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Episode 01: Creating Digital Experiences

Within the library sector there is a growing need to create digital experiences for students. No longer just a physical space, libraries are now having to adapt to students expectations for digital content. We had the pleasure of discussing this topic with Dr. Nick Barratt, Director of Senate House Library at the University of London (UoL). As Director of one of the largest academic libraries, Nick was able to offer a trusted viewpoint on the subject.

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Video transcript

Kevin: Hi everyone and welcome to the official launch of Crown Records Management’s digital transformation podcast series. My name is Kevin Widdop, digital transformation sales lead here at Crown Records Management. Really excited to have Dr. Nick Barratt, Senate House Library Director from the University of London as our official launch guest. Thanks very much for coming on the show Nick and welcome.

Nick: Thanks Kevin, it’s lovely to be here.

Adjusting to the need for digital experiences

Kevin: The world is changing. People and students more specifically, want more and different things from not just their university experience but I imagine from their library experience as well. Can you explain how the Senate House Library is trying to provide that service?

Nick: Well I think the first point is that libraries have been seen as very conservative and change is often seen as dangerous or risky. The job is to protect and preserve our stock. And portray it in very traditional ways on shelves. Books and print, that world is going. There’s still a bit left and I’ll maybe come back to that but the way students expect more bangs for bucks given the amount of paying, we have to respond to that. The means of delivery is increasingly digital, particularly around journal articles. The print journal is dead. We’ve got lots of material and no one ever asks for it.

It’s all about instant access to digital content, on demand, from wherever you are in the world and libraries really have to recognise that and adapt to that new marketplace.

Kevin: I can only imagine what millennials these days, born digital students demand. Can you perhaps, in a nutshell explain the evolution of those changes?

Nick: Just looking at my own institution at the moment. Senate House Library looks and feels the same now, in terms of its layout and stock as it did when I was there in the nineteen eighties, nineteen nineties. So that I think, is a really interesting conundrum.

We look and feel like the way people expect a library to behave and there is something in that. The psychology of setting foot into a library space, and this has been tested, makes students far more productive.

They want to congregate and come together, to share ideas and be creative, to discuss and collaborate. Yet they still expect to get content from wherever they may well be. So the role of the library is now at the heart of the student experience. Which is fantastic for us and that’s consistently confirmed in all the NSS scores. However what a library does and how it services that content has to evolve and it has to change.

Students are going to get content from anywhere, not necessarily the library or the library catalogue on the website . They’re going to go to Google or wherever and find it that way. They also want formats to be more agile in the way the use and re-use it, to link back into the learning platforms they’re working with. So it’s very interesting challenge. The way we’re tackling that is to look at what stock we need and make sure we’re focusing some of our research collections.

I think that’s one of the unique challenges of being the Director of the Senate House Library. We sit in the middle of a federal structure and we have eighteen different federal institutions and all of their students coming through our doors. So we need to just be aware that they have their own collections, often much larger than ours. How do we add value to what we do?

Concerns for the future

Kevin: Is there one key thing that’s keeping you up at night?

Nick: Money! I think all librarians would say that they were under pressure for money. I’ll probably reposition that, I think it’s more about value. Money is always tight in higher education and especially so for libraries. There’s a pressure to make your acquisitions budget go further. Particularly the way some of the prices are rising at rapid inflationary rates. Journal acquisition, in digital format see 10-15% price rises each year. So I think there’s a wider conversation around the fact that the market is broken for us.

In terms of value, I think it’s value back to the students and for me value back to those federal members. What can we do as a central library that perhaps those individuals libraries can’t do?

For me it’s around looking at our collective stock. Can we do something around developing our collection so that they’re more concise and sharply defined? And also make it more about the student journey? Which of course any student facing service should be about. How do we take students around those different collections or service them digitally? So in one sense it doesn’t matter which part of the picture they’re going to, they get what they want as quickly as possible and the answer there is digital again.

Off site storage and library collections

Kevin: Just to touch on the third party storage facility and the service that Crown Records Management offer to Senate House Library and the University of London. For anybody who isn’t aware of our relationship, can you give a little bit of an overview as to what that involved?

Nick: Well three years ago, there was a need to remove about seven and a half thousand linear metres of stock from our Central London base at Senate house in Bloomsbury. For a physical transformation project which the library was forced to respond to and I think it’s fair to say that this wasn’t necessarily our first choice. But actually in looking at our storage needs it’s made us sit up and look at partnership working in a very different way.

Having worked with Crown to find a storage solution it’s made us think around where we keep all the other pieces of the storage collection. We have about thirteen thousand linear metres in the tower. Now this is prime real estate in the heart of London and it’s being used for storing books. Whilst that means we can retrieve very quickly, is it the most effective use of space?

Can we do more with all of those floors to provide a range of different student services? For example, can we provide a digital scholarship area? So people can play with the latest kit and be really creative. Can we get interpreters in to look at our collections through public engagement?

So I think by looking at this storage solution and working a partnership with Crown it’s really woken us up to the potential of our physical space. It’s allowed us to think and dream big about what we can do as a federation. Out there in the wider library world there’s a lot of talk of national monograph strategy, a research reserve where we don’t need to keep as many multiple copies at multiple sites. Can we bring collections together and keep a fewer number but therefore by aggregating our collections have a richer pool of resources? And the London federal structure I think is a really good opportunity to do that. Now we’d obviously need a shared depository and I think that is where some of the conversations we’ve been talking around are coming together. So it’s very exciting time to be looking at this question.

How to manage student expectations

Kevin: In terms of rising expectations in the university sector, do you have any best practice advice for people who are in a similar position to yourselves, looking at their stock and thinking, wow, what do we do with this?

Nick: I think there are a few key suggestions I would make. Firstly, don’t get forced into a position where you have to make a decision, plan now. Plan for three, five, ten years down the line. Make sure you do really know what your users are doing. There have been a number of studies where researchers have gone out to academics or students and said “what do you want?” And the answers coming back have been, “we want print stock, that’s how we work, that’s what a traditional academic needs”. Then we look at usage stats and where there’s been a comparison between an eBook and a print book, the eBook has had multiple uses.

So what people tell you isn’t necessarily what they’re doing. And that I think is the really important thing. Be armed with the data. Make sure you know what you’re talking about.

But most importantly collaborate, I can’t stress that enough. And it sounds like one of those nice and easy management terms, but if we are going to crack this storage solution. If we’re going to get better value out of our purchase budgets, we need to recognise that we can’t continue to do things in isolation. There are lots of groups forming up across the country, regional consortia where I think we are beginning to start to understand more about overlaps, collection strengths and so we can make those decisions, not in isolation but working together. We’re professionals, we work in the same industry and I don’t think there’s been enough of that. So I think that’s the next stage past the collaboration.

I think the other thing is look beyond the confines of your institution. It’s very easy to just simply respond to higher education initiatives. The library world is changing and I think we’re in a good position to drive that change. To look at the potential beyond and don’t be afraid to voice that.

We are the drivers of change, not the receivers of change.

Kevin: Nick Barratt, our very first guest here on the Crown Records Management digital transformation podcast series, thanks very much.

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