A panoramic view from a bridge over the river Liffey in Dublin

Over the Liffey

Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) Conference and Annual General Meeting, Dublin, June 2013

The conference programme can be found online and related tweets at #sconul13

This is a canter through the programme and events I attended at this thoroughly informative and enjoyable conference. While this is an informal account, I hope I have captured accurately the intentions of speakers during their presentations, and noted where individuals were explicitly speaking in a personal capacity rather than that of their organisation or institution.

Personal thoughts and comments in the text below can be found [enclosed in brackets.]

Comments or thoughts welcome: s.r.williams@swansea.ac.uk @issodd

Sarah Marsh, Director of Learner Support Services at the University of Bradford, and the current SCONUL chair welcomed everyone and invited Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College Dublin to present the Welcome Address.

Dr Prendergast, who is also a governor of Marsh’s Library, just around the corner from the conference venue, talked about the importance of universities and libraries to the collation of knowledge, using as an example the Down Survey project. He suggests that universities and libraries are in a unique position and are likely able to do work that others will not find possible, with a specific remit to protect material with scarcity value. He pointed out that as with the great fire at Alexandria and rather more recent European library and archive disasters that we have seen, computing also has its achilles’ heel in terms of virtual (viral, malicious, accidental data loss) as well as physical (fire, flood, etc.) weaknesses that could have equally terminal consequences to digital collections.

Of note: Dr Prendergast believes that the job title of ‘Keeper’ is an important one that reflects the value of the role and should be retained in libraries.

Keynote: Roly Keating, now Chief Executive of the British Library (BL) following his time at the BBC, talked about libraries being at the heart of everything, but especially in this session about the BL supporting research in a changing world. The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 has finally been enacted this year and BL expect to be gathering around 100 Terabytes of data each year in archiving the .uk web and other UK sourced online and digital content.

BL are involved with Futurelearn and while somewhat unsure about MOOCs, they have decided that sometimes you have to try things that may or may not work out. The BL with UKRR and Ethos are key to the research process and are aiming to make this process easier with Ethos becoming a free service following the conclusion of the initial project. UKRR have freed up 65km of shelving so far and are aiming to free up 100km in total.

Of note: Libraries are increasingly about connecting, not just collecting.

Panel Discussion. How national and regional differences in the higher education environment are shaping institutional strategy.

Professor Leni Oglesby OBE of HEFCW, speaking in a personal capacity, said that she believed that a one nation, digital repository (of learning resources) is going to be important to support the two pillars of Welsh Government: social justice and supporting a buoyant economy. This could also help support part-time students whose numbers have declined yet are critically important. The clear aim being that the best curriculum content, from the best teachers, is available nationally.

The future role of HEFCW will be defined by new legislation being presented by Leighton Andrews in the near future, which will lay out the accountability of HE.

Philip Cohen at Dublin Institute of Technology suggested that in Ireland, as there has been since 2008 a 14% increase in students and a 10% decrease in staff, significant change was inevitable within and across institutions. While in the OECD the average public-purse spend on HE was 68.9%, and the UK’s was 34.5%, Ireland’s was at an 82.6% (2008 figures and he thinks this will have changed now). All the changes mean that income to an institution for each student has reduced from €10,000 to €7,500, taking into account both public and student funding contributions.

Another significant challenge for Ireland over the next couple of years is that philanthropic giving from key individuals and trusts, that have contributed enormously to Irish institutions over recent years, is likely to drop significantly now.

Workshop: Service Convergence – Values, Culture and Change.

This talk by Oliver Pritchard and Kirsten Black about activities at Sunderland covered how they learnt to appreciate ‘values’ while seeking to bring together groups of staff into a new service. Especially interesting around values as a change agent – creating an agreed, strong set of values that transcended silos and boundaries across 200 staff. Each year they now run an Innovation Fair where staff talk about their work and roles and get to show off their services. Managers’ appraisals include using and promoting the agreed values. Recruitment now makes explicit their expectations in terms of these values.

Of note: talk is cheap, actions speak louder than words; do it, don’t talk it.

Research Data Management (RDM)

Data volume, variety and velocity leading to challenges that HE is rising to meet. RDM is a cluster of activities, not a single thing. 72% of libraries involved in RDM, with lots of work to do. Majority of Universities will have a RDM policy in place in the next 12 months meeting the needs of research funders.

MOOCs, Li Yuan, Senior Researcher, JISC CETIS

Of note: Do you know your xMOOC from your cMOOC?; 75% of some MOOC’s users have a College Degree or higher qualification already.

A range of publications from JISC CETIS will be worth looking at for anyone wanting to know more: e.g. MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education.

[It is still unclear the direction that (commercial) MOOCs will take, e.g. professional vs academic training provision. There are many opportunities for higher education to be involved in MOOCs however the mere name ‘MOOC’ is also putting people off. If we talk (in wales) about Open Educational Resources and look at the potential of Y Porth and Hwb activities in Wales, OU Openlearn and others, the value in OER is clearer. There is also though a risk that the practicalities around platforms (and the formats and transferability of OER content) could be a significant challenge.

