Oscar winners, global currency disruption, giant plant invasions, and robots! – What’s going on in university libraries?

OK I will admit it straight away; I have intentionally drawn you into this article on the promise of celebrities, international disasters and robots. Now believe me all of these components will feature but you won’t find the headliners in the lead paragraph, for these you’ll have to read on.

Over the past 18 years Sue Hill Recruitment (SHR) has built a reputation as the specialist recruiter within the academic library sector. In the past twelve months SHR has helped more than 35 universities across the UK recruit to over 150 vacancies. In order to provide an effective service to our university clients we do our best to keep up to date with current issues impacting on the sector. As part of this process I have spent the first two months of 2016 meeting senior managers at university libraries to discuss key issues affecting their institutions, as well as scanning the trade press. This is what I’ve found.

Firstly open access research repositories are an area which continues to garner attention as institutions work towards the next Research Excellence Framework assessment (REF2020). However at SHR we have noticed that demand for suitably experienced people to manage and administer institutional repositories seems to be outpacing the availability of these skills, particularly for temporary contracts. Pleasingly, we continue to find the right people to meet the demand.

Another developing trend is the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as the delivery of education harnesses new technology to address changing learner requirements. This may not have a positive impact on all university library services, as Harriet Swain explores in her article about the Open University. However, remote learning is by no means new and many university libraries have been adapting successfully to student needs for many years; a recent case in point can be found at the University of Lincolnshire where a new cloud-based Library Management System (LMS) has been procured to the improve the student experience.

Now we find what you all started reading for, tucked away in the fifth paragraph. We segue nicely from new technology to the fun stuff promised in the title. I was intrigued to discover a new type of technological development at the University of Aberystwyth where you may well find Hugh the robot walking (hmmm) the halls. We shall wait and see how this catches on but my guess is that George Lucas may have some interest. In other Hollywood news, during a recent meeting I was regaled with a lovely anecdote about recent Oscar winner Leonardo Dicaprio. During filming on location at a much-loved London university library Leo called for a couch to rest on between shots. When the librarian supervising operations reported the library had no couch, a couple of burly set-hands we dispatched to the local furniture store to procure one. If anyone ever tries to tell you that libraries are boring tell them to think again.

Now in a previous iteration of this blog I had a terrific segue which took me from robots to library publishing but it was censored (and you shall never know what it was), so instead we have a terrible cliché. I recently learned that Lancaster University have installed a living Ficus tree in the library’s atrium. As a conservationist I was pleased that Lancaster has bought into the notion that engaging with nature helps people concentrate better, but more than this, the story allows me to underline the return on investment of adapting library space to support student learning, after all money doesn’t grow on trees.

On the subject of money, no one likes to pay more than necessary for anything, especially when it’s something essential, but it was interesting to watch an argument about money play out so publicly at the end of last year when various groups representing UK university libraries spoke out against proposed price increases to e-textbooks. In light of the apparent frayed relations between the university sector and its private sector suppliers, David Stuarts’s excellent article in Research Information was a timely reminder that private sector organisations, like subscription agents, will also struggle if they fail to adapt to changes in in the university landscape, such as the rise of open access publishing.

When people ask me what I do for a living, my typical answer is ‘I help librarians find jobs’. A simplistic answer which I admit doesn’t do full justice to the sector I recruit, but I’m always curious to hear people’s responses, which invariably include disbelieving comments like ‘you can do a Masters in Librarianship?’ This says something about the public perception of careers in library and information management. So in sharp contrast to the tired old perceptions of librarianship I read with interest two news stories about the challenges facing libraries in countries which do not use the Euro, Sterling or the almighty Dollar. It had never occurred to me that library resources are often priced in one of these major currencies and so when global currencies fluctuate this can have a serious impact on a library’s buying power. I wonder how many people imagine such issues are a concern for the humble librarian.

This is not all I learned from my meetings and press scanning, but no one likes a long blog, so I’ll leave it here, only to add that I’d be very interested to hear from any other university librarians to know what are they key issues impacting on your library in 2016.

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