Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Information Studies,
University of Central England in Birmingham


The orientation of this paper is to promote the need for training and awareness. It tries to look briefly at the implications for the at the implications for the future development of information professionals. The viewpoint is very much that of the UK, and the paper includes a look at what is happening here, particularly from an academic department perspective and in terms of recent initiatives in the academic and public library fields. It includes a brief summary of a survey on employers’ needs for undergraduate training.


Information navigators? Knowledge navigators? Information brokers? Various titles are bandied about, all recognising that the rôle of the information professional needs to change, whilst using the traditional skills and competencies in a changed environment – electronic as well as print – today and looking to the future.

We live in an age of increasing complexity with regard to the range and quantity of information available. Within this context, the rôle of the information professional as handler and manager of information; as trainer of others to use information effectively and efficiently; as evaluator of information quality and information provision; as carer for user needs, becomes critical.

This is a rôle which becomes more central as we head towards the Millennium, but a rôle which inevitably is changing. It needs flexible, adaptable individuals who can manage change innovatively, imaginatively and proactively, recognising new opportunities and grasping new challenges. This will require well educated professionals, constantly developing through a varied programme of CPD (interpreted here as meaning continuing professional and personal development.

This paper looks at the implications of the global digital library for initial professional education and ongoing training and awareness for both new and existing staff. The opportunity for the whole of society, not merely the rich and privileged, to take advantage of the wealth of information available over networks, will depend heavily on how well this is achieved.


Library and information work has changed rapidly in recent years. The strategic and operational value of good information provision is recognised by a wide range of employers. Information handling and information management in all their various guises have increasingly been seen as crucial for survival in a burgeoning diversity of markets: health; financial; legal information; software development; publishing; multimedia; research; information broking and information consultancy. In addition the traditional areas of the academic, public, government and special library sectors have widened in terms of their definition of service delivery, with information specialists taking on an enhanced rôle of consultancy, learner support and information systems engineering. It is this broader definition of the information profession which the sixteen information studies departments and schools in the UK seek to serve as educators of future information professionals.

But maybe herein lies the problem. The very diversity of demands on initial higher education, and the broadening of markets into which information students move, means that initial professional education needs to be broad-based and cross-sectoral. As a result it cannot easily cater for the in-depth needs of specific markets or maybe concentrate sufficiently on technology, if it is at the expense of other areas. It appears we are turning out highly educated, computer literate, people-oriented, highly employable individuals; but maybe only embryonic information professionals who will have to grow into new and specific roles in the workplace. It is generally accepted that the shelf life of any qualification is about five years. Individuals need therefore to be flexible, adaptable to change and open minded to continue to educate themselves and be educated through life, personally and professionally. Lifelong learning has a professional as well as personal dimension.

This is the crux of one of our problems, namely that much training and awareness has to be left to post-LIS education. The experience is that this is inadequately recognised by employers and managed piecemeal, if at all.

What are core skills?

Can we identify what the core skills of the information professional are? Are they different from the core skills of the traditional librarian, but now required in a new guise or required across a range of media and technologies? Do we need a brand new breed of information professionals?

and not least

All these incorporate an understanding of information technology, as well as our personal transferable skills. Put another way:

These are largely skills which other professionals do not possess, or rather are not combined in the people-oriented, socially and end user aware sense in which librarians have traditionally operated,

They may range from the skills of the children’s librarian, whose knowledge of children’s reading and psychological needs allied to book knowledge (and more recently multimedia knowledge) allow him or her to find just the right book for the right child at the right time; to the medical librarian able to use Medline or other online sources to answer complex scientific or medical enquiries.

New skills

The report of the Joint Funding Councils’ Libraries Review Group (the Follett committee) on libraries in higher education in the UK, has been hugely influential in helping the academic community to move forward rapidly in the electronic environment, over the last few years [29]. The ensuing funding, particularly Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib) has forged the way with innovative projects, with some attention, although with hindsight less than was necessary, to training and awareness.

The report from the sub-committee on human resource management (Fielden Report [30]) highlighted four key areas where the competencies of existing staff would be most challenged in future and where new sets of skills would be required:

The major areas of training needs identified were:

The Fielden report recommended that institutions should allocate a minimum of 5% LIS staff time to training and development. It also recommended a LIS Innovation Fund to pump-prime training and share good practice and innovative experience.

The Follett Report recommended the acceptance of the Fielden Report without fully taking on training and awareness, and identified training as a local institutional responsibility. It did however recommend that a networked training programme for librarians and information scientists working in academic libraries should be established by the councils with funding of £1 million a year over three years. This was incorporated into the training and awareness arm of eLib programme.


The speaker’s department at the University of Central England (UCE) recently carried out a small cross-sectoral survey of some 200 LIS employers in the UK felt to be at the "cutting edge" of the profession, to try to gauge their reactions to our proposed undergraduate course developments. The responses helped our strategic planning but also indicated some of the issues that various sectors of the profession felt needed to be addressed in initial professional education, as we prepared students for the next century, bearing in mind that students that start an undergraduate course with us this September do not finish until June 2000.

The general response probably holds few surprises. The items seen as essential were:




To try to sum this up:

Information professionals are people-oriented; content oriented; customer-oriented. The rôle of information managers is critical in creating and maintaining awareness of issues such as data quality, timeliness and reliability. Information professionals need to be information navigators, making sense of information overload and guiding end users through the labyrinth.

