Different libraries, same issues

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At the end of 2007 Ian Snowley, director of academic services at the University of London Research Library Services, will end his time as president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). We ask him about his experiences since he took this role earlier this year

How was your time as CILIP president?

The past eight months have been fantastic. This role gives a reason to get involved in everything that the profession is doing. I’d never otherwise have been to a prison library, for example. There are also many activities that go on regionally that you wouldn’t normally get involved in if you weren’t in that region but I have been able to go to them. Our membership covers the whole range of library activities – public, academic, government and corporate. Somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent are involved in supporting commercial activities.

When you go around and talk to different groups it is clear that all information professionals are broadly dealing with the same issues. The solutions are also very similar even though the nature of the information is clearly very different between, for example, an academic library and a public library.

What are the main issues for information professionals?

Perhaps rather sadly, the issues aren’t really new ones. Information professionals still face the challenges of justifying their existences and getting funding. The belief that everything is on the internet and anything can be found with a Google search is still out there amongst library users. With that belief comes inevitable restrictions on budgets.

However, that’s not always the case, thankfully. I’ve sometimes gone to places where organisations have wanted information professionals to be more involved and provide more services.

Ian Snowley, president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

There is also the challenge of keeping up with new technologies. Web 2.0 is definitely becoming important. Undoubtedly, being able to customise what you offer is attractive and it fits with the idea of tailoring information to the needs of the users. I think that there is a genuine need for it. Such tailoring of information has always been central to the librarian’s role.

Libraries have to be pretty savvy about how to present this though. If you ask users if they want Web 2.0 they probably won’t know what it is. However, if you ask them if they want technology that will help them find solutions to real problems then they will be much more interested.

How are librarians changing?

Librarians have always changed to fit circumstances and in order to meet users’ needs.

In today’s electronic world, librarians have started to move out of the library and more into the organisation as a whole. They often now become involved in managing the organisation’s own information as well as its external resources.

Another trend with the advent of the web is that teaching users has become more important. This will carry on being important as we are transferring the balance of responsibility to the users. The crucial thing is helping them be able to make sense of the large volume of information available. On top of this, there are different online databases, different aggregators that focus on different groups of information.

It is also important to get users to understand that there are limits to electronic information. I think there is a danger of print-only journals getting overlooked. The library that I work in is mainly social sciences research and in this area there are still lots of high-quality, print-only titles. However, I can see it being a problem in subject areas where the vast majority of resources are online.

What is happening to print versions?

Research libraries may not suffer as much pressure to get rid of print copies and save space as government libraries, for example, are, but there is still a pressure on space. Sometimes it suits libraries and the way they want to present themselves to users to focus on electronic resources.

The crucial thing is to ensure that collections are maintained and that they are preserved somewhere. Libraries have been quick to get involved in institutional repositories.

What will happen in the future?

Libraries really thrive on the relationship between the librarian and the information seeker. I hope that this is maintained. Perhaps we’ll swing back to more personalised services like people are starting to demand again from banks.

We don’t know as much about users en masse as we ought to but if we talk to users in person they say that they really value the role that libraries and librarians play.

Interview by Siân Harris