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When the Encyclopaedia Britannica stopped printing in 2012, after more than 200 years, it was a watershed moment in the history of publishing and knowledge dissemination. New technologies have triggered many changes in the scholarly communication sector; they have also fundamentally changed the way we learn, teach and research.

Working collaboratively

University libraries are at the forefront of information provision and have first-hand experience of responding to and managing change. A key challenge facing most libraries is shortage of space. In particular, they must balance the need to retain and allow access to valuable research materials with the need to meet the changing requirements and expectations of students and researchers.

To tackle this issue, the HE sector has worked in partnership with the British Library since 2007 to manage print journals collaboratively through the UK Research Reserve (UKRR) programme. Through the programme, which is funded by HEFCE, university libraries have proved the benefits of working collaboratively: significant estates pressures can be relieved, access to valuable research material can be maintained, and significant savings can be achieved. The success of the programme’s first phase encouraged HEFCE to invest further to kick start UKRR’s second phase, in which 30 libraries participated.

Improving the user experience

During UKRR phases one and two, participating libraries released, repurposed, and transformed their spaces and improved their users’ experience, with the assurance that access to print research journals they once held is safely preserved in the distributed, collaborative collection held by the UKRR community. A range of ‘space projects’ have turned areas once occupied by bookshelves into reading nooks, group project areas, and even sleeping pods. A recent article in the Guardian cited the universities of Birmingham and Manchester as examples of good practice in putting students first in their library service provision. Both universities are active members of UKRR.

The scheme is now in its third phase; under its new ‘open-to-all’ model, UKRR continues to help the HE library community make informed decisions about their print holdings so that library space that is released can be repurposed to meet modern users’ demands, and scarce material can be preserved for current and future researchers.

Saving space

There are acute space shortages at universities. For many, their urban locations make it extremely difficult for their libraries to expand to meet the needs of their student and staff communities and develop new services. They can store stock off-campus in order to make more space available to their users, or try to juggle a wide range of services in cramped environments.

The services UKRR provides help libraries understand the unique value of their collections to the community and make it possible for libraries to review their holdings at scale. Since 2007, UKRR has helped libraries review more than 107km of material – about 80% of material processed are abundant, enabling copies to be discarded safely. It is estimated that these collaborative efforts have achieved around £27 million in capital savings and £2.6 million p.a. in recurrent estate management costs. These savings can then be invested in student-centred provision.

Cultural change

Managing print collaboratively and releasing space are two of UKRR’s key objectives. Ultimately, however, the programme aims to act as a catalyst for change which challenges ingrained assumptions and ways of doing business. Library collections are no longer regarded as a competitive numbers game: librarians are encouraged to plan and manage their collections through a lean, ‘just-in-time’ lens, rather than a ‘just-in-case’ attitude which may well have contributed to storage issues. Most importantly, ‘collaborate to compete’ has become the norm: the UKRR programme has demonstrated beyond doubt the value of and synergies created by working in partnership.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that these changes within the library sector have had an impact on the academic community, too. Librarians consulting academic colleagues on the future of print collections are finding them more receptive to the idea of a national distributed collection. This is further supported by UKRR’s own data – around a third of libraries’ most-offered titles are now from social sciences, arts and humanities collections, where previously only STEM titles were commonly offered, showing engagement and participation is broadening to new disciplines.

Scaling the monograph mountain

There has for some time been an appetite to find ways to manage monographs collaboratively and systematically, as has been done so successfully with journals. However, journals and monographs are very different animals, so this will involve a new set of challenges. Is it time for the community to tackle monographs together? A National Monograph Steering Group (NMSG) comprising representatives from the British Library, Jisc, HEFCE, Research Libraries UK (RLUK), Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and UKRR has been established to seek a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities.

Through UKRR, HEFCE provided funding of £35k, and RLUK and SCONUL £5k respectively, for a feasibility study involving a wide range of libraries and organisations. The resulting report, which is available on the UKRR website, recommends a UKRR-like model for monographs.

This report is an important first step in the search for solutions to the question of how best to manage monographs on a national scale. There are a number of issues to consider, such as leadership, resources, and the community’s commitment. The monographs journey has just begun – and as the report makes clear, it is a journey that many in the library world are keen to be involved in.