if so, what should be done about it?

DEFINITIONS

It is emphasised that the views following are those of the speaker and they are not made with any reference to views or activities being undertaken by any other person or institution.
Information is one of those words of obvious meaning: "telling", or "what is told", or "knowledge", or "items of knowledge", or "news". Information services in higher education usually refers to the collection, cataloguing and promulgation of information, the media involved and the personnel who effect these processes. Within this context, information is probably best defined as "items of knowledge" or "news".

QUESTIONS

In the area of information services, two questions need to be addressed:
  • what does "Networked Information in an International Context" mean for information services?
  • what is being done about the threat or opportunity which this may represent?

INFORMATION STRATEGY

The sometimes unseemly scramble at many institutions to force convergence of Library and Computing Services is a partial recognition of the possibilities now emerging for a management strategy for information and its means of distribution. The recent JISC document on Information Strategies has focused attention on this area and on the need to include all sources of information in this strategy. Thus, Library and Computing Services, though the main players, should be joined by MIS, Public Relations and AVS in the formulation of any information strategy, since they are all services in which knowledge and news play an essential role. It is worth noting that although these services are already linked strategically this does not necessarily mean that their management is linked. This may, however, be an outcome of an information strategy.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE WEB

The advent of Internet and the World Wide Web has changed customers’ perceptions and requirements to such an extent that they now see many information providers (and their staff) as a hindrance rather than as a help. Enquiries for guidance to knowledge are being superseded by requests for connection only and this, understandably, is leading to severe loss of morale by dedicated library staff.
In addition, information service providers are themselves being inundated by an increasing influx of information, both paper-based and electronic (e-mail, the Web - and even the telephone and fax). Information professionals are increasingly under pressure with respect to their own information handling circumstances at a time when the need to understand and respond to customer needs is greater than ever. The result is maximum activity and minimum thinking. Sir Brian Follett remarked upon the influence of the "newspaper mentality" upon scholarly publications and voiced fears for their future. In the very near future, crucial questions to consider will be:
  • is the "activity effect" reducing depth of scholarship for staff and students?
  • is the inability of information providers to make rapid changes - exacerbated by factors such as lack of funding and, perhaps, fear of change — creating a learning gap for students?
  • how can these potential problems be circumvented by taking the opportunities offered by new media and materials?

REACTION

There is a perceived move by academic professionals to contain the increased workload (the number of students, for example, has increased by over 50% in the last two years) by setting courses which require little or no supervision. This involves greater use of resource centres, or establishing them in libraries where they have not yet been installed.
This is expected to be achieved, however, in a climate of rapidly declining financial support for capital projects and ever-tightening budgets — i.e. with little prospect of additional staff or other guidance resources, no new accommodation, or new equipment.
The aspect of collaborative working by students, in project or work groups, only addresses the fringe of the problem. Leaving students to find their own way through information gathering, without guidance from either faculty or information professionals, carries a great risk of lack of depth in scholarship. For a university with a record of high achievement in research, this would be particularly galling. To some extent this could be mitigated by Quality Assurance techniques, but unless a structured approach to group learning, with guidance, is devised, there is a very real danger that significant scholarship potential will be lost.

THREATS TO OPPORTUNITIES

Any set of problems like this invites initiatives - a chance to turn threats into opportunities. The question, however, is what initiatives would be applicable?

Control

It has been suggested by many people that a way of controlling access to the Web, and of insertion of information into the Web, needs to be found and applied. This would have an immediate effect on the volume issue (and calm senior administrators’ minds regarding outsiders taking legal action against universities), but given the nature of the Web, and despite legislation being considered in the United Kingdom and the United States, it is not a practical proposition.

Co-operation and Distribution

Collaboration via network access can involve many types of organisation, including collaboration with public libraries, museums, television and communications companies and other educational establishments. It can also take many forms - the development of Metropolitan Area Networks in Scotland being a good example to emulate, and in particular, SCRAN, the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network.
The increasing collaboration of librarians and computer professionals ("computarians") has complementary elements, in that librarians like to categorise while computarians like to facilitate and to control physical resources. On the one hand, the free and easy access to networked information may be compromising categorisation and, on the other, the demise of the mainframe, coupled with on-line access and updating, may be infringing the territory of the computarian. Co-operation may counter these trends and reverse the loss of control which might so easily equate to loss of scholarship.

REVIEW

Opportunities need to be taken to review the situation in-depth (as an outcome, perhaps, of TLTP and in eLib - some of the projects of which deal with this theme). There is also the prospect that digital library resources might change attitudes to network surfing. At least a number of projects are pointing in the right direction.
What must be prevented at all costs is centuries of scholarship becoming a "fashion boutique" occupying "niches" on the super highway to nowhere.

FURTHER INFORMATION  

Further information is available from Max Depree