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But what if I can't find it on the internet?


Pauline Westwood

Libraries have lost more than books - research service standards have fallen too, Pauline Westwood writes.


Jack Waterford's article ''The library of discarded books'' (May 5, p19), about the destruction of paper-based books by librarians highlighted a disturbing trend largely ignored by mainstream media. With the growth in the use of information technology, many new tools have potentially increased our access to knowledge.

But because of cost-cutting policies and the mantra of ''digitisation at all cost'', we are in danger of decreasing rather than increasing our access to information over time. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in libraries. It is driven by an over-reliance on new technology, in turn propelled by the forces of managerialism and economic rationalism.

The relentless pursuit of efficiency, while appropriate to industrial production, leads to reduced quality when applied to services such as libraries. It is ironic that when apparently as a society ''we've never had it so good'', some libraries now find it too expensive to store any hard copy books at all, whether or not alternative access has been arranged. For some years now, largely to save space, libraries have been replacing their hard-copy journals with electronic versions wherever possible. A ''no brainer'', one might think - their readers gain direct online access to journal articles, and shelf space is freed up.

The downside, however, is that electronic journals can be more expensive than hard copy, and may seriously strain library budgets. Perhaps the most disadvantageous feature of relying totally on electronic subscriptions is that, unlike hard copy, access to electronic journals is determined by licence agreements imposed by commercial suppliers. This means that whereas once libraries could share journal articles by lending them to other libraries for their clients, in many cases electronic journals cannot be made available for loan to other libraries. So, unless you belong to a very well-funded library (or preferably several), your access to scholarly journals is becoming more limited, and the opportunity for cost-saving co-operative acquisition among libraries is lost.

Furthermore, some digital databases, notably in specialist areas such as law, actually provide lower functionality than their print counterparts. This is because they are designed by people unfamiliar with research methodology in the discipline, and often developed without adequate consultation with their clientele.

Since the public service removed library qualifications as mandatory for key positions in libraries, it has become increasingly common for non-professional (often IT) staff to be appointed as library managers. A major performance target (linked to their bonuses) is often cost reduction. The ensuing slashing of library budgets certainly cuts costs, but arbitrary and ill-informed decision making by non-professional and inexperienced managers leads to less effective services.

At the same time, more and more experienced research and reference staff are losing their jobs and being replaced by staff without any library background. New staff may receive basic training on search techniques, but usually lack the subject expertise to conduct in-depth and systematic research.

For example, there was recently a situation in a prominent library where a staff member, although trained to use various legal databases, had no idea how to answer a basic question such as when a particular statute came into force.

Another example concerns a member of the public who requested an act of the Australian Parliament at the National Library.

He was told that, although the staff member at the desk was certain the National Library held acts of Parliament (which, indeed, it does), he or she did not know how to find them, so sent the person to the Parliamentary Library. The client eventually turned up at the inquiry desk accompanied by a guard (the Parliamentary Library is not open to the public).

In the current climate of cut-backs, many libraries have given up providing research help altogether, ostensibly because ''everything is on the internet''.

This is equivalent to saying that no research help is required in a purely book-based library because ''everything is on the shelves''.

Yet not everything is on the internet; many items are available only on commercial databases, or, shock horror, in hard copy. Of those available on the internet, many are on the ''hidden web''. Research librarians develop knowledge of such specialist websites, unknown to most web users. Having worked both as a policy officer and a research librarian, I know how much assistance library research staff can be.

Public libraries are also subject to severe cost constraints. Unfortunately the loss of professional staff combined with financial pressures has led to process-driven deselection by hastily trained teams of non-professional staff.

On a recent catalogue search, I discovered that all the books on a particular key subject had disappeared, apparently weeded out according to publication date or number of borrowing transactions. When I reported this, I was told I was free to recommend any titles I thought appropriate. However, an effective selection (and deselection) policy should ensure that key subject areas remain represented.

Merely relying on the public to fill gaps simply leads to collections biased towards the needs of a few activist clients. As many academics have said over recent years, it is also foolish to deselect based on the number of times an item has been lent out, because many books are consulted on the premises, without being borrowed. Other works may be used very rarely, but nevertheless be crucial sources for research. A consequence of this ''deselection by unpopularity'' is the dumbing down of library collections, making them less relevant to serious researchers.

If we are serious about really wanting to attain the status of a ''clever country'', it is high time to reinstate librarianship as a profession and provide adequate funding for our libraries.

Pauline Westwood is a retired senior research librarian who worked in major research libraries and has established and run small specialised libraries both in Canberra and overseas.

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