SCONUL Annual General Meeting

The AGM provided a summary of SCONUL activities over the year and outlined the new strategy and groups. Whilst generally accepted by members, Stephen Town, University of York, asked that following what he felt had been a number of changes over a period of time, could the group structure be left alone now to mature and develop. Sarah Marsh confirmed that she hoped that would be the case.

[This does raise an interesting point as if SCONUL board members are elected for a fixed term, if they are leading these groups how will continuity be managed?]

SCONUL members agreed at the meeting that the Executive Board could consider how best to implement changes in charges to member institutions following the revision to JISC Banding. Adopting a simple approach to this could potentially be unfair due to the scale of moves between bands – so it will be considered and a proposal presented at next year’s AGM for adoption.

The Autumn conference will be in London, which is a one day event, and the 2014 Summer Conference will be in Glasgow.

In the elections Oliver Pritchard (University of Sunderland), Kate Robinson (University of Bath) and Steve Williams (Swansea University) were elected by members to join the Executive Board.

Malcolm Gillies, VC London Metropolitan University & musicologist

Malcolm Gillies talked broadly about shared services and the issues of sharing, collaboration and privatisation and the scenario to be avoided with all these, including with the big publishers, was the idea of public funds being seen as being ‘laundered’ into private profits.

The changes to VAT have made shared services more feasible and much work is taking place to explore various possibilities that this model will allow. This is not about privatisation or even outsourcing, it is about sharing and collaborating.

[There are certainly areas in which internally universities can be more effective and much more efficient. However, it is not clear to me how much this type of activity (outsourcing, shared services) will actually save money. It is likely that comparative studies with medium or large commercial organisations could be informative; why and when do they outsource or bring back internally. We know much about outsourcing e.g. front-line support to call centres, but how many large companies outsource HR and administrative functions? Of course the widest form of shared services is simply a commercial contract with a supplier. The supplier is driven to provide high quality services at a reasonable cost in a market place and if it cannot do that purchasers go elsewhere.]

There was a need in LMU to profoundly re-engineer administrative services. This may also be needed elsewhere. Now, LMU could survive with £6,000 per student income. Could others?

Of note: Interesting question from Stephen Pinfield, University of Sheffield: should we focus on improving efficiency of internal services before looking to share? Answer: it is imperative, now that we are creating future debt for students, to improve our efficiency immediately. It is a moral obligation on us all.

SCONUL Shared Services Group

With Mark Toole (Sterling), Sue White (Huddersfield) and John Tuck (Royal Holloway and Chair of M25AL group.)

Just noted at the beginning that we need persistence as things in this area can take a long time to come to fruition, like KB+. Engagement with JISC and others is very important in this area.

LMS/LSP  “Library Services Platform” projects: Bloomsbury, WHELF, SCURL were noted.

There was a feeling in the group that it could be useful to have a directory of interests and expertise. How to best create this, and keep it up to date, is the challenge.

There was wide agreement that work could be done with e-book licencing and that at the moment publishers were not engaging in a way that will lead to perpetual, sustainable licences. Discussion with JISC Collections will be useful on this. Work by E-BASS25 was noted.

SCONUL is keen to support regional consortia and would be interested to help do this.

Mark Toole is currently involved in a JISC project to map Research Data Management activities across HE’s.

Working Smarter with Data

Titia van der Werf, Senior Programme Officer OCLC Research

Claim that data in general does not get used to improve performance – but for other things like justification for money, expansion etc. We’ve lost track of users that used to be personally known, since they have moved onto the web.

Utrecht Library – no (research) discovery tools as discovery takes place through external tools Scopus, Google scholar etc.

“80% of the time we are wrong about what we think users want.” User generated content, feedback, recommendations – really do work. Netflix $1million prize for better recommender algorithm.

OCLC Research are interested to work with institutions in these areas.

Rachel Bruce, Innovation Director, Digital Infrastructure, JISC

Talked about OU RISE project – recommendations improve the search experience, SALT project – Surfacing the Academic Long Tail, Datafarm – University of Pennsylvania Libraries which uses the Metridoc system – to normalise and anonymise data for use.

[No discussion of privacy implications – some of this data is highly personal on gathering]

Student Engagement relevant activities of note

“Every day I wake up and ask, ‘how can I flow data better, manage data better, analyse data better?” says Rollin Ford, the CIO of Wal-Mart. From The Economist data article in 2010

Gary Tindell, UEL

Demonstrated an application to access HESA data through a more intuitive interface. Unfortunately not available… yet.

[At Swansea the FIT (Future Interaction Technologies) lab has links with health & computer science researchers worldwide that have developed similar tools to look at large (usually health) datasets. We could potentially use these to look at SCONUL/HESA data and also engagement data.]

I am grateful to the Kathleen Cooks fund who supported my attendance at SCONUL 2013.