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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

The Development of Education and Research for the Electronic Library: Opportunities and Challenges

Ian M. Johnson
Head, School of Information and Media,
The Robert Gordon University,
352 King Street,
Aberdeen AB24 5BN,
Great Britain
E-mail: i.m.johnson@rgu.ac.uk


This paper briefly reviews the emergence of the electronic library in Europe during the last 25 years, the efforts of national and international, governmental and non-governmental agencies to promote it, and the response of the Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies. It focuses on the efforts of the British Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies to develop education and research for the electronic library, not only in Britain but also in the context of collaborative activities in both Western and Eastern Europe. It considers the relatively small number of specialist teaching programmes which have been developed, and outlines the Schools’ limited involvement in the wide range of research initiatives. The paper then discusses the challenges faced by the Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies: the need for adequate technical and human resources; and the nature of current research and development activity. The paper concludes with some observations on the action which needs to be taken to enhance their role, particularly in establishing partnerships with other disciplines and institutions, and in lobbying government for greater recognition.



During the last few years, the European Commission has been increasingly active in its attempts to encourage the development of the Information Society. A couple of years ago the Commission established a High Level Expert Group to consider the social and societal aspects of the Information Society. In their first report, “Building the European Information Society for us all”, they commented that “Further expansions of efforts to improve and match both demand and supply in ICT [Information and Communications Technologies] training are needed, at both member state and the EU levels, through a combination of E&T [Education and Training] policies with social, cultural and industrial policies.”(1)

The starting point for this paper is a concern that Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies are not playing the role they might be expected to play in the emerging Information Society, and specifically that they are not sufficiently involved in supporting the development of the electronic library. To explain these concerns, it will be necessary to review the developments which have taken place in teaching, and the extent to which the Schools are involved in relevant research activities.

This review will focus on the British Schools of Librarianship in their national and European context, partly because the author is more familiar with them, but also because the British Schools appear as advanced as any in Europe, and more than most. The position of the British Schools may therefore emphasise the opportunities and challenges faced by Schools throughout Europe, and indeed on a global basis.

The aim of the review is to highlight what appears to be necessary action on the part of the Schools, and other agencies, if they are to play a more integral part in future developments.

The paper begins with brief definitions the “electronic library”, to establish the context of the paper. It then moves to consider the response of the Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies in Britain, in terms of the development of their teaching, and the emergence of new, specialised programmes. The paper then goes on to outline the range of support for research and development which is available relating to electronic library developments, and discusses the involvement of the Schools with these initiatives. Finally, it outlines the challenges which the Schools appear to be encountering in seizing these opportunities for advancing the profession, and some actions which appear necessary if real progress is to be made.

The electronic library

Interest in the electronic library environment has recently been stimulated by a number of developments, notably by the increased access to the Internet in the last few years. In particular, there has been a greater attention by the media, stemming from increased public access to the Internet. However, the application of computers and telecommunications to library and information services is not a new phenomenon. The electronic library environment has gradually emerged in Britain over a thirty year period, during which there has been a continual re-evaluation of library education and training programmes with a view to bringing about changes in curricula and in instructional and teaching methods. In that context, there appear to be some advantages in briefly considering in their entirety the developments which have taken place to facilitate an understanding of what is happening now and needs to be done to secure the future.

Information technology has come a long way in the last 30 years. Thirty years ago, a few libraries in Britain were experimenting with locally developed computerised indexes and catalogues. Turnkey automated library housekeeping systems are now widespread in large library systems, and microcomputer based systems are being implemented by some - but by no means all - smaller libraries. The first publicly available on-line information systems came into use in Europe more than 20 years ago, at about the same time as other forms of library automation became common. It was very encouraging that end-users began to see the potential benefits from on-line information retrieval where they might previously have ignored the literature completely, and the provision of on-line information services appears to have served as a spur to the use of secondary, paper-based information sources, and growth in the job market for graduate librarians. Similar responses are being evoked by CD-ROM services.

Microcomputers were a relatively new invention in the late 1970s. Today they are widely available, but the large library systems are only just beginning to break away from a dependence on mainframe based systems. The spread of the Internet has been supported by rapid growth in the number of microcomputers and Local Area Networks in the last couple of years. Librarians have been at the forefront in establishing bulletin boards, discussion lists, newsgroups, and home pages on the World Wide Web. It is librarians who are beginning to make the greatest impact on bringing some order to the task of finding information on the Internet.

Having said all this, it is important to recognise that it is not possible to make sweeping generalisations about the state of development of libraries and librarianship in Britain. The public library system, and many small specialist information services, still remain relatively underdeveloped in this respect.

