Chair - Stuart Hamilton
Welcome to the second session of ‘Libraries of the 21st Century’ symposium - this session is on Libraries and Learning. I’m Stuart Hamilton, the Chair of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and Chief Executive Officer of Open Universities Australia.
Libraries and learning institutions are both undergoing, they are either embracing it or resisting it, but it’s happening to them willingly or not, major changes of course, moving into the 21st Century, particularly with the digital revolution. This session will look at the changes in education and in libraries, and the impact of one on the other. The focus is on higher education, teaching, scholarship and research, but I guess as Chair of the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority, just to make a couple of observations that I can see, obviously very similar changes in school education. The huge growth in the use and understanding of the potential of technology, the increasing focus on job readiness, alongside general education and life readiness, and from the demand side, kids are much more adventurous and demanding on learning institutions, and in particular the use of technology, than our generations were or are, pushing the technological and learning limits as never before.
So, there is a great challenge to traditional libraries in schools, in colleges and in universities, and in the learning institutions themselves. Many of course are struggling. Many are responding very well. I remember, to make an invidious choice, I remember visiting Glen Waverley Secondary College a couple of years back, and being mightily impressed by the lateral way they were totally rethinking their learning resources. But even those schools, universities etc that are doing it well, I’d have to say my observation is there is still a huge amount of wheel reinventing, digital wheel reinventing going on, not enough learning from one another. But, no matter how much the digital revolution affects us all, people still read books, as the frothing that took place when the body that I am in charge of made some gentle suggestions about how to change VC English found out last year.
The three speakers this morning will look at various aspects therefore of libraries and learning in the 21st Century. First, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Professor Margaret Gardner, Vice-Chancellor and President of RMIT University since last year, before that she was a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Queensland. Her academic career has taken her to places such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cornell, and the University of California at Berkley as a Fullbright post doctorate Fellow, as well as many other Australian universities. She has been extensively involved in a broader sense with learning, education and government, for example in 2002, she chaired the Queensland Government Taskforce on post compulsory education and pathways between the school, vocational and higher education sector, in effect doing in Queensland what the Kirby Review did in Victoria a few years back. It gives me great pleasure as I say to introduce Professor Gardner, who is also, just to look closer to home, one of the directors of my own organisation Open Universities Australia. Professor Gardner.
Speaker - Professor Margaret Gardner
Well thank you Stuart, and good morning. It gives me great pleasure to be here and have an opportunity to talk with you this morning. I think RMIT has a great fondness for the State Library, all sorts of links, and we hope they reciprocate that fondness. So, sometimes we may be a much noisier neighbour than perhaps they could do with. Well, libraries and learning seem synonymous, and I think this is a really interesting conference because I think it’s important that we are able to reflect on the role of libraries, and indeed of higher education institutions in our educational and cultural life. As we ask what their role should be in a world where access to learning is more dispersed and available to a much larger proportion of the population, that is basically the socioeconomic context, apart from the changes in information and communications technology, it is actually the socioeconomic context that shifts our understanding of what might be the relationship between libraries and learning.
So I want to take us out of the 21st century for a moment, and remind us that just across the road here, what is known as Building 1, in the late 1880s and the early 1900s the library at the Working Man’s College, which is the forerunner of RMIT, would barely rival the collections many of us have in our homes today. It was a single room, a limited collection and at times it was closed for much of the day - because, it is reported, of rowdyism. Lest we feel this is the history of working man’s colleges, it’s important to remind us that in this it shared much with the early libraries of many august American institutions of higher education, which were also, in the early 19th century, places where the library was typically a single room which was open to students for only a few hours of the week – thus cutting down on the potential for rowdyism. The large domed library which we are sitting adjacent to today, dominating the surrounding college landscape and serving as the knowledge or research heart of the higher education institution, arguably did not emerge until the end of the 19th century, with the designs of Columbia and New York University, modelled themselves on Jefferson’s University of Virginia.
Now, there will be librarians here who might contest this or there may be architects here who will contest that description, but anyway that is how I understand it. In other words, the metaphorical model for university libraries, that wonderful domed space that we have in our heads, the vision that we associate with elite education and which dominates the form, function and location of university libraries, mind you, to this day, is a long way from their humble origins on the margins of the learning experience. And, it’s important to remember that that was where they started. University libraries and state libraries in particular share still, in my view, that metaphorical notional centrality to learning, and even though in fact many would argue that university libraries and other libraries are actually quite different in mission and orientation - and I make this point because the librarians in charge of both sectors will otherwise say I’ve blurred them together too much, and indeed they do have different missions - put simply it has been seen that university libraries have a specialist focus, public libraries have theoretically unlimited set of information needs to deal with, and that plays out in differences in scale and in collection, physical space and the like, different funding bases.
Theoretically at least, university libraries spend a lot more on their notional single client than the larger public libraries and a different clientele, that is that university libraries are seen as serving typically a smaller constituency, that is their staff and students in theory at least, with a high frequency of usage. Whereas the public library has potentially an unlimited public that may have quite varying degrees of usage. I suspect these distinctions, as all of you can see, are heavily overdrawn, because the differences between types of libraries are not so significant. But, that question of their metaphorical place in learning and where they see themselves in the context of the demands and interests of the community, whether it’s the specialised user or the general browser, is the thing we are confronting in the 21st century. And the point is this, and you can really see it dramatically demonstrated by RMIT students, when one of our students walks into any library, and that could be our Swanston Street branch, which is there, or this library, which is here, barely a two minute walk away, they do not care whether it is a public library, an academic library, or any other kind of specialist library. Instead they’re looking for a range of things.
