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,
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
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