Development of I.T. education

The response of all the British Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies was considerable and continual revision of existing curricula and teaching methods. In the early period of development, generous funding of the experimental introduction of electronic services and of teaching electronic systems had a helpful effect.

These early developments did, however, highlight the difficulty of developing staff knowledge and skills, and the considerable cost of maintaining an up-to-date technical base in a fast changing environment. In the mid-1980s, the government was persuaded to examine a number of subjects in higher education in which some tensions between traditional approaches and contemporary practice were emerging. Some astute lobbying resulted in the establishment (1986) of a national review of education for librarianship and information studies, the Transbinary Group, so-called because its remit covered not only the Universities, but also other government funded higher education institutions. This ultimately recommended that funding for teaching librarianship and information studies should be increased, to bring it in line with the level of support for teaching computer science. This effectively almost doubled the money available. Under recently proposed changes (1997), funding levels would revert to their former level. Naturally, these are being disputed.

One immediate benefit of the increased funding was a higher level of equipment provision. This in turn facilitated some new programmes of study.

It is interesting to note that the most recent developments - in London, Aberdeen and Sheffield - have been achieved in collaboration with Departments of Computer Science. Most fascinating is the recent decision by the University of Brighton to divide its computer science department into two groups, and attach one of those groups to the former School of Librarianship and Information Studies. The results of that merger have yet to be seen.

Development of I.T. research

The emergence of the electronic library in Britain, and indeed throughout Europe, owes much to the efforts of national and international, governmental and non-governmental agencies to promote it. The next part of this paper outlines some of their research and development initiatives, and the extent to which the Schools have taken up the opportunities.

Perhaps the agency most widely known funding research and development activities in the Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies is the British Library Research and Innovation Centre, established as the Office for Scientific and Technical Information, and later reformed as the British Library Research and Development Department. However, this has a relatively small annual budget of about £1.6 million, less than half the amount available in real terms some twenty years ago when OSTI was transferred to the British Library.

Fortunately, Britain has a well established and strong network of Research Councils, and two have played a part in supporting research in our field. The Science and Engineering Research Council, now the Electronic and Physical Sciences Research Council, was active in funding computerised information retrieval research, but no longer sees this as a major priority. The Economic and Social Research Council has sponsored two programmes of activity - the Programme for the Information and Communication Technologies, and the Virtual Society programme, which have been examining the impact of the new technologies. Not one School of Librarianship and Information Studies has had a research grant from the ESRC.

More recently quite significant funding has been made available to the Joint Information Systems Committee by the Higher Education Funding Councils for two programmes of activity which stemmed from the ‘Follett’ report on Academic Libraries. In the first of these, e.lib, some 40 projects have been funded, but only 4 involve Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies. The outcome of the new Digital Libraries programme remains to be seen.

Two other relatively well funded government R&D programmes are those sponsored by the Department for Trade and Industry. Again, not a single grant has been awarded to a School of Librarianship. There were no representatives of the Library and Information Science profession invited to serve on the Technology Foresight advisory panel for Information Technology, which seeks to identify strategic areas for growth in the British economy. It is not difficult to predict the likely outcome of applications to that body for funding for R&D projects in our field.

The European Commission’s research and technological development programmes represent a major source of funding for research in our field. Overall, the Commission’s annual RTD budget amounts to about $4 billion. A large element of that is focused on strengthening the IC&T industry and promoting applications of IC&T. Nonetheless, I can trace only one major award to a British School of Librarianship and Information Studies from the IMPACT programme, one, recent award from ESPRIT, and one from the TELEMATICS for Libraries programme.

The Commission also sponsors a number of other programmes focused on educational or technical cooperation. In the ALFA programme with Latin America, only two British Schools have a joint project, and that is not focused on the electronic library developments. In INCO-DC, the programme for international cooperation with developing countries, there are no signs of activity. However, there have been three projects funded by the PHARE programme in the former Soviet Union (TACIS) and in Central and Eastern Europe (TEMPUS). These link Schools of Librarianship in developmental activities which focus on applications of IT, albeit at a relatively low level.

UNESCO is increasingly interested in informatics, and has recently reorganised the General Information Programme (PGI) and merged it with the Informatics programme. PGI has one experimental programme specifically focused on Schools of Librarianship, SLISNET - and a British School is a founding member - but that project has recently suffered cuts in its modest budget.

Elsewhere, the British Schools are not to be seen in the international activities of major private donors such as the Soros Open Society Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation, who are doing much to support the development of electronic libraries in Europe.

