‘Book warehouse’ now knowledge business

Our library, the largest University library in New Zealand and one of the largest in Australia, is striding into the digital age. Read our interview with librarian Janet Copsey.

Janet Copsey
Janet Copsey

Any notion of a university library as a sleepy academic enclave dominated by bound volumes rarely disturbed in their shelves lies well in the past.

This is certainly the case at the University of Auckland where Librarian Janet Copsey has long defied the old stereotypes in anticipating and meeting the rampant demands of the information and digital age.

Since she took up the position in 1998 after three and half years as an Associate Librarian, the Library has been transformed. In size and reputation it now ranks alongside its counterparts at the five top Australian universities.

The University of Auckland Library is a leader in New Zealand not only in the extent and breadth of its collections, particularly its digital collections, but in its multitude of services and proactive use of technology.

Back in the mid-1990s, when the Library had only recently computerised its catalogue, Janet had a clear brief from the recently-completed review of the Library’s services — to take more advantage of emerging technologies and make the Library more client-focused.

Her career to that point, while hardly the traditional university librarian’s, qualified her perfectly for this challenge. After graduating with a BA from Auckland and working for 18 months at the University’s Architecture Library she went travelling before returning to New Zealand to train as a professional librarian. She then spent a decade at Fisher & Paykel learning how to “integrate information into a business” and “delivering what the clients wanted”. This was in the pre-internet days when access to information databases was beginning with the data being transmitted down very expensive international phone lines.

Then Janet and a couple of librarian colleagues set up an information consultancy providing access to hard-to-find international information resources, which with the arrival of the internet morphed into a library software business. There followed five years as legal resources manager at Russell McVeagh, the large national law firm. Along the way she picked up a Library diploma at Victoria University and a business diploma specialising in information technology at Auckland.

Under her watch the Library became the first part of the University in the mid-90’s to operate an “enterprise web delivery system”, giving virtual access to selected information round the clock. “Staff and students work 24/7 anywhere, any time. They don’t want to go to a building to find information: they want it when it suits their needs.”

The enterprise PeopleSoft system established in the late 1990s, and the associated development of a centralised directory of staff and student details, “allowed us to move forward faster than many libraries internationally” , says Janet. ”The Library’s systems could leverage off the single centralised source of client information and interface easily into the University’s authentication and authorisation systems. This was vital to enable the delivery of copyrighted information to clients off-site.

“The relationship between IT and the Library really is critical,” says Janet. “Where IT goes we are likely to go too. If IT isn’t delivering the Library is at risk. “

In fact the Library “crosses every aspect of the University’s operations and to be effective has to be tuned into where the University is going both at a strategic level and in terms of operational planning”. Janet sees libraries as still very much at the heart of quality universities.

The Library’s numerous services have to “change their mix all the time”, she adds. Student and staff familiarity with the web has reduced the claims on reference and lending services in favour of instilling information literacy skills in students and working with faculties to embed these into the curriculum.

“Our push now is to boost our research support services. The new Research Outputs system has many functions. The most far-reaching and long-lasting is the creation of a repository of the University’s research publications, many of which are indexed directly from the repository by Google.”

The Library will also be helping to create in-depth profiles of academics on the web as the interface between the Research Outputs system and the new Staff Directory project is designed. By exposing research in multiple forms on the web there is an opportunity to use new services, such as Google Analytics, to track research profiles.”

With the University such “a huge generator of content”, Janet had expected in-house electronic publishing would develop faster than it has, “Open-access is, however, gathering steam internationally and academics are becoming more aware of the issues around assigning copyright”.

Geographic Information Systems is another area where the Library is developing a focus, in collaboration with the School of Environment. “Once a specialist sphere for capturing and presenting geographical data, GIS systems and associated data resources, such as digitised historical maps, are now information resources and services that many students in a wide range of disciples need.”

Similarly the Library has been assigned management of the Chapman Archive, an extensive collection of broadcast news and current affairs — 146,000 hours worth — which long resided in the Political Studies Department. “This uniquely valuable resource is now so massive it needed the expertise, particularly from an IT and metadata (information that helps recognise data on web pages) perspective, that the Library could bring. The focus is now on making this extraordinary archive more accessible via the Library’s catalogue.”

One marked change during Janet’s time at the Library has been the sharp decline in the amount of printed material purchased. Last year 74 percent of its acquisitions were digital, a proportion which looks set to increase as hand-held devices become commonplace. Loans of printed volumes fell to just under a million for the first time in many years.

Academic journals are now almost entirely electronic with only 5000 out of 123,000 subscriptions in print form. Between a quarter and a third of new books are electronic. The academic market for e-books is, Janet notes, well ahead of the consumer market as the libraries had the technology to deliver copyright material to agreed client groups.

Will shelves crammed with books and other print material eventually disappear, obviating the need for an eight-floor General Library building and the many specialist subject libraries on the University’s campuses?

Janet thinks not. “The space will still be required. It’s not so much the books on the shelves as the type of environment it provides for students. As long as we continue to be a university focused on face-to-face teaching we will need a variety of study spaces where students can work individually or in groups, and seek appropriate subject assistance”

The Kate Edger Information Commons, which Janet proposed in the late 1990s and was opened in April 2003, has been a considerable success and nine years on it is still highly regarded internationally. It is essentially an electronic library together with access to software support. Located across Alfred Street from the more conventional General Library, it is equipped with 500 multipurpose PCs and more than 1200 seats on five levels.

It is a sociable, far from sedate, space where students can meet and talk as they wish in the designated areas. The General Library, while still a haven for solitary study, also provides computers with similar software offerings.

User surveys give the Library consistently favourable ratings. Forceful and visionary leader that she is, Janet is careful not to claim the credit, repeatedly saluting the contribution of her “superb” team.

She is appreciative of the strong financial backing the Library receives from the University. During John Hood’s time as Vice-Chancellor the Library collections budget was boosted to “the same realm as the top five Australian universities — and it has remained so. That has made a huge difference and academics value their access to the resources provided.”

What challenges lie ahead for Janet? One is deciding how far the University makes material produced by academics openly accessible. “We have to rethink how far assignment of copyright by academics to publishers is the right thing to do. At places like MIT in the US we are seeing course content and academic research being made more accessible to everyone.”

Data management too is likely to preoccupy the Library in the next few years. ”We have knowledge management skills, and in the last ten years we have definitely become less of a book warehouse and more of a information management operation, that is strategically aligned with the University.”