SPOTLIGHT: Librarian boosts university reputation ... on the quiz circuit

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The final of the BBC quiz programme University Challenge will be broadcast next Monday. Alongside the knowledge and expertise of the eight students who have reached the final, the competition reveals an unusual role that a university librarian can play in supporting their institution, writes Sian Harris

It’s no secret that the role of the librarian within a university has changed over recent years. Managing electronic access, metadata, institutional repositories and article-processing charge payments are just some of the new functions of university librarians. Universities themselves are also now keeping a closer eye on what all their departments are doing to support students and boost their institutions’ reputation.

Despite all this, however, the role that librarian Stephen Pearson plays at the UK’s University of Manchester is an unusual one.

For the past 15 years, Pearson has coached his university’s quiz team to success, both on and off television. Next Monday his latest team of Manchester students will compete in the final of the BBC quiz programme University Challenge. They follow a strong recent history; the past seven teams from the university have all reached at least the semi finals of the competition and three of these have been series champions.

So, does having a librarian in charge help a university to achieve quiz success? Pearson doesn’t see that much overlap but notes that being interested in and good at reading and acquiring knowledge fit well with the librarian mindset. He adds that he knows of a successful US university quiz team that is similarly coached by a long-term archivist.

In terms of helping participating students develop research skills, however, he is modest about his involvement. ‘I think the kind of people who are good at University Challenge will be the kind of people who already have good information literacy. In order to be a successful contestant you are probably going to be someone who reads a lot and feels comfortable browsing resources like encyclopaedia,’ he says.

More important for quiz success than his role as a librarian, he believes, is that he is a member of university staff. He notes that many universities get together great groups of four students for University Challenge and then these students finish their time at university and move on, so their experiences can’t be so readily passed on to future teams. Being coached by a university staff member, says Pearson, provides continuity. He is also on site to organise practice sessions, which take place in a library seminar room.

Despite this, he says he is careful to ensure that coaching the university quiz team does not encroach on his working time. ‘It’s not part of my job description and I’m not doing this as a librarian,’ he says.

Indeed he sees little cross-benefit of his two functions, other than in small ways. ‘The library role bring me into contact with more students, which helps in picking teams,’ he says. In terms of building awareness of the library, however, he thinks that ‘people will use the library for their studies if they need to, whether or not they know about [my role with University Challenge].’

He does observe, however, that as a subject librarian, contestants and past contestants sometimes approached him with queries that they might have felt silly asking someone they didn’t know.

‘I don’t think it has helped either my professional career or the role of the library service much, other than in small ways, but it has helped the university as a whole,’ he observes.

Indeed one of this year’s University Challenge contests told the Guardian newspaper that he picked the University of Manchester because of the university’s past performance in the TV quiz. And the university recognises the importance of this type of publicity, presenting Pearson with a university medal of honour after the quiz team won the competition for a third time.

Pearson first became involved in University Challenge when he was a contestant himself in 1996 as a masters student. Students can only enter the competition once but he was keen to carry on being involved so spoke to his Students’ Union about becoming a coach. He estimates that coaching the teams (helping them learn to ‘buzz in’ quickly with answers and training them on types of questions to expect) takes him about three hours per week (one hour of question preparation and two-hour practice sessions) for around six to eight months of the year.

And it’s not just University Challenge. According to Pearson, ‘there’s a fairly thriving non-televised university quiz circuit, with competitions every few weeks. The one frustration we have is that not many universities are keen to do it. We think it’s fun and would like to encourage it more.’ Perhaps this is a role that other university librarians could take on.

So why does he do it? ‘I get enjoyment out of being involved in the only sporty-type thing that I was any good at. I get to meet like-minded people and it keeps me feeling young,’ he says. ‘It’s also good to know that I am helping to raise the profile of the university.’

And what about his day job? This itself has changed in line with the changing nature of academic information and user behaviour. Pearson says that, rather than have all librarians trying to do everything in each department, the University of Manchester has recently restructured the library around functions, recognising the need for expertise in many different areas. As such, Pearson has moved from being a subject librarian in the arts faculty to a new role as a research information analyst – or bibliometrician.

Meanwhile, as the University of Manchester looks forward to Monday’s final – against University College, London – Pearson must find his quiz coach role more nerve-wracking than his librarian one. ‘We seem to be winning more than we are losing at the moment but I still get very nervous,’ Pearson admits.