Issues to be resolved

It is quite dispiriting to note the low level of involvement by the Schools of Librarianship in the numerous research and development activities which facilitate the development of the electronic library, or more broadly underpin the emergence of the Information Society. As teachers, we have a duty to stimulate the next generation of practitioners, to excite them about new and potential developments, and to encourage them to be innovative. How can we do this if we are detached from the leading edge of professional practice? Indeed, can our teaching remain credible, let alone develop, if we are not wholly engaged with practice?

The question must be asked - why are the Schools not more actively engaged in the research?

There are a number of problems to which we can easily point:

Being seen to be teaching this subject has raised the profiles of the Schools of Librarianship within their host institutions in a very positive way, but the increased cost of teaching the subject has also had negative effects during a period when funding higher education has become a problem for governments. The impact on the existence of some of the Schools has been well documented: some were closed; others have been submerged in larger disciplines. How can we persuade institutional managements that the cost of operating Schools with relatively higher costs than in the past is justified if we are not engaged in high profile research?

The need for students to develop some practical skills in using the new technology revived an old issue - the balance between theory and practice in education for information and library studies. For example, the place of teaching on-line in the curricula of the Schools of Information and Library Studies has been and continues to be a matter for debate. Some teachers believe that practical experience should be provided by employers through short training courses related to specific service providers or databases. On the other hand, many employers, especially in the special library sector, prefer to employ new staff who have already had ample experience of on-line searching. This has turned into a broader debate on the experience of teachers of librarianship as practitioners, and the extent of their involvement in current practice. How best should the Schools maintain and develop the professional competence - and credibility - of their staff?

Can the Schools in fact achieve this aim if they concentrate solely on teaching? What are the implications for those Schools which are discouraged by state regulations from engaging in research?

One might also ask what are the implications for research if the academic community is not involved?

Will research funding be diverted into the development of ‘demonstrator’ projects which benefit only those few organisations fortunate enough to attract the funding? Experience in Britain suggests that new money has been found for experimental projects concerned with electronic libraries but most of them are taking place without the involvement of the Schools of Librarianship. What will the impact of these demonstrator projects be on students in the Schools?

Will the level of funding for real research be sustained? It might be argued that one reason for the decline in the funding available to the British Library Research and Development Department over the last 20 years was that it was very difficult to defend a large budget for which there were few good applications. It is only in the last few years, when all the former Polytechnic Schools have been granted University status and encouraged to do research that that budget has come under pressure - both fiscal and political.

Towards a solution?

The students who enter our universities this Session will be practising as professional librarians almost into the second half of the next century by which time the electronic library will be an everyday reality for them all. Clearly, we have a responsibility to review the institutional and governmental mechanisms for financial support for teaching and research in Librarianship and Information Studies; to identify the barriers to the Schools’ involvement in electronic library research; and to stimulate discussion on the action necessary to enhance the Schools’ contribution to the teaching and research which will facilitate the development of the Information Society.

In the short term, perhaps some of the solution lies in our own hands? Can we develop effective relationships with enterprising practitioners who themselves wish to improve their services through the introduction of research and development funding? Can we develop effective relationships with the funding agencies?

In the medium to long term, however, some of the answers to our problems can only come from government. Fortunately, we can see increasing evidence of government recognition of the significant role which the electronic information industry plays in the economic structure of contemporary society, and of the ethical, legal, commercial and technological issues associated with the industry. How can the Schools of Librarianship and Information Studies capitalise on that interest? Can we make more use of our professional bodies such as BAILER and EUCLID, the British and European associations of library schools, to lobby on our behalf?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But if we are to play an effective part in developing the information professionals needed in the future, can we avoid answering them?


Ian Johnson has been Head of the School of Information and Media at The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland since 1989. Previously he was in charge of industry liaison and continuing education programmes at the College of Librarianship Wales; Assistant to the British Government’s Advisers on library matters; and an operational manager in public libraries. He was Chairman of the IFLA Section on Education and Training from 1991 to 1993, and Chairman of the Professional Board of IFLA from 1993 to 1995. From 1993 to 1995 he was also Chairman of the (British) Library Association’s Personnel, Training and Education Group. He is currently a member of The Library Association’s Council, and of the Editorial Board of Education for Information . In June 1997, he was elected Chairman of the Heads of Schools and Departments Committee of BAILER: the British Association for Information and Library Education and Research.

20 May, 1997


  1. High Level Expert Group on the social and societal aspects of the Information Society. Building the European Information Society for us all: first reflections. Interim Report, January 1996. European Commission, Directorate General V.