To some extent, a blog post on Tuesday's Times Higher Education and British Library Growing Knowledge project's debate, Growing Knowledge: is the physical library a redundant resource for 21st century academic, is itself redundant. Matt Shaw, who introduced the evening, has written a post on the Growing Knowledge blog, and promises a podcast; I and others tweeted the event and there's a TwapperKeeper archive of #blphys; doubtless the Times Higher will report it, and I spotted the editor of CILIP Update in the audience, so I expect we can look forward to accounts from them.
For me, Mary Beard was the star of the debate. After her candid statement that she had broken every rule laid down for the conduct of library readers, having eaten, smoked and got drunk in libraries, she could do no wrong for me and I think most of the audience. Her statement that few academics had not, at some time in their careers, had sex in a library will make every academic librarian look at their users with new eyes. She felt that physical and digital collections require entirely different methods of organisation and management; in my first week of managing an entirely digital library, I'm not sure I agree. She drew attention to the physical pleasures of books, and told of her delight at discovering J G Fraser's annotations in his personal collection. She also won the librarians in the audience over with her statement that we beat virtual help-desks hands down and she delighted in the weirdness of librarians and libraries, citing the Warburg as an example. She felt that 'totalising completeness' in fact inhibits academic creativity and that the destabilising effect of the physical library is important to acknowledge and preserve.
Clive Bloom, after giving fresh currency to the story of the secret collection of pornography at the BL, (see Peter Fryer's Private Case, Public Scandal, Secker & Warburg, 1966), took us through the history of documents from clay tablet to e-book. He felt no more nostalgia for the book than he did for sundials, and shocked me by saying that he had bought some items from Christopher Hill's collection and found their provenance of no interest whatsoever. His important point, I think, was that we can now find knowledge we would not have dared to at one time, and that digital libraries are an important force for democratisation.
Martin Lewis, Director of at Sheffield, after referring to the Times Higher as our 'inflight magazine' and mentioning the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield, said that we had been running digital and print services in tandem for some time. The physical library is still important for undergraduates, hence Sheffield's Learning Commons project, but researchers, particularly in the sciences, were rare visitors to collections. The academic library is in fact a great success at supporting learning and teaching, and loans and visits are up. It will take a very long time to digitise everything, and the book will be with us for a long time yet. He drew attention to the many special collections in university libraries, unique holdings in many media. He cited the Research Information Network's work on researcher's use of collections, and pointed out that print collections can no longer grow endlessly, referring to the UK Research Reserve, managing print collections nationally.
Sarah Porter had the unenviable position of speaking last, and talked about JISC's work, looking to the future, and new ways in which teaching, learning and research might take place in a digital world.
In the discussion a wide range of people contributed: academics, librarians, a sixth-former, a publisher, and an accountant, to list those who identified themselves. At one point discussion strayed to the public library, and I was dismayed to hear Clive Bloom peddle the line, that there's no money for public libraries and that they should be shut or 'reinvented'.
If there was a fault, and if I had not been so busy tweeting I might have said this, the debate lacked context. No one mentioned what is happening to universities, and how this will affect libraries. So much of what librarians have achieved has been based on collaboration and cooperation, but as universities are set at each other's throats, will our natural impulses to work with one another be stifled by the new breed of corporate drones who are taking over senior management in universities?