Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Interview With Alex Byrne

  1. a. How do you view the UTS Library? I.E: Do you see it as more than a place for storing books?

    UTS Library is the premier learning place for UTS students and academic staff. It operates in both physical and digital spaces to deliver information, to offer places for learning tailored to the needs of clients, and to provide training and support. While books continue to be important for undergraduates and in some fields of research, the main game is digital with over 30,000 ejournals and over 50,000 ebooks plus a huge range of databases. These scholarly information resources are delivered 24/7 to clients wherever they might be (home, lab, office, travelling) and are enabled through state of the art discovery services. The Learning Commons which extends through the City and Kuring-gai Libraries offers open casual spaces for social learning, group study rooms, quiet study areas and silent study rooms in various permutations to suit students and a Scholars' Centre for research students and researchers. We have a major focus on developing the capabilities of coursework students, research students and researchers through a range of information literacy programs, both face to face and online, which we aim to embed in courses wherever possible. Support is offered through a variety of media: at desks, online via chat, email and query services. We also make great use of social media, especially YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. So, in short, UTS Library is a learning place like no other!

    b. And do you think it is successful at the role it performs (or should perform) within the University?

    All our indicators confirm that it is very successful but, of course, we continue to adapt and change as the needs and expectations of our clients change and as technologies and information resources evolve.
  2. What motivated you to become a librarian?

    I trained as an electrical engineer but was interested in knowledge and in doing something with great social purpose so I switched to librarianship first with a Graduate Diploma then other qualifications including, eventually, a PhD. Working in a field in which we make available the accumulated knowledge - and sometimes wisdom - of the world's peoples across time and regardless of frontiers is a tremendous project which I have found to be incredibly worthwhile and satisfying. Doing that in a university makes a big contribution to enabling first class research as well as developing the minds of community, professional and business leaders and practitioners for our future.
  3. How has new technology (especially the internet) affected the library and your role at the library? Is it a positive or negative change, or both?

    Totally positive. I've indicated some ways above and could write a book about it (in fact, I am). For my role, I think the principal implication of the Internet has been to underline that we live in a *world* of knowledge and must take a global view in all respects - disciplines, media and formats, languages, technologies, etc, etc.

  4. If there is a change, do you implement it, or is it done so externally? As in, are changes in the library reactions to new technologies or do you seek to stay as up to date as possible?

    Change is constant and we do it ourselves seeking expert advice if we don't have it internally (generally we do). We identify both areas of need and opportunities, focus on what would be both desirable and feasible, develop implementation plans, implement, and then review to make sure we achieved our goals and to make any adjustments which might be necessary in the light of experience. Rather than being reactive, we do our best to anticipate by scanning what's emerging and considering its relevance to UTS and its students and staff. My role, in particular, is to try to keep my head 5-10 years in the future to try to perceive emerging needs and opportunities, commission investigations and then identify what we should engage with.
  5. What is your opinion on online books and resources? Do you think that because of them libraries will become obsolete? Or are they more efficient because of them?

    I think ebooks, ejournals, databases and other online resources are wonderful because they offer the opportunities to make information available ubiquitously, 24/7, in flexible formats and with added features. However, I worry about the restrictive business models employed by most publishers and distributors which are having grave social consequences in serving the haves and neglecting the have-nots. For that reason, I led the establishment by UTS Library of UTSePress in 2004: we are making a big contribution to the open access movement through it, UTSiResearch and UTSeData.

    Libraries aren't facing obsolescence through new technologies. They are needed more than ever. In a world awash in information, we all need services which help us get to relevant information, assess its value and utility, and learn how to use it. The modern library, far from being a box of books, is an efficient knowledge machine with a human touch.

  6. Who choses what books and resources will be available in the library?

    Students and academic staff can submit selections and we act on them. However, that is usually too slow because the selections come in long after the materials become available. For that reason, most of our books and multimedia are ordered through 'profiles' which we establish with suppliers to give us everything in the areas of interest for study and research at UTS (eg nanotechnology) - that means that the resources will normally be here before they're requested. Journals are a bit different because of the dynamics of that market: we have to buy through aggregators and we shape our selection of subscriptions in consultation with researchers and faculties.

  7. How effective is student feedback at bringing about change within the library?

    Very effective. We comb through data from: the Wallwisher in the stair case here in the City and another at Kuring-gai; online, desk and phone queries and comments; data from Library, UTS and national surveys of students and graduates; and any other source. Much of the feedback relates to immediate issues which are dealt with at once (eg slow computers, airconditioning). Other comments might require more investigation to understand the issue and develop an appropriate strategy to address it. Others feed into our annual planning cycle. We value student feedback and use it.

