Recreating the Academic Library: Breaking Virtual Ground

Derek Law (University Librarian and Director of Information Strategy, University of Strathclyde)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 June 2000




Law, D. (2000), "Recreating the Academic Library: Breaking Virtual Ground", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 4, pp. 197-206.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The New Library series

Arnold Bax memorably remarked that you should try everything once, except incest and folk‐dancing. This view is clearly not one shared by the editor of this book, who has assembled an in‐bred and introverted set of colleagues and friends whose collective folksie style first irritates then obscures any real meaning in a book as trite as it is ponderous. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the audience for the book is unclear. Some of the essays are general and futuristic, others attempt to assemble ten handy hints for the topic being discussed, others are review articles. Whether textbook, cookbook or a vision book is never quite clear.

The first impediment is the folksie style. What is presumably intended to make texts accessible varies from the bowel‐clenchingly inane – “drumroll please, although you know the word that’s coming, don’t you? TEAMWORK” – to the incomprehensible native dialect of North America – “you’ll still need multiple bodies to move from machine to machine kibitzing and deglitching” or “flexibility is the main blue flag that pops into my head”, and finally to an entire article which is only comprehensible to those with a detailed understanding of baseball terminology. Unless you know about Wheaties boxes, Letterman, triple plays and pinch‐hitting, or unless you can understand the sentence “If the signs a catcher gave his pitcher were as obscure as the Library of Congress Subject Headings are to most normal people, the average ERA in the major leagues would hover in the vicinity of 27”, this is not the book for you.

The second is the in‐breeding of several sorts. The authors have been chosen because they are good librarians known to the editor. Good practitioners are not necessarily good authors, nor are those coping well with current problems necessarily best placed to envision the future. The library here stands alone and there is no discussion of the future of the university; links to other departments such as the computer service, the estates department or staff development units are mentioned not at all and computing staff once and in passing; abroad does not exist and Tilburg, Follett, Singapore or Australia might as well not have undertaken their ground‐breaking work. This leads to grand sounding statements, which vary from the pompous through the risible to the wholly naive. Thus the pompous “It is a Darwinian struggle, to be sure, for the survivors of the infotech battles of this century will emerge into the new millennium as New Renaissance Librarians”, to the risible view of teaching users how to access the Internet: “Risk‐taking librarian‐teachers need support – for their bravery”, to the naïve: “By utilizing new improved search engines on the World Wide Web, a patron can now locate the exact piece of required information”.

Of course not everything is awful. An uncharacteristically ambivalent foreword from Dick De Gennaro is followed by a substantial and typically thought‐provoking piece from Clifford Lynch. This is followed by an article from Kupersmith entitled “Technostress in the Bionic Library” which relies heavily on psychobabble to make some sensible points. Possibly the best article in the book follows on leadership teams by Lee. Rettig takes an encouraging swipe at Negroponte in an article on methods for planning new buildings, but otherwise recommends Brand’s model of scenario planning. An interview with Harvard’s Human Resources Manager is anecdotal, patronising and terribly politically correct. Vasi looks at ergonomics and gives such wise advice as getting an electrician to comment on the safety of power connections.

The section on resources has three articles describing a lost and innocent world of libraries. ILL is seen as a hotbed of controversy, users come to the library to use the OPAC as a means of accessing the Internet and “the most challenging aspect facing technical services units in academic libraries today will be that of keeping pace with the continuous changes in technology and information sources.”

The section on training is rather more a practical guide to training although it fondly looks at gophers as a training medium. The several papers look at teaching classes face to face, computer‐based training modules and baseball. While helpful as giving basic advice – “know the appropriate break commands for telnet sessions” – they again describe an endearingly rose‐tinted world. Library Web pages will provide the unique entry point to the Web; course pages will be created jointly by faculty and librarians; libraries may have more or may have fewer physical users, but they “don’t see the types of users changing much. [Apart from] … cultural diversity, a variety of ages, a range of life experiences and many levels of computing experience”. How different from the home life of our own dear Queen. The final section looks at the needs first of external then internal users. Rockman makes the mistake of commending particular technologies – almost always a mistake since books take longer to publish than a typical technology lasts, while Kent bemoans the pressures on reference librarians, who are the first point of contact for users.

The odd gems in this book take a degree of searching for, and the book as a whole has little to recommend it. If you lead the sort of pressured life full of technostress which limits what you can usefully read to the best of current literature or, alternatively, if you have the time to explore the byways of professional literature, but require a fairly minimal degree of prose style to ensure enjoyment, spend the time reading something else. Trust me.

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