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Digital Libraries in UK
Digital divide between academic and public libraries

The accesibility of digital services is a question of budget and priorities. What strategies do academic and public libraries in the UK adopt?

By Naomi Smith

In 2007 Mark Herring asserted that it is a ‘preposterous notion [that the internet] will one day soon replace conventional libraries’ (p.1). Although the impact of COVID-19 has debunked this statement, it is true that until recently, the majority of British libraries only offered limited digital services.

This was largely due to financial constraints. Arguably only large and well-funded academic research libraries, such as the University of Birmingham, could prioritise the provision of digital services. For example, since 2017, 80% of the University of Birmingham’s library acquisition budget has been spent on electronic books (e-books) and 20% on physical material (University of Birmingham, 2018).

The rationale for academic libraries seeking to prioritise digital services can be explained by the performance measurement landscape of Higher Education (HE) in the United Kingdom. In the HE context, there can be commercial advantages for an academic library that is seen to be at the forefront of technological innovation (Brophy, 2007). In addition, the ready accessibility of e-books explains why academic libraries often aspire to transition from physical to digital collections. For many, web-based electronic resources are the preferred medium to meet learning, teaching and research needs (Creaser, 2011).  In comparison to paper collections, the social benefit of providing books in digital format is their ability to provide accessibility, immediacy and searchability for patrons based in a range of environments (Deegan and Tanner, 2002). 

According to The Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER), researchers in particular expect ‘immediate access on their desktops to all kinds of materials relevant to their research’ (Creaser, p.53). More significantly, researchers often view paper resources as a ‘barrier to access’ (Creaser, p.53), due to issues such as a lack of availability of paper copies which may necessitate waiting or paying for an inter-library loan. Academic libraries have to take these opinions seriously. Taking account of the needs and expectations of students is vitally important in the highly competitive HE environment in which all academic libraries operate. British Universities are ranked according to The National Student Survey (NSS); a ‘high profile annual survey’ which is an ‘influential’ source of public information about student experiences at university (NSS, 2020).

The prioritisation of digital services is not something that can be easily replicated by public libraries. The financial constraints which have long been placed on local councils by government make it impossible for British public libraries to provide solely online resources (Swaffield, 2017). This is because electronic journals are licensed, with libraries having to purchase access from publishers. Inflation, currency conversion and the commercial practices of publishers often cause subscription costs for journals to be expensive. The University of Birmingham pays well over £1 million per year in subscription costs (University of Birmingham, 2018). Moreover, subscription costs often increase annually. On average, journal subscription costs increased between 5-6% in 2018, compared to 2017 (University of Birmingham, 2018). Some have increased by 10% or more (University of Birmingham, 2018).

For these reasons, a wholesale adoption of digital services by British libraries is unlikely. Consequently, the provision of digital services in the UK’s libraries remains unequal. A ‘digital divide’ exists whereby provision of digital library services depends on where one lives and whether the area is served by well-funded academic libraries or under-resourced public libraries.

During the pandemic, we witnessed a disconnect between staff and students who were not able to access our services, due to them not having access to wi-fi and/or a suitable computer device. Similarly, the pandemic highlighted differences in digital literacy, confidence and users’ ability to make effective use of online services.

Naomi Smith


The COVID-19 crisis has also revealed that a social and cultural exclusivity exists in digital library provision, where not everyone has easy access to the digital services on offer in libraries. During the pandemic, we witnessed a disconnect between staff and students who were not able to access our services, due to them not having access to wi-fi and/or a suitable computer device. Similarly, the pandemic highlighted differences in digital literacy, confidence and users’ ability to make effective use of online services. Innovative solutions and good practices need to be shared by libraries internationally, if we are to make digital services accessible for all.

 

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