We all like to grumble about Safety Departments. They are a wonderful source of red tape – always fussing over unsound practices and health and safety rules. I think safety officers tend to have a slightly obsessive nature. This is a requirement for their role – not a personality bug but a vocational feature. You can spot this effect in other occupations, for instance traffic wardens need the ability to ignore all protestations, they must remain unswayed by smooth-talking wrigglers who parked in the bus lane or the disabled parking space.
suffer from exhibit their own annoying tendencies weaknesses unique strengths, principally a tendency to collect things. Today libraries play a key role in electronic information provision but typically libraries have also been the places that keep hold of stuff. They are the repositories, the places you expect to contain everything. This is changing as we move away from using printed resources in favour of using online resources. In the last five years I have probably thrown away more printed materials than my predecessors did in the last 50 years. This is material that will have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to acquire over the years but is now seen to have little or no value thanks to the ready availability of online journal archives.
I am a typical librarian, guided by a fairly cautious spirit with an impulse to avoid waste. If I am 99% sure that a run of journal issues will not ever be used then I will discard it. If there is any uncertainty then I prefer to just move it from our main library to our store and wait to see if anyone complains or notices. Up until now this approach has worked well and allowed me to create space in the library for new facilities, whilst maintaining resources in the background. I think a rich information environment, with both print and online resources available, is part of the added value of a Research Institute Library. It means that when someone wants an in-depth search into vaccine trials in Africa in the 1930s-40s we can hand search the Tropical Diseases Bulletin to find the reports of those trials. It means that when someone wants to read Claude Bernard’s classic book An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine I can pull a copy off the shelf for them. It means that if someone wants obscure but important documents in the history of TB or influenza I can go to our store and locate them. In short, we don’t just have information for today’s science but also we can tell the story of how science got where it is now. Though the older print material is infrequently used it is part of the scholarly atmosphere in the Institute. I do believe there is still a place for such a print collection, though the value is eroding as more digitised material becomes available.
- Even just a few years ago people came and sat down to read printed journals in the Library.
I followed the same cautious approach for our recent wave of journal moves. If a journal backfile was freely available in PubMedCentral or Highwire Press, or had been purchased (by ourselves or by JISC) then I felt confident in saying that we would never need the print copies again. This freed up 350 metres of shelf space and I felt proud of myself (in a biblio-barbarian kind of way). I will admit to an irrational element in my approach though. Since many of those journal backfiles were freely available right up to 2009, I should have discarded the print copies up to 2009. I did not do that, preferring a more conservative date of 1990. I was a little concerned that totally denuding the library shelves would create an ugly appearance, a vacuum. With no funding at the time to fill the space with new desks or carrels, I opted to leave some journal volumes in place. My barbarian nerve had failed me.
Now I have seen the error of my ways. I have steeled myself and started to throw out another 150m of journals, perhaps a bit more. I am still being slightly cautious – keeping journals from commercial publishers just in case they decide to do something difficult. (Sometimes what is available this year becomes locked behind a paywall, or a higher paywall, next year).
It will take a few more weeks to complete this disposal, but now I need to plan what to do with the space that will be freed up. We need to use the space to benefit the scientists here (we have no undergraduates). I would like the library to be a place for meeting and exchange of information, as it used to be in the days when everyone had to visit to check the journals. But if it is no longer essential for everyone to visit the library, is it realistic to think that it can ever again take this role? People still come to the Library regularly to work, but this is a smaller fraction. Would a fistful of technology attract people? Or colourful comfortable sofas? I wonder about trying to attract people by playing to our other strengths – science as culture, history of science, the NIMR identity and pride in its achievements. But these are usually optional extras, not anyone’s priority. If an activity does not contribute directly to the next grant or publication, then only a minority will be interested. My current thoughts are that we should increase the working space available and have some more casual seating areas for browsing.
I also plan to make our book collection more prominent. The books were hidden away in side rooms but they will now be brought into the main reading room, as part of our frontline collection. I’ve noted that the books do still draw people. I am weeding the books, so that the collection is tighter and more relevant. I will retain some interesting historical items. I hear that the Toronto University science library recently did something similar – using interesting and quirky books to draw people in.
The Library is a place of escape, a place to recharge batteries or intense thought/study. It is also one of the few ‘open’ places in the Institute and as such it usually gets shown (off) to visitors, so it needs to look good, not moribund. I want to keep the attractive appearance of the existing reading room and ideally create a modern look.
We will start to discuss ideas for the space in January. The solution is not obvious – we are not a university so have no undergraduates to cater for;we are not a hospital so have no clinical staff to cater for; the Institute does not need another training room or coffee bar. I read recently about the ‘Research Hive’ at the University of Sussex, but on closer inspection I realised that it offers little that we don’t already offer.
Any brilliant ideas would be welcome!