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Questions about UK Libraries – how do they measure up with us?

March 9, 2007, 8:56 am

I just finished a LibQUAL+ project comparing the Georgia Consortium libraries with other systems: OhioLINK, Network of Alabama Academic Libraries (NAAL), and the Wisconsin System. When looking undergraduates the numbers are pretty similar. There were some small differences here and there, but overall very marginal. However, the thing that was shocking was when I compared the US libraries with SCONUL, which is sort of like the ACRL of the UK.

I can’t post any numbers or graphics because ARL is touchy about that, but here is the gist.

The 2006 SCONUL results featured 20 academic libraries, including biggies like Cambridge and Leeds, and over 11,000 undergraduate responses.

Compared with the US they claim to use their libraries more often. When asked about using resources in the library, 86% indicate daily or weekly use, while the US is around 50%. When asked about using library web resources they were at 77% daily/weekly, while US was between 40-50%. So they use their libraries more frequently, but is that because of study halls or something? (I can’t think of UK libraries beyond Harry Potter, sorry.)

So far so good, I was hoping to use SCONUL has a benchmark of excellence—something for us to strive toward, but… that’s not the case. When you look at collections there is considerable difference between the level of satisfaction of US and UK libraries. With printed materials and journals the US consortiums all had a moderate level of satisfaction—not very high, but not too low either. The UK was just barely adequate, barely.

The physical space results are similar too. Looking at quiet space as well as group space, the US consortiums were consistently solid, whereas the UK undergraduates were much less satisfied. “Inspiring” space was also solid within the US, but was a negative in the UK.

How can this be? I’ve always assumed their libraries were superior to ours, at least in architecture and collections. Do they have closed stacks? Do they enforce the shhhh rule? Have they jumped on the café trend? Do they have as many databases and e-journal subscriptions as us? What ILL like? Just about everyone is in the library weekly, so what’s wrong? Why go if they don’t like it? Is it forced upon them?  Are the UK libraries too high-brow and unresponsive to the shift in patron perceptions?

When comparing public service, overall they did much better than with space and collections, but they are still a noticeably lower than the US groups.

I looked at a few of their websites and the vibe I got was one of tradition and convention. Cambridge’s strategic plan emphasizes remaining a world-class library which they seem to define by collections. Buried in the middle is “improve understanding of the needs of the user community” so they are at least recognizing patron perceptions. On the Glasgow University Library site they state: as a result of staffing shortages the Reading Room will close at 18.30 (Monday-Thursday only) from Monday 8 January until further notice– that doesn’t seem too good.

And the University of Westminster as some interesting “code of behaviours” including: headphones are allowed in some libraries (Not all?) but there must be no leakage of sounds, quiet is to be observed in the library at all times, readers may normally borrow up to 15 items at a time (just 15?), there is a period of grace of ONE DAY ONLY during which you may return or renew overdue items without penalty and after you return overdue loans you will not be able to borrow or renew or request other items for the same number of days that your loans were overdue. For example, if you return a book five days late you won’t be able to borrow, request or renew anything for the next five days. Harsh!

I guess I can understand why the undergraduates might be dissatisfied with their libraries. If anyone has experience or insight with UK libraries I would like to know more. Their results are fascinating to me. Different cultures.

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