They are looking for what they desire, and that can be everything from access to information resources, learning assistance, social interaction – rowdyism is probably a very important part of the learning experience that those single rooms couldn’t cope with – intellectual stimulation, safety, relaxation; in other words a very big list. If you just wandered around behind that rather young population that surges across the street and between those two libraries, you’d see they don’t care. They don’t make any distinction between the Swanston Street branch and it’s potential support for research and teaching collections of the university, and this State library and its objectives in terms of the State. This is physically, at least, a place they come to seek a series of things that all go to make up learning. Because, I guess these days we’ve understood that rowdyism might actually help, and I have fond memories myself of a small branch library in a university in a state from here, which was so noisy because everybody sat around the flat tables and talked about a whole lot of things, including their assignments, and there wasn’t a librarian there who said ‘shhh’.
So, what I want to talk about today then is just starting with what is the learning that those people are seeking that we care about? Those students, those members of the public, and what does it mean in the context both physically and virtually, of what we do today in libraries, and I think the pressure these days for universities and academic libraries and public libraries, the pressures socioeconomically, demographically and because of information and communications technology around convergence rather than divergence, there is more that joins than that separates. And, some of that is driven by funding pressure and the need to make our operations as efficient as possible, to deal with questions of overlap by sharing rather than by setting up competing sources, but most importantly I think it’s because of the increasingly diverse nature of our clientele and the way we can provide access to resources, not just physically but virtually. So, it makes sense I think when we talk about libraries and learning to think about the way the whole range of libraries can serve a diverse set of communities.
So let’s talk a little bit about universities for a moment. Well, part of that socioeconomic change has been this, universities aren’t the gate keepers of knowledge in the way that they once were. Similarly, libraries are not the repositories physically of knowledge in the way they once were, although they may be, as we know, the organisers of access to a whole range of resources. And so there are a huge range of universities, educational institutions out there who are providing access to learning, and similarly there are a whole range of libraries of different types that are serving all those populations.
Moreover, the expectations in terms of information need, from a whole range of organisations, not just the individual user, from industry groups, employers, local government, community organisations, the access to both learning spaces and learning resources is incredibly widespread. And increasingly, I think both universities and their libraries and state libraries, are being places that have to provide a whole set of learning opportunities for organisations and users who are beyond whatever they might originally have thought they were doing. So, just as universities have become, I guess, more attuned to the needs of a broader community rather than focussed on their little tiny patch, and while they have been concerned with providing access for people to their resources for lifelong learning, to coming backwards and forwards, so too their mission then blurs with other libraries who are providing for those learning needs across the public more generally.
So, increasingly we find that we must think about the ability of the people that we deal with to move between the libraries that are around us, and we must look at ways for cooperation. And in an increasingly networked and digitised environment, the relationships are easier to manage because they are less dependent on geographic location. So, while geographic location here might serve the needs of students moving between different organisations, the ability to work in the virtual allows us to organise resources across a whole range of organisations, where the boundaries are irrelevant largely to the user. And so here in just this little space, we can see a knowledge precinct created by the State Library, RMIT and its multiple libraries and collections, and indeed the City of Melbourne which has libraries – they’re all within about half a block of one another, so you can actually see physical spaces, but they’re just really physically what you can do virtually, but putting a series of collections together and thinking how people have access to them.
So, it seems to me that there is more room to be looked at in terms of learning about how we collaborate on specialist research collections and how they’re made available. How we can look at the development, management and accessibility of collections, where they might be complementary and how we might make them available to broader publics, how we can look at the active educational roles of libraries, in building those learning communities for people.
It matters less, I think, what people are in the library for than the building of spaces for them to collaborate around knowledge and around learning, and so physical co-location, online technology, offers great opportunities for collaboration and also offers a sort of seamlessness between the two. I will give you a current example – RMIT has developed wireless technology for the State Library, where the students of RMIT can have access to RMIT’s library collections while sitting in this space, and simultaneously help provide the wireless technology which allows members of the public to come into the State Library and also access any other set of resources. That’s how the virtual world makes the physical less important, and that’s the way people like to get their resources.
Increasingly, our clientele are all the same people, and it’s how we make the resources available that is going to be important, and I just want to say one other thing that I think is important that I have referred to in the beginning. There isn’t just the question of how we make the resources available and how they become seamless, which is facilitated by the virtual world. It is also that notion that what the library is there for has changed dramatically. Most of the users that we have now do not separate the world into work and study and social in the way that perhaps those of us who are rather older have got used to separating the world.
The young users that are coming in as students work as we know across multiple platforms at multiple times. They will be listening to music and using email and accessing resources and doing something all at once. And so indeed the possibilities of the virtual world mean that the notion of the space as the contemplative space for doing things like study or work, are actually starting to disappear, and similarly we have to find ways to change our spaces and also change our virtual collections and our virtual access to allow people to actually work across those many spheres, in which the social is not so separate from the more formal learning space in terms of people building their learning over time.
So, we notice here with libraries and learning, two things - that when they started they were about physical places with a specific need. No longer is the physical so important, but probably they are more at the centre of learning in many ways than they were before, because they can provide access virtually to a much bigger range of resources than they could ever, ever in fact manage for themselves or contemplate inside their own boundaries, and that there is no need in fact to see a really strong distinction between those places that are available to community and those places that are available only to students for learning. So, while the physical space remains important for conserving certain collections, increasingly the virtual world ensures that the omni presence of the domed library in the learning community is a vital presence.
Transcript from the Libraries & Learning session of the Library of the 21st Century Symposium, State Library of Victoria, Thursday 23 February, 2006.