    There is one category that does not bring about change, self-serving demands that offer no benefit to students in general. We consider them seriously and respond but they do not change our policies and procedures. The most frequent example is the demand from the selfish to reduce or eliminate library fines which simply means that resources won't be returned on time to the disadvantage of other students. None of us like levying fines but we have learnt that they are a necessary way of regulating the behaviour of a small minority of students who hang onto materials needed by others.

  8. Why do you believe copyright is so important? Or do you see the strict copyright laws as restrictive to learning?

    Copyright is important because it protects the reasonable right for a creator (writer/ artist/composer/software developer/ etc) to get a return for their creativity and, through the moral rights provisions, protects their right to be recognised as the creator and for the integrity of their work to be maintained. Basically, it hampers rip-offs. Thanks to the exceptions and statutory licence provisions in Australian copyright law, copyright isn't restrictive to learning: we can do anything we need to do but we pay for it.

    However, trends in Australian and international copyright law over the last two decades have been disturbing. They have shifted the balance from the creators and users of copyright materials in favour of the interests of big corporations especially those in the film and media industries such as Disney Corporation. The recent decision that Men at Work plagiarised Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree ( is a crazy example. Appropriation and adaption lie at the heart of artistic practice: this trend just puts lawyers and accountants in the way of creativity.

  9. I guess, any other comments or opinions you would like to make about the UTS Library and your role within it?

    I think that I've covered that above. My role is to lead and inspire, looking over the horizon as far as possible so that UTS Library will be the best possible Library for UTS students and staff both now and long into the future.

The email interview with Alex was extremely positive and really outlined issues I had little knowledge of, and some answers that really surprised me.

Even before I asked about technology, Alex introduced it to the conversation, he sees online books and resources as an integral part to any library. He sees it more about access and availability than as destructive to libraries. Yes, the traditional library is changed, and has already changed quite significantly, but it is beneficial to those who use it. He discusses that this cultural institution is not just about feeding information to others, or ‘a box of books’, but it is a relationship between staff and students to develop as much knowledge as possible.

The audience/user, in this case, students actually has a great deal of influence over the library system and processes. There are many feedback services in place, which Alex believes are very successful in discovering and fulfilling students needs. While he did mention that students requesting books personally is not a highly successful system, there are better systems in place to ensure that what is needed is provided.

An important point to note is that change due to technology is not forced onto the future, but Alex’s role is to anticipate how things may change and develop the library in accordance with that. He, and the UTS library, it seems, is not stuck to beliefs that technology will destroy libraries, and I believe this is because they work within them and understand (based on first hand experience) how things are likely to change.

While I definitely accept his opinion, from a students perspective things are somewhat different. Sometimes when trying to find journals we are faced with dead links, lost articles and very slow internet, which is all very frustrating when you know it is possible to access what you want quickly. It is more of a hardware than software issue, I suppose, but it is still an issue. I also find it quite difficult to read long pieces of text on a computer screen (it gives me a headache) and often find myself printing off articles anyway, yes, I can access them outside of home (which is great) but I work much better with a hard copy.

Another issue I experience relates to the ‘digital divide’. While I certainly have access to different technologies, I don’t actually have access to internet at my house (blame it on the landlord). Because of this I have to come into the library anyway, or go to a space with internet to access the catalogue. Still of course, I see no way around this, even for those who don’t have internet, if such online catalogues were never in existence they wouldn’t experience any different. Perhaps it is the resources which are only available online I object to.

My final issue which is experience is, as a writing student, I like the physicality of books. While for me this is more applicable to fiction I still like to hold a book in my hand and turn it’s pages. I really enjoy the notes previous readers have written in the margin. It’s more an experience thing, and though somewhat outside of Alex’s role, I believe it is important to the technology debate. Especially if I have books published one day, I don’t want them to be only online!

While Alex was generally positive he did mention some flaws with copyright law. Mainly because of their focus on corporations and larger companies rather than only protecting the authors. Unfortunately, it is quite driven by profits. This is an issue of stakeholders. Those who are interested in making profits in such companies are more often than not people with more power and these people want you to pay to access what they ‘own’. As Alex points out, this is entirely fair because creators should benefit from what they create, but when it reaches a point when publishing, production etc companies are reaping more benefits (as is the case), there is a problem, as it can actually stifle and restrict creativity.

In terms of stakeholders at the library though, from what Alex says, it seems to be at an equilibrium between those in positions of power, and those who are not (Students).

The UTS Library as a cultural institution is at the forefront of change and is redefining old definitions of institutions. It is embracing technology and enabling it to create benefits for users and impacts positively on the society and culture as a whole.

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