Monday, 30 April 2012

Cut to the quick

"To cut to the quick" literally means to trim (cut) a fingernail down to the nailbed, the living tissue that bleeds - the "quick" is the living flesh.

Today it was pointed out to me that Harvard is scrabbling around trying to rationalise its 73 libraries. On the one hand there was a slight sense of relief in me that it is not just the UK that is feeling the pinch in its academic libraries; on the other hand bemusement as I read about the process that they are undergoing. It was a bit of deja vu as, once again, communication skills seem in short supply, and it appears that the financial and administrative sectors of the university are of more importance in their considerations than their users or employees. I'm not overly convinced from what I have seen reported that the Harvard mangement know how to keep their employees on board.

I started wondering about what might happen in the forseeable future when Cambridge libraries have all been affiliated and denuded of experienced library staff - I am guessing in the name of sensible re-structuring and saving money for those all important e-journals. I wondered what might be the impact of this on the Quickstart for Part 1 dissertation session that Isla and I taught this afternoon.

1. I guess it couldn't possibly have been given using two members of staff (irrespective of the unique contribution each brought to the table)
2. I suppose it probably wouldn't have been worth doing as the room wasn't full and it might have been deemed a waste of time
3. A handout would have done - surely - after all they took away handouts summarising the key points (note I have been reading up about 'learning styles' and have understood that theorists and reflectors like stuff to take away with them...but on the other hand does doing away with a session like this help the activitists and pragmatists?)
4. Surely we could just pop an online tutorial up on CamTools and they could all do that?
5. The students would only have missed a vew vital things like the fact that MLA International Bibliography is very useful, that JSTOR is not the only store of online journals in the university, that managing your information, backing it up, making use of Zotero is sound advice, that Zetoc provided the life saver article for this week's essay, that they can now figure out when they have a journal title where to go to find print or online. Surely they could pick all this up somewhere else.......
6. No face-to-face interactions with us  - this will probably mean that they wouldn't want to ask us, so they would just muddle by, ask their friends, their supervisor, their DoS, their Mum, Google. That'll be ok won't it?

So - in the future what would happen to our Quickstart sessions - well, bottom line is I suspect that we couldn't possibly have run the session above. Which, to my mind is more than just a case of 'what a shame'! The impact of the Quickstart session we ran today on these students will be measured and I can guarantee that I will prove that it had a positive impact on their academic development. I cannot guarantee anything of the sort in the bright, shiny new future we face.

When all the libraries similar to ours are reduced in size, amalgamated with other libraries, manned by a pool of people who know nothing about the subject, and can no longer help the students in similar ways to our Quickstart session, then the combined impact on student learning will be terrifying. I wonder if both Cambridge and Harvard are forgetting, to their cost, the impact that library facilities (resources and services) have on their worldwide research and teaching status.


  1. I am seeing at first hand as a supply librarian the importance of subject specialists. Yes I know the proceedures, the software, the cataloguing standards (until they change) and can consult the staff manual (and there are some excellent ones out there) but to be an effective mediator between the library holdings and the students a librarian needs knowledge of the stock, the course demands and the teaching interests of the faculty, fellows and researchers.

  2. Thanks for this Suzan - good evidence that local knowledge is so important

  3. Marvelous! So glad to see someone has good sense to point these things out. Commonsense is becoming alarmingly uncommon these days. Its hardly rocket-science to understand out that if you set Edward Scissorhands free in the library to slash some books, you better be damed sure he knows what he is cutting, and in some (and holistic) depth. - That would be nice!