Librarians need to persuade politicians across Europe

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The copyright law for e-books needs changing, according to discussions at last week's Umbrella meeting. Tom Wilkie reports

Libraries have a vital contribution to make to the creation of a European Knowledge Society, but only if they can persuade politicians across the continent to change the copyright law applying to e-books. This is what delegates at a conference organised by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) were told on 12 July 2011.

Across Europe ‘the librarians are asleep’, Gerald Leitner, president of the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations (Eblida), warned delegates in a hard-hitting and surprisingly political opening plenary address.

Speaking to the Cilip ‘Umbrella’ conference, which is held every two years, he pointed out that politicians were not aware of the differences between printed and e-books nor that libraries can use printed books more freely than e-books, due to the restrictiveness of e-book licences.

Over the past 15 years, libraries have grown rather than diminished in importance, he said. Two decades ago, they were considered out of date with, for example, Nicholas Negroponte creator of the famous MIT Media Lab, predicting that libraries would fall out of use. In fact, according to Leitner, the trend has gone in the opposite direction: ‘now, 15 years later, libraries are more important than ever. They have changed more than Negroponte could have imagined.’

But legislation is lagging behind, he complained. While European legislators still regard libraries as physical places where people go to borrow printed books, real libraries are hybrids where people can indeed borrow books locally but which can also offer users globally access over the internet to digital and electronic media.

He acknowledged the pioneering role of STM libraries as the early adopters of this trend but now the concept is spreading rapidly. Leitner, who is also secretary general of the Austrian Library Association, claimed that the concept of the library without walls was becoming a reality -- open seven days a week, for all citizens, not just in cities but in the remotest villages of Europe.

He expressed frustration that librarians had not taken the lead in efforts to change copyright law and had shown no realisation that this was a pan-European problem. Lamenting the decline in the European ideal and how the very idea of a European community had fallen into disrepute over the past few years, he remarked that it would have been easier to talk about European libraries a few years ago. So, he asked, was this the right moment to start to discuss a library policy for Europe? Leitner believed that the various systems and institutions of the EU do offer ways to improve the position, but librarians were not using them effectively.

Librarians had neglected to make use of the opportunity that the European Union offers to promote libraries as having a central place in economic development as well as in encouraging literacy and wider cultural goals. This neglect of a European dimension ‘is a mistake and we should change it,’ he declared.

Leitner’s position drew support from other contributors to the conference. It was, said Martin Palmer, principal officer at Essex Libraries in the UK, ‘a compelling argument as to why librarians should respond to the digital challenge. Libraries are part of the digital world.’ Lucy Gildersleeves, from the Department of Information Studies at University College London, noted that in the age of e-books, ‘librarians are no longer keepers of a physical space but facilitators of learning. Where are the boundaries between library and classroom?’ In universities and colleges, she asserted, ‘librarians need to collaborate with teaching staff to select e-books to be made available to students.’

The Cilip Umbrella conference also heard results of efforts to provide empirical evidence to demonstrate the important and utility of libraries. Reporting research conducted by the National Library of Scotland (NLS), David Hunter remarked that national libraries present particular difficulties in measuring their impact. It is difficult to understand user behaviour because there is no a coherent set of users – in contrast to research libraries, which have a user community defined by academic interest, and public libraries, whose users are from the geographical locality.

In any case, Hunter said: ‘It is not enough to count usage figures. We need to understand what users do as a result of their interaction with the library. Was their engagement with the library useful and productive; did it add to human knowledge and insight.

The NLS study opted to count the number of published research items citing the library as a proxy indicator of the knowledge being generated. The team, led by Hunter, looked at several ‘Aggregated Research Gateways’ including Google Scholar; JSTOR; Web of Knowledge; and Oxford Journals Online. From Google Scholar the team got a tally of about 10,000 publications citing the NLS, with around 400 being added each year.

Comparisons showed that the British Library received many times that number of citations but the National Library of Wales was receiving only about 200 citations a year.

Hunter concluded that citation analysis should be regarded as only one part of the evaluation tool box. The method may miss publications and, in any case, national libraries have a duty not only to promote research but also to preserve, educate, and contribute to wider culture.