Research Posts: Change overdue at the library: Tomorrow's student may have information at the touch of a button, but today's reality is a shortage of space and materials. Ngaio Crequer reports

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The Independent Online
There was a loud bleeping noise from the computer. Alice awoke with a start and then groaned. She had forgotten to switch off the computer alarm, which now flashed at her from the screen at the opposite side of her study-bedroom. Her screen was used to display not only her favourite soap operas, but more importantly information held electronically at her university library, accessed via the PC that she, like all other first-year students, had bought when she had enrolled three years before . . .

THIS futuristic example of what life might be like for students using an automated library comes from the Follett report on the state of university libraries, commissioned by the funding councils and chaired by Professor Sir Brian Follett, vice-chancellor of Warwick University. At present, however, the report reveals that libraries are struggling to meet the increased demand for their services: students need more space and they are using the libraries more intensively, while resources for traditional books and periodicals have failed to keep pace with rising student numbers. The report states that pounds 140m is needed just to meet the need for additional space.

Some libraries are meeting that demand by longer opening hours. Oxford and Cambridge colleges have long offered facilities for overnight study. St John's College, Cambridge has just opened a new library, with shelf space for 60,000 books, which allows 24-hour access. Bath University's library is already open until midnight in term-time, but a new learning and study centre, to be built as an extension to the library, will operate around the clock. Although students and staff will not be able to take out books during the night, they will have access to them, as well as to 250 microcomputers and all other computing services.

Bath's intake has increased by 20 per cent over the past four years, with a sharp rise in the number of postgraduates. With long queues at the 9am opening time, and many having to be turfed out at midnight, Bath has had to respond to demand. 'Students have always burnt the midnight oil in their digs. Now they can do it in the library with every facility surrounding them,' says Howard Nicholson, the university's librarian. 'On the last day of term before Christmas we printed 1,500 student projects. That is the extent to which students now need word processors.'

The Follett report identifies a serious space shortage in libraries. 'While student numbers have grown by about 70 per cent in the last seven years, across institutions as a whole space for readers has increased by only a few per cent,' it states.

The notion that a table, chair and good lighting constitutes good reader space is no longer adequate. Work is increasingly undertaken by teams or groups, and researchers need space to discuss their work 'in more than just a hushed whisper', states the report. They also need charts, plans and overhead projectors, as well as computer resources.

Liverpool University is managing to cope with the expansion, but any further rise in numbers 'will put us over the edge', according to its librarian, Frances Thomson. Book borrowing has risen by about 10 per cent a year for the past four years, without any increase in staff.

'Students are using libraries more intensively. They have less money of their own to spend on books,' she says. But the changing nature of courses, with more modular schemes and more self-learning packages, has also increased the pressure.

Liverpool has also seen a tremendous growth in research activity over the past four or five years. 'There used to be a period in the middle of the summer when we were quiet. Now we are busy throughout the year; we are never quiet.'

Between 1987-88 and 1990-91, the number of periodicals being published increased by 14 per cent, from 103,951 to 118,500 titles, perhaps partly due to the increased pressure on departments to show how much they have published. At the same time, the price of periodicals has risen sharply. 'Libraries have found it necessary to reduce the number of periodicals to which they subscribe, or to avoid taking out subscriptions to new journals,' states the Follett report. 'Attempts to protect periodical spending have often been at the expense of book purchasing. There is a vicious circle in which higher prices prompt more cancellations, which in turn promote further price rises.'

The new universities, the former polytechnics, now keen to increase their research activity, suffer from a history of under-funding. The Council of Academic and Professional Publishers highlighted their special problems in a recent report. It stated that in 1991/92, the average amount spent per polytechnic student on books was pounds 26, as opposed to pounds 43 per university student.

But library book expenditure per student has also fallen in the 'old' universities, by 44 per cent per student between 1978 and 1991/92. According to the Follett report, it formed 4 per cent of total institutional expenditure in 1980/81, but had fallen to 2.8 per cent in 1991/92.

Information technology continues to open up new routes. Most good libraries are fully automated, with their catalogues on computer - giving rise to the concept of the 'virtual library', where all information would be held electronically. Students at terminals could summon information from any source, regardless of where they were working. But libraries now are still mainly about books and periodicals that you can handle, rather than call up on your screen. For the moment, at least, the report's electronic vision of Alice's morning must remain in Wonderland.

Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review Group: Report from the External Relations Department, HEFCE, Northavon House, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS6 1QD.

(Photograph omitted)