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The 2020 Library Review

At the end of 2019, Council commissioned a review of the Society’s Library and Information Services, and one year later approved a wide-ranging report on the future of those services. Neal Marriott, who served on the Library Review Working Group, explains the background to the review and outlines some of its recommendations.

31 May 2021

We are seeking to extend Library access and usage by exploiting technology

Visitors who spend any amount of time in Burlington House will find it hard not to be struck by the Society’s Library collections. Both the first floor Main Library and the ground floor Lower Library are impressive in their extent and presentation, and those setting foot in the Map Room may feel they have entered an Aladdin’s cave of geological treasures. Largely behind the scenes are extensive archive and special collections, and many more books and journals are held in storerooms, with material incapable of being stored in-house being securely retained offsite. Supporting all of this is a professional staff who provide the experience and expertise required to enable users to get the very most from the Library.

Library collections comprise over 300,000 volumes of books and serials, 40,000 map sheets and a wide range of historical and archival material. Operating such extensive collections, and associated services, brings its own challenges and comes at considerable cost, so in 2010 a wide-ranging review of Library services was undertaken, with the resulting recommendations for change having largely been implemented in the intervening years. However, as we stood on the brink of the 2020s, it was clear to Council that the Society faced a range of new and significant challenges (and, perhaps, opportunities) that force us to question how we can best deliver these services to Fellows in the future.

In exploring the challenges of running the service, we have also identified opportunities: to digitise and promote the best of our heritage collections; to increase digital access for all

In common with many learned and professional societies, the Geological Society is undergoing a period of financial pressure and uncertainty. Since 2017 our membership numbers have fallen slightly with a consequent loss of revenue; our established and profitable publishing model is facing the challenge of Open Access; and we have entered a period of escalating rent demands.

The challenges, however, are not solely financial. For well over a century the Geological Society has occupied its apartments in Burlington House and has enjoyed the space within which its Library collections can grow and be readily accessed by anyone visiting London. Now, our future occupation of Burlington House is in question and we must plan for the possibility of relocating to alternative accommodation elsewhere. As the Library currently occupies 47% of Burlington House floor space, and the size and location of possible future accommodation is as yet undetermined, a new review was an urgent requirement.

The Society’s Library is a geological treasure trove

The brief from Council
At the end of 2019, Council commissioned a new review of Library and Information Services, which was announced to Fellows early in 2020. A Library Review Working Group was assembled and approved by Council, and comprised eight members drawn from both within and outside the Geological Society. Members were chosen from learned society, university and commercial backgrounds, and were selected for their experience and expertise in library use, management and development, publishing, the geosciences and finance.

The emphasis of the review was on considering future service provision, both in the case of remaining at Burlington House and of moving to a new location; the development of cost-effective services in light of changing Fellowship needs; and on future financial sustainability and affordability in the wider context of the Society’s charitable activities.

Work commenced early in 2020, examining existing evidence (relating to cost, usage, visitors etc.), interviewing expert witnesses and conducting a survey of the Fellowship. Council was kept informed of progress and the report and recommendations were received at its final meeting of 2020. The report was not considered in isolation, however, but in the context of a range of issues and new Society initiatives: the evolving financial situation and consequent redundancies late in 2020, including two members of Library staff; the emerging impact of COVID-19 on the Society and its Fellows; the review of the Society’s strategic priorities; and the ongoing review of Fellowship categories and benefits. It was in the context of these many challenges and opportunities that Council considered the review findings and recommendations and gave its approval on 25 November 2020.

Scarcity, value and usage
The Library’s holdings are extensive and complex, ranging all the way from rare or unique physical items on the one hand to cutting-edge electronic content on the other. Copies of William Smith’s maps are an obvious example of valued historical material, but there is much else besides: rare books dating as far back as the 16th century; special collections of prints, drawings and illustrations; geological maps from all areas of the world, many of which would be difficult or impossible to source elsewhere; and an extensive range of deposited papers from dozens of notable individuals. At the other end of the spectrum is current content, published electronically and delivered online to libraries across the world – where, in many instances, subscribers do not even receive print copies of the published content.

