Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Sir Brian Follett (BL02)

  1.  The Research Support Libraries Group (RSLG) was established under my chairmanship by the four UK higher education funding bodies, the British Library, the National Library of Scotland and the National Library of Wales. The membership and terms of reference for the Group are attached at Annex A[1]. The Group aims to produce a report to its sponsors in autumn 2002.

  2.  The Group has its origins in the concern that, while the UK has excellent research libraries at present, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain these standards for the future. The twin challenges of rising costs and growing volume of material have already brought us to the point where no individual library can realistically aim to collect and hold all of the resources that its researcher users require, forcing them increasingly to pursue these resources externally; and it is not evident that even the aggregated national research collection can continue to meet all of their needs in its present form. In addition, the advent of the web has fundamentally altered the technology available for delivering research information to library customers. Whilst this can create its own problems it offers great opportunities to researchers since all universities are linked by a world-class network and the customers are highly computer literate. The RSLG was established to advise on a national response to all of these issues, and to develop strategies to ensure that UK researchers continue to have access to the full range of world-class information resources.

  3.  The Group's primary focus is on the needs of professional researchers, mainly in the public sector (university academic staff, university researchers and research students, government research scientists). We have consulted widely within the research and library communities, and have commissioned a major research study on current patterns and future trends in researchers' use of libraries and other information sources. The results of this study (which is now nearing conclusion) will underpin the Group's final recommendations. Other elements of the Group's work are:

    (a)  A sub-group on e-science, which will advise on the requirements of research scientists involved in generating, sharing and studying very large electronic datasets.

    (b)  A sub-group on scholarly communications to advise on trends in scholarly publishing and the transition from print to electronic formats.

    (c)  A sub-group to look at the role of the British Library Document Supply Centre in supporting UK research; and

    (d)  Commissioned studies of current practice in research library collaboration in the UK and in other countries.

  In addition the Group has drawn on a range of work undertaken by other bodies in the research and academic library arena.

  4.  A crucial reference point for the Group has been the emergence of the hybrid library, with which we believe most if not all researchers will be working within and beyond our 10-year planning horizon. By "hybrid" we mean a library with a mixture of materials in hard copy and electronic form, with the range and nature of the mix varying for researchers in different subject areas and research environments. Some of the material in electronic form may be provided from local sources, but a progressively greater proportion of such material is now being provided at a distance and is accessed through the library or directly from the researcher's desk.

  5.  The pace at which materials in electronic form are adopted by researchers, and how completely, will vary between disciplines. For example, many research historians will continue to regard access to printed historical documents as indispensable, although they may increasingly use electronic means to search for the whereabouts of these documents. At the other end of the spectrum, there are already research scientists who work entirely with resources in electronic form. Between these two extremes, there is much diversity of demand for print and electronic resources, and any future national strategy to enhance access to the resources must embrace this variation.

Key issues

  6.  The Group considers that new strategies are required to ensure that the needs of UK researchers continue to be met adequately; and that there is an opportunity to be seized for the UK to become a major player in determining the new research information landscape. If we do nothing, the risks are that the body of material available in the UK will become less well matched to researcher needs, and that we shall increasingly be forced to rely on other countries or on purely commercial vendors for our research information resources.

  7.  The four key elements in the Group's vision are:

a.  The UK must pursue the vision of a national electronic research library (NERL).

  Researchers have told us that they require rapid and easy access to the broadest possible range of resources. They also need to be assured of the quality of the information and research outputs that they use. We expect the volume of online research resources to grow exponentially within the next few years, creating a requirement for sophisticated new tools to navigate the electronic environment. On present form this material is likely to be of variable quality, and more difficult than it should be to locate and access. We should be working now to develop mechanisms to give cohesion and direction to decisions on what research material is made available online; to map and classify this material; to safeguard its security; to make sure that it is both widely accessible and fully quality-assured; and to encourage new channels of scholarly communication. The development of these mechanisms carries considerable challenges, but it has exceptional potential to enhance the quality of UK research. The vision of acting together to create national structures that grow over the years is not new. In the years immediately after World War II the country established a collection of science journals that were lent from a central location. That was combined with the national central library in the early seventies to create The British Library. Its document supply division at Boston Spa in Yorkshire is the direct successor to the science collection and last year it issued 2.4 million documents by inter-library lending: one every three seconds of the working year. It is the largest and best such service in the world. Within the last decade the funding councils created the Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) which is in effect a test bed for a national electronic library. Its success in providing all types of resources electronically to researchers suggests that it could form the basic platform for the NERL.

b.  Collaboration between research libraries should be extended.

  No academic library can fully meet its users' needs without external assistance; at the same time there is still much scope for reducing duplication in holdings of less heavily used materials. Almost all research libraries in the UK are already involved in some form of bilateral or multilateral collaborative activity, extending at least to local or regional schemes for sharing access to print resources. These activities could profitably be extended into new areas, such as planned collaborative acquisition and retention policies, to improve the coverage of the aggregated collection. They should be supplemented by more collaboration at national level, for example in producing a single national online catalogue of research resources.

c.  A national print collection should continue to be managed by the British Library.

  It is clear from our consultations with researchers that the print holdings of the British Library, and the services of its Document Supply Centre, are essential to the success of research in many disciplines. We can see no other way of providing this. The availability of a very wide range of serial publications, delivered to the researcher's desktop, through the British Library—equalled by no other national collection—is the main reason why UK HEIs are able to collect fewer journals than their peers in other countries and yet maintain parity in research standards.

d.  There will continue to be a role for librarians and other information professionals.

  We envisage a key role for print collections for many years to come. Despite the growth of online resources, we see no evidence at present of any slackening in the flow of printed material, and equally we anticipate that much material now available in hard copy will never appear in digital form. Beyond this, the switch to online resources will create a new role for information professionals helping researchers to keep up to date with what is available in their field in all media.

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