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Industry Leader Interview

LibraryZone speaks with Andrew Wells, University Librarian at The University of New South Wales, Australia.

Andrew Wells has worked at senior levels in university, state and national libraries in Australia. From 1996 to 2001, he was Assistant Director-General, Resource Sharing Division at the National Library of Australia. During this period, he directed the successful implementation of Kinetica (formerly Australian Bibliographic Network). He has held senior positions at the State Library of New South Wales and was the Deputy Head Cataloguer at UNSW Library in the mid 1980's. Andrew has been active in the library profession over many years, contributing to many advisory and policy committees including the ABN Standards Committee, the Australian Committee on Cataloguing and the National Resource Sharing Policy Group. Andrew holds a BSc (University of Queensland) and an MA (Macquarie University). Andrew is also on the Executive of the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL).

Andrew, what do you see as the greatest challenge facing librarians in the coming years? What should publishers be doing to help?  

In my role as a University Librarian, my greatest challenge is answering a perfectly reasonable the University regularly asks me: what will the Library look like in 2020? University libraries are experiencing rapid transformation. Positioning the library in major changes in research, teaching and information technologies is the issue that keeps me awake at night, although it's a good challenge! It seems to me that changes will occur in the way our libraries are organized, the work staff do and the physical space libraries occupy. Publishers can assist by recognising the need to transform, and realising the major influence they have on the transition to a new kind of academic library.

The number of scholarly e-books has exploded in recent years. What do you think of this trend and what steps would you recommend to libraries to adapt? 

I think it is inevitable and I am enthusiastic about it. For scholarly monographs, it offers a more secure future than print versions and I would hope a larger audience. I recommend a 2007 book called "The book is dead: long live the book" by Sherman Young (UNSW Press) which helped me see that scholarly books can have a bright future in electronic. I think libraries are adapting to this quickly, given the growth in acquisition and the positive response from library users. I am cautious about a 'big deal' approach to acquisition of e-books. Just about everything about making e-books available is messy: there is enormous variety in platforms, pricing models, licensing and availability of recent content.

Of course, scholarly e-journals are now an accepted part of journal publishing. In your opinion, which research areas have been impacted most and in what ways? What do you see as the major emerging trends that will influence e-journals in the next 5 years? And how do you see these trends impacting libraries? 

I think all research areas have been affected. Five years ago, I might have been able to say some disciplines were more affected than others, but I see all research areas using scholarly e-journals. At UNSW Library, we have less than 2000 print subscriptions now and I expect to see that number decline in the coming years. In answering the question about what a university library looks like in 2020, I assume that the only available version of scholarly journals will be electronic. I think libraries need to embrace this in their planning.
There will be continuing questioning of the 'big deal': some libraries like them some don't. The pricing of e-journals will need to change as the relationship to historical print subscriptions becomes harder to justify when the print version is no longer available. Libraries will want more flexibility in selecting content.

Another recurring conference debate has been the increasing amount of research that is done online and not necessarily in the library building. With increased availability across many different devices, how do you see this continuing trend impacting the role of the library in the next five years and how will libraries maintain their relevance? 

The amount of research done outside the library building is a good story – librarians can sometimes sound too defensive about this. I regularly receive compliments from researchers about the ease and breadth of access. Our online libraries need to be as service-oriented as our physical facilities.
This forces librarians to face a big issue: how much physical space is needed? Much of the physical collection of journals is now online. Libraries have been particularly successful at creating learning spaces where collections once existed, but libraries do not have a monopoly on their provision on campus. This is going to require courageous and honest thinking. It needs to start from where library users are and how they want to use the content and services we provide. It will be hard to let go of 'edifice'-type thinking, but I believe we must.

Faced with limited resources, under pressure budgets and an increased amount of online content, how do see libraries best serving their customers? Will print books decline to make more digital resources available? 

The online experience has to improve, and I believe many libraries are doing this. The virtual library has to be more than making content available online: it needs to be accompanied by services and excellent user support. Most of the users are going to be online, so our costs and organisation must reflect this. Print usage will continue its decline, but there are still non-trivial costs in maintaining services and collections in the physical library. These costs will need to be contained as usage declines: my preferred strategies are fostering self-help services and collaborative collection rationalisation.

What strategies would you recommend to libraries to communicate the availability of all these new online resources? 

At UNSW Library, we believe our outreach librarians are the best way to do this. They meet with academic staff in their offices, on committees, at the coffee cart – anywhere they can to bring content to their attention. We believe that developing relationships with academic staff is the most effective way to increase awareness of new online resources. I believe they have a much greater influence on their students than library staff could ever achieve.
We do not produce a newsletter or magazine, because we don't think many people would read it. Our website also carries information about new resources.

In terms of digital content or delivery, what is the most interesting research project you have heard of recently and why should libraries take notice of it? 

While not directly related to digital content or delivery, I think the work of Constance Malpas at OCLC is very timely and important. Her work on physical collection management is well worth reading. We must start facing the legacy of our print collections and realise the huge amount of cost and redundancy tied up in them. There are so many opportunities for libraries in the online world, and we need to grasp them in an environment where costs are inevitably constrained.

What books are you reading at the moment and are they in print or electronic form? If they are electronic, where did you get them and what device(s) are you reading them on? 

I have just finished Mathew Condon's superb book on Queensland's capital city, titled (of course) Brisbane. In print form. I do all my professional reading on my iPad – that's where I put the long research reports and surveys.
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