We perhaps need to think of reinventing the rôle of the information professionals, moving from collectors/ integrators of information to researchers/ analysts, creating a new rôle adjacent to existing rôle but not losing the traditional skills.

Convergence is bringing with it the merging of two different cultures, LIS (customer oriented) and computing services (project based). Cliff Lynch has stated that the librarian’s classification and selection skills must be complemented by the computer scientist’s ability to automate the task of indexing and storing information (Lynch, 1997).

The key issue will be whether the information professional of the future is going to be reactive or proactive in the information society.


This is no small order. It is easy to assume that awareness raising and training happen by osmosis – the "sitting next to Nellie" approach. But this undersells the huge scale of training needs likely to be required across sectors if information professionals are truly to be the information specialists of the future and work within a changed IT culture.

There is a yawning gap in post experience training, between initial professional education and CPD. There is a growing recognition that the training opportunities available are insufficient to ensure excellence of skills base across the sectors.

The term CPD is used here to cover all post initial training and education:

Everyone plays lip service to training and awareness but who picks up the strategic training and awareness issues?


Initial professional education

In the UK, there are sixteen schools and departments of information and library studies which are still on the whole the departments dealing with the range of skills highlighted above. Naturally, there are numerous other courses on information systems, information management, computer science, business information technology etc. which cover in more depth the technology, but which on the whole still miss out the people skills and social awareness.

To date, LIS schools and departments have largely concentrated on accredited courses, at undergraduate, postgraduate and research levels, with some small amounts of distance learning but very little CPD. There is a distinct gap between what is provided and what could be provided.

Professional bodies and commercial suppliers

Through professional bodies, such as the Library Association, IIS, commercial training organisers and in-service training providers.

To date, these have tended to be one-off, non-accredited courses with little if any follow up or development opportunities.

Strategic approach needed

Two areas are chosen as case studies below – the academic library sector and the public library sector – where clearly a strategic, national approach is the one ideally able to cater for some significant present and future training needs.

1: Academic library sector

The eLib programme funded a number of training and awareness projects, including:

Between them, they have begun to tackle the issues of training needs within academic libraries, but have barely scratched the surface. There is not yet a relevant accreditation; this is worthy of exploration.

2: Public library sector

The public library sector has had a rough time in the UK over recent years, with cuts in expenditure, on going local government reorganisation, and insufficient expenditure on networking and technology. However, the government has recently published Reading the future: public libraries review [33]. This highlights the findings that:

The previous government charged the Library and Information Commission with consulting widely on this issue and reporting its initial findings by 31 July 1997.

The LIC working party is meeting now and has formed a training and awareness subgroup, that training and awareness has to be a key issue in any development and adoption of a nation-wide network and recognising that public libraries in the UK employ something like 27,000 people, the majority of whom will need some form of training, from the very basic to very sophisticated. Important questions remain to be addressed: how will the training be delivered? what will the delivery infrastructure be? who will deliver the training?


In 1995 the government set up, for the first time in the UK, a Library and Information Commission, to advise government on all issues to do with library and information matters, to advise on a national information policy, national research strategy and to be totally cross-sectoral. Perhaps it is the Commission which should be playing a lead rôle it looking at the training gaps, working in partnership with JISC and the professional bodies.


The speaker has recently been appointed as Dean of the Faculty Of Computing and Information Studies at UCE in Birmingham. The Faculty has a unique and fascinating configuration because it seems to offer so many possibilities in terms of our discussion today. No other faculty anywhere in the UK combines the strengths of English, Media, Information and computing studies.

Yet this matches the increasingly converging technologies and ideally matches the information and communication technology needs of the next Millennium and some of the skills identified above. The combined schools and skills of the Faculty are ideally placed to support the information-handling, information management and communication skills which will be needed to support industry and commerce, as well as individuals of all ages and backgrounds, through skills updating, training, education and research.


The Information Society of the next Millennium will depend on a skilled and literate workforce. There is a need to equip people with information-handling skills that will make them more effective as citizens and more productive as individuals. There is a need to help people at risk because they lack the skills and to provide them with the tools to deal with information. Information literacy should be at the heart of the educational system as a whole and be seen as an investment in people.

Information professionals are at the gateway of the new age, as mediator, interpreter, guide, navigator to more diverse media, technologies, resources. Information professionals have a crucial rôle to play in development and implementation of global information infrastructure.

The information professional of the future will need:

in order to keep a major rôle in the information chain across a spectrum of information opportunities.

It will be essential for us to pursue models of collaboration and sharing, with staff moving in and out of education throughout their lives, both as part of high quality professional education and continuing professional and personal development.

We have to grasp the opportunities open to us and ensure that our students and staff are well prepared for the new frontiers of the next millennium.

[28] This account was prepared for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is an edited version of a paper prepared by the speaker.

[29] Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review Group: Report. Higher Education Funding Councils, Bristol, December 1993.

[30] Supporting Expansion: a Report on Human Resource Management in Academic Libraries, for the Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review Group. (Fielden Report). Higher Education Funding Council of England. Bristol, July 1993.

[31] JISC Five year strategy. Joint Information Systems Committee, Bristol, 1996.

[32] Exploiting Information Systems in Higher Education: an Issues Paper. Bristol, Joint Information Systems Committee, 1995.

[33] Reading the Future: Public Libraries Review. Department of National Heritage. London, 1997

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