In the first of a series of articles looking at Higher Education libraries Rob Green talks to Louise Doolan, Director of Library Services at City,
University of London, about anticipating and meeting user needs as Millennials give way to Generation Z.
Louise Doolan is Director of Library Services at City, University of London, having rejoined the world of higher education following a six-year stint with the British Library.
She joined City in 2014, and is leading the service at a time when the HE Sector is facing new challenges and opportunities. These range from catering to the needs of Generation Z and the changing emphasis of resources to reduced funding and proving the value of the service.
City, University of London, is a Top 30 UK university according to Times Higher Education’s 2016 Table of Tables, which ranked it at 27. Around 20,000 students are enrolled, with just over half of those on undergraduate courses. Supporting this mix of students makes up the core of the library’s work, but Louise points out that the job does not end there.
She says: “Sometimes people just think it is as simple as we have students. Yes we have students, and they are the majority of our physical users. These can be broken down into undergraduates, taught post-graduates and researchers.
“But you then have the other pockets that you are supporting. You have your academics who are using you – you are in partnership with them to support their course material and learning in terms of copyright, plagiarism, referencing, critical thinking and peer review. You are also supporting academics who are doing their own research.
“We are also supporting our professional service staff, because a number of them will be doing professional qualifications or doing other courses where they will need our support.
“We also recognise we have a role to play for the public in terms of open access. We do work quite closely with our public libraries over the road to provide walk-in access in terms of electronic open access resources.”
This mix of library users means Louise and her team need to deliver services that meet the needs of all. Increasingly, she is seeing the influence of Generation Z – the first of whom are now undergraduates. According to some marketing gurus, Gen Zers have a consumer attention span of eight seconds – a full four seconds less than Millennials. That means you need to act quickly if you are to get their attention.
But for the library it is the way these students are consuming information that is causing the biggest shift. Louise rightly points out that the eight second statistic is misleading, as “they do sit through three hour exams”. However another trend, again identified by marketing gurus, can be seen in the library: “They are wedded to their mobiles.”
In fact, they are likely to be wedded to more than one device – dividing their time between screens. They are the first generation to have grown up in a world where the internet has been ever-present.
Louise says: “They are the generation who have grown up with the financial crash, the internet has always been there and post 9/11. They reflect on the world differently. The other big change is that they are consumers now in higher education. You could argue that they are quite a demanding lot of individuals.
“Alongside that, we still have our Millennials, Gen X and Gen Y and Baby boomers coming to university – either for the first time or for a career change. You have to balance their needs.
“Everyone is working more – they need part-time jobs because of having to pay, especially in London which is a very expensive place to be in. You have to manage those expectations as best as possible and look at what they want form the library.”
Live and streamed
Gen Z’s choices in the way they interact and use content are driving her team’s choices when it comes to purchasing resources and how services are offered. “Wherever possible we would purchase digital content over physical content, so that it is available 24/7. If it can be streamed, it will be streamed.
“We have a live chat service. We still have face-to-face. We think we will answer more questions by our chat service in two years’ time than we currently do by email.
“We use a lot of social media, but we also let a lot of social media go. In the last 18 months we have seen a downturn in engagement with Facebook and an increase in Twitter and Instagram.”
Those choices have to be monitored and Louise and her team will make decisions on when to end something as well as when to begin it. She adds: “We need to recognise the time investment that is needed and also that the return on investment could diminish over time.”
But the library is also performing a balancing act in terms of its resources and it is worth remembering that a significant number of students are not Generation Z. Another factor is the support the library provides for its research community – both students and academics.
“Most libraries have the responsibility of looking after the institutional repository, so you are in partnership with the research and enterprise department,” says Louise. “That also means working with academics to inform them about green and gold publishing and open access, the UK Scholarly Communication License. As well as the pitfalls of research data.”
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) looms large over all HE institutions, and libraries are playing an increasingly important role in both administering it and providing vital information. REF 2021 is currently being shaped and its outcomes will have a significant impact on how researchers operate. Already there is some clarity about what will be required and many universities are introducing trials aimed at embedding best practice early.
While REF fulfils an essential benchmarking and quality control for public research, it is often viewed as an onerous task – particularly by researchers who are focused on their work. Its three main aims are:
to inform the selective allocation of funding for research
to provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment
to provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use in the higher education sector and for public information.
Access to research data and open publication of articles are two key tenets of compliance with REF 2021, and areas where the library will be closely involved. REF will require articles to be deposited in a repository no later than three months after publication and Louise says: “We have had to do a lot of educating of staff at all levels about why it is really important. We have conversations about when is published published? If there is an online version and a paper version and it comes out at different times, then when is it first published?
“In Higher Education, you are dealing with incredibly intelligent people who are specialists, and in many cases world leaders in their subject. You are then having to brief them on OA publishing and they are looking at it as another thing to think about, when actually they want the freedom to do their research.”
Libraries are raising awareness of the requirements of REF, but for it to be a success researchers need to take responsibility for meeting the requirements. At City, the library is looking at how to best support researchers through the intricacies of REF.
Louise says: “Thrown into the mix for REF 2021, the requirement for research data to be open access wherever possible. If you are looking at raw data, that raises a real issue in terms of confidentiality and combined with changes to data protection, makes it very difficult.
“Our Research Data Management (RDM) is being looked after by our Research and Enterprise Department, they are collating it all. But when it comes to the metadata for that, they are talking to us about it so it is a partnership.
“You have the other change to REF which is looking at impact cases and we need to know how you can measure the impact of science in a six-year window from REF 2014 to REF 2021. The pressure on how you measure an impact and how that impact has been achieved. That is something we are looking at in the library service to see what metrics are available. Academics and researchers do not want to be measured at all, they understand the importance of it but do not like it.”
Looking after our students and spaces
For all students at the university, there are considerations that go beyond educational needs. Louise says: “I have a monthly meeting with our head of student wellbeing, because we are usually the first people who capture students who have mental health issues, as we are the people who are likely to see them every day.”
The way the library uses space has changed – through a combination of technological advances and differences in student behaviour. Resources are changing from physical to digital, meaning shelf space is no longer as valuable as it once was. One of the first things Louise did when she joined City was to have the collection weeded. This freed up space that she was able to hand back to students.
She says: “Every year we have seen the use of our study space increase. When you look at the pressure that students are under now, lectures, work, family commitments. It’s about juggling time, and having access to a dedicated quiet space where they can study without any distractions is incredibly useful. Psychological studies have shown that when you are in an environment where other people are studying, you are more likely to feel studious and study yourself. I think there is something ‘geek chic’ about being in the library. It’s about knowing ‘If I’m here in the library and do two hours, I’m not going to be distracted by digital devices because I’m going to put them in my bag. I can get my head down and do this piece of work’.”
The design and management of study spaces is now firmly under the remit of library services. It means library staff are developing new services – using the contact and trust staff have with students to deliver an environment that enables them to get the most out of study spaces. Louise says initiatives such as regularly tweeting where spaces are available and offering bookings make study spaces more user-friendly.
“We understand what students need,” says Louise. “Staff have engaged with them, watched them, listened to feedback – both from informal chats to formal one-to-ones and student/staff liaison committees. When they are feeling stressed and anxious, as a lot of students do and you are wandering round the library and someone says “are you ok” and can then pull out a mobile and direct them to a free study space, that quality of service goes a long way.”