What is equally evident is the difference in usage levels of the Library collections, especially in relation to journals. Of the 600 or so journal titles listed as received by the Library, 30 or so titles accounted for around 80 percent of 2019 usage, while over half of titles received no usage at all in that year. While many of our little-used titles incur no direct subscription charge (being received by exchange or as gifts), they do incur an overhead to receive, process, manage and store. Similarly, many of our older (though not necessarily rare) stored books and journals receive little or no use while occupying considerable space.

These issues of scarcity, value and usage present us with significant challenges to be addressed both in the context of financial sustainability and the management of any move out of Burlington House. The number of journals subscribed to has already been appreciably reduced in line with the review’s findings of limited usage and in relation to a challenging 2021 budget. Recommendations have also been made to review the entire Library and archive collection to prioritise all materials held should the Society move from Burlington House to smaller premises where the space available for our collections may be substantially reduced.

Library visitors and users
The Library is visited around 3,000 times each year. While many of these visits are to consult collections, others are in search of a workspace to catch up on emails, prepare for meetings or to consult the Burlington House bookshop. However, the number of visits by Fellows is in decline and those visits are very unevenly spread – in 2019 visits were made by approximately 600 unique Fellows (~5% of membership), but with only a tenth of this number visiting five or more times.

However, the decline in physical visits does not tell the full story. For many years the Library has been operating the OpenAthens system, enabling remote access to online journals. Not only has the number of Fellows registering for this system been increasing steadily, but the number of articles accessed is climbing, too.

These trends in remote versus in-person use of the Library are in opposition to each other, but when combined it is thought that around 10% of the Fellowship make use of the Library. The final balance of service provision will need to take into account this shift in user patterns and seek to extend access and usage by current non-users by exploiting the opportunities afforded by new and emerging technologies.

Many users have already made the shift to accessing content online, but there are many other possible applications of technology that we have not yet taken advantage of

Digital opportunities
Many users have already made the shift to accessing content online, but there are many other possible applications of technology that we have not yet taken advantage of. Increased digitisation of valuable and historical material may not only assist with their preservation, but would enhance opportunities for education and outreach, as well as being potentially revenue generating. Digitisation can be costly but might be an area where Fellows’ bequests could make a real difference. Similarly, systematic digital capture of modern records would secure these records for the future and reduce the need for physical filing and storage.

There is evidence of some frustration from Fellows in their interaction with Society information systems, and it is recommended that single sign-on is implemented to simplify Fellows’ access across the website, Lyell collection and Library services, reducing the need to establish multiple logins for accessing these various online services.

As technologies develop (especially some of those applied by content publishers), user behaviour will continue to evolve, too. In particular, content users are on a trajectory of increasing independence in their research behaviour and should be supported in this journey by training and education. Our Library staff are already offering support on this front and we should carefully consider how this can be further developed.

The journey to change
The full report of the Library Review Working Group contains a very wide range of observations and recommendations, only a few of which are reflected in this brief article. The Society should take great pride in its Library and the expertise of its staff. In exploring the challenges of running the service, we have also identified opportunities: to digitise and promote the best of our heritage collections; to increase digital access for all; and to enhance Fellows’ experience of online Society services.

The report, however, is not a blueprint for action and further work is required to create a detailed implementation plan. At the time of writing, recruitment of a new Head of Library and Information Services is underway and, once in post, a priority will be the development of such a plan, building on the report and drawing on the expert views of staff.

Importantly, the Library is a service for Fellows and the views of Fellows are important. So, please do take the time to read the report and send your comments to the email address given below.

The report to Fellows was published on March 11 2020 in both full and concise forms and can be accessed at www.geolsoc.org.uk/Library-and-Information-Services/review. Fellows can submit comments to library.review@geolsoc.org.uk.

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