Editorial 'Library Review' Volume 53 no. 6


Use of traditional print collections is declining, so many people say


Use of traditional print collections is declining, so many people say - so who's saying this, and is it true?

Well, at the 2003 ALIA Online Conference in Sydney, Stephen Coffman, the founder of LSSI virtual reference services started his excellent keynote presentation called 'We are all agreed that life is better in books' with a host of statistics describing how book loans and enquiries in US academic and public libraries had plummeted since the mid-1990s. It was a great presentation and the stats were fairly startling - have a look at the web site,

< http://conferences.alia.org.au/online2003/ > (though not all the presentations will be available there in perpetuity - another reflection on the ephemeral nature of virtual information!). These declining figures increasingly represent the norm now in the USA and, according to conference feedback, in Australia too. However, Stephen Coffman's good news was that virtual library services were filling the gap. You offset the decline in traditional usage with new virtual services, and lo and behold, there is the dynamic new library model of the future.

So prior to writing this editorial I thought I'd look at the trends in Scottish figures for traditional library usage in the 1990s and draw a few parallels between the US and the Scottish situations. The conclusion would be a clarion call for an increased level of electronic library services.

Good idea, but not in fact supported by the evidence. When I looked at the figures for book loans across Scottish academic libraries between 1991 and 2002 (which are in the public domain - you can check them yourself easily enough via the SCONUL annual returns, but see also Fig. 1 below), it transpired that most Scottish libraries are issuing more hard copy stock now than they did at the start of 1990s. There are a minority of exceptions to this, but for the most part the pattern in traditional library lending is upward in the libraries of Scottish universities. Dundee University is issuing 88% more items than it did in 1993/94 (which was about the time that the first widely used commercial web browsers hit the market, allegedly sounding the death knell for traditional libraries). Similarly, over the same period, Edinburgh University Library has gone from issuing nearly a million items a year, to an issue figure of some 1.2 million items, about a quarter more. These upward figures are not exceptional across the country, though the degree of increase varies.

So why is Scotland bucking the trend?

Here are a few suggestions. Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is different from the USA and Australia in that students for the most part do not have to pay as much of the costs of their education as their counterparts such comparable countries abroad. They do bear some of the costs, and this is a significant burden to them, but not as much as in countries where, significantly, electronic library usage seems to be eclipsing traditional library usage. So there may be a link between models of student finance, electronic library service uptake, and decline in traditional library use.

If one looks at two comparable technological universities such as the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and the University of Technology in Sydney, there is a significant difference in the number of part-time students at the two universities. Less than 10% of Strathclyde's FTE student body is part-time, whereas at UTS some 45% of its students are part-time. Given the shake-up in student financing in Australia that took place some years previously, the part-time figure at UTS is not a surprise. Over the last ten to fifteen years, Australian students have paid an awful lot more for their education, and the part-time route is a good way to work and study at the same time.

The inevitable effect of this is to make distance services much more important because so many students are no longer in costly full-time residence at universities. So perhaps the driving force behind the decrease in traditional library use in the USA and Australia is simply student finance which inevitably forces students away from the campus and away from the campus library and its collection. Electronic library services are the only way of accessing information when a student is off-campus, splitting their time between earning their keep and studying.

If this is true, then the introduction of top-up fees in England and Wales, and the possible response to this in Scotland will be crucial factors affecting both future levels of electronic library use and also any possible decline of traditional issue figures. Top-up fees south of the border will decrease reliance on traditional library services as students move towards more part-time studying to pay their way through tertiary education. Top-up fees are not on the agenda in Scotland, but it is possible that the existing payment model, the graduate endowment fee could increase to keep pace with English levels of student payment. If so, Scottish academic libraries may start to see the same decline in their issue as have other parts of the world. But if our approach to student finance remains conservative (with a small C!) then our students' attitude to library use may also remain conservative.

Ultimately, librarians are not in a position to make these big policy decisions. But if the Scottish model of student finance does change to keep pace with our international and national competitors, then the knock on effect on academic libraries could be immense. So we should watch developments in student finance policy with interest!

Nicholas Joint,
'Library Review'.

Figure 1:

Circulation figures for the eleven pre-1992 University Libraries in Scotland, 1993 to 2002.





% +/-

Library 1.




Library 2.




Library 3.




Library 4.




Library 5.




Library 6.




Library 7.




Library 8.




Library 9.




Library 10.




Library 11.