25th August 2006

(updated June 24th 2007)

University libraries : public money for public goods

Over the past three years I have been visiting professor at the University of Queensland or UQ. In the latest Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) rankings of world universities, it came out at number 49.

On its website it makes the simple statement "anyone can use most of the on-site collections and services at any branch (of the University of Queensland) library" (you can enter, consult, read and browse free - if in addition you want borrowing privileges then you pay a fee - just as you do with their open access sports facilities).

However, you would not get a foot in the door at some Scottish universities, particularly the older ones - as one furious colleague from UQ assured me when on a visit to Scotland she tried to browse the university library collection during a working visit to one of our venerable seats of learning.

The result is that across Scotland we have a wealth of intellectual, educational and cultural material effectively locked up and cut off from the communities whose taxes have largely paid for the creation of these resources. All the Scottish universities are heavily funded by public money, SHEFC gives £1.5 bill every year. What has happpened is that public money has been used to create private (university-only) assets. That is not what unversities are or should be about. Public money should be used to help create and maintain public assets as far as possible, the universities should be seen as custodians of these resources, not barriers to them, the former principle is indeed the philosophy behind UQ's open access policy. In the case of libraries there is no excuse for public resources being used to turn these into private goods.

There may well be a sense in some cases that it is important to keep access under control in order to stop the great unwashed masses pilfering or clogging up the aisles. But that reflects prejudice and the implicit assumption that Joe Public is more likely to steal Camus's "The Stranger" than is an impecunious student who needs that book for a essay due in tomorrow. In fact, UQ has normal safeguards against theft and other criminal acts, just like any university library or any high street bookshop in the UK. If security was a reason for excluding the public from most university collections in the UK, it would equally be a reason for excluding the public from Waterstones and Borders bookshops - which would quickly go broke. If there are rare or valuable collections, these are and will be everywhere subject to special security measures regardless of whether the university community or the outside community was using them. As far as congestion arguments are concerned, most university libraries most of the time are characterised by empty aisles and excess capacity, certainly if all you want to do is browse and read.

The interesting thing is that different Scottish universities take quite different approaches to their responsibilities as depositories of intellectual, cultural and educational assets. For example, our oldest university, St Andrews (number 70 in the THES world rankings), says on their website:
"Members of the public are welcome to use the University Library for reference purposes, apart from before and during examination times when all reader places are required by students and staff. If borrowing privileges are required .. (for) any person other than University staff and students, (they) may apply for registration as borrowers, on payment of an annual or Life Membership fee".

For an economist, the Uinversity of St Andrews system appears potentially both fair and efficient. It strives to treat access to the library as a public good as far as possible, it recognises that priorities and restrictions have to be imposed when there are potential congestion problems (e.g. around exam times), and it recognises that additional services such as borrowing may impose marginal (additional) costs such as administrative costs or risk of loss/damage that should be compensated for in form of fees or subscriptions.

Simple and entirely reasonable. Sounded too good to be true, so I phoned up University of St Andrews library service desk and said "I am just an ordinary member of the public and would like to browse and use the library". The answer - verbatim - "yes, that's fine, OK".

Then I consulted another old Scottish university's website. There was no website information on how an ordinary member of the public could use the library facilities.

So I phoned up the university enquiries desk and said that I would like to visit the library next week. They said I would have to have a "valid reason". (I thought of saying "intellectual curiosty", "thirst for knowledge" but did not want to give leading or misleading answers - indeed it turns out that those would not have been valid reasons).

So I asked for an example of a "valid reason". They said that I would have to identify an item that was not available in a public library. I asked how I could identfiy whether they had an item that was not in a public library, they said I could consult their catalogue (after presumably trawling through a series of public libraries to make sure they did not have that item). I asked if I would have to go through that process every time I wanted to go into that university's library, they said yes, and commented they were "not a public library".

When I said (politely, emphasising that I appreciated that this was not the responsibility of the person on the telephone) that public money including my taxpayers money had been used to create this asset, there was at first silence at the end of the line. Then they asked if I would like to speak to someone more senior. I thanked them and said, no, I would take up the matter separately.

This is first of all an attitudinal problem. I have no doubt in my mind that this university's attitude is wrong, more than that it is old fashioned and complacent, not entirely inconsistent with broader attitudes which in the view of many observers have contributed to the university resting on their laurels to some extent and losing influence in recent years. By contrast, St Andrews' attitude is senstitive to the role and responsibilities of unversities as repositories - indeed passive inheritors and active accumulators - of considerable educational and cultural resources that could and should be made available as freely as is publicly possible.

Great unversities are now striving to go even further, as witness MIT's programme of open course ware. This is a multi-milllon dollar web-based publication of the educational materials from the MIT faculty's courses enabling the free searchable, open sharing of the MIT faculty's teaching materials with the public - syllabi, lecture notes, course calendars, problem sets and solutions, exams, reading lists, even a selection of video lectures, from 1400 MIT courses representing 34 departments and all five of MIT's schools. The initiative will include materials from 1800 courses by the year 2007.

And yes, the public can also use MITs immense library resources.

This is the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum from the closed doors approach I encoutered, which in the end will probably hurt the unversity more than those it is closing its doors to.

So what can be done to change the attitude of institutions like the university I phoned? Well, if change is not to happen spontaneously (and in some old Scottish universities it must seem at times to take generations), it may do no harm to remind institutions of who is paying the piper, in this case to play their tunes behind closed doors.

If the part of the SHEFC budget that helps maintain Scottish universities libraries was made contingent on the adoption of an open access policy to library facilities, with St Andrews as the benchmark, it would not take long for attitudes and practices to change.

And once the principle is accepted, my experience of librarians is that they would make it work, in general these professionals are delighted to share their knowledge and resources with those who are interested, it is typically senior management who stand in the way of their being able to do so.

No-one should be under any illusion that there would be a massive rush by the public to use these faclities, which in a sense makes closed doors policy even more ridiculous. But to begin with it would least redress the balance between cloistered myopia and public openness. In a small way it would help rejig the balance berween a university's rights and privileges and its obligations to the wider community. It would not cost anything but it would signal much, both within Scotland and to the wider world. Access and usage by the public would increase over time as the word got around and public attitudes changed towards assertion of rights. The public should and will expect free and unhindered access to our university libraries, just as they now take for granted free and unhindered access to our national museums - and for similar reasons and principles.

In the longer term, if there is open public access to all Scottish university libraries, then there may be increased scope for specialisation and differentiation of university collections together with reduced duplication, so there could be benefits in terms of both cost and diversity of the library resources of the Scottish higher educational system as whole. Who knows, some may even begin to see if they could learn from MIT's open courseware initiative. But all that is very much in the longer term. For the moment, therr is a very real and immediate policy initiative that Scottish politiicans could dangle in front of university noses. You want the public money? Then give those who have paid, access to that which they have paid for.

Even - or particularly - Adam Smith, would have approved of that

Neil Kay