This interview is a segment of the 6-part blog series titled “Academic Librarians on Intellectual Freedom and Change.”
Last year, in a letter to America’s librarians, Barack Obama celebrated the transformative power of books and the crucial role librarians play in preserving our freedom to read. As we reflect on 2023, De Gruyter has invited librarians from across the world to share their insights on the dynamic landscape of librarianship.
In the spirit of Obama’s call to defend the free exchange of ideas, our 6-part blog series aims to capture librarians’ reflections on intellectual freedom, diverse voices in literature, and the evolving role of libraries in the digital age.
Our first interview is with Jeremy Upton, the Director of Library and University Collections at The University of Edinburgh. It was conducted by Linda Bennett from Gold Leaf.
Linda Bennett: Jeremy, thanks for your time today. Could you please describe your role at Edinburgh?
Jeremy Upton: Edinburgh is a large, research-intensive institution with a focus on teaching as well as research. It is international, which influences the outlook of its community, both students and staff. We reference the international league tables, not so much to confirm our position, more for seeing what our peers are doing. There is also a strong local Scottish dimension to the University. My role is to provide strategic leadership on all information issues. Our goal is to deliver the best possible library service, benchmarked against other libraries across the world.
LB: Disinformation and misinformation are a real battleground in the pursuit of knowledge. Have you implemented specific educational programmes or initiatives to help library users critically evaluate information sources and distinguish between reliable and unreliable content?
JU: We are very much aware of unreliable or dishonest sources of information and how damaging they can be. Part of our role is to help patrons to decide which information is of good quality. Our focus on helping people understand the source and context of content is becoming yet stronger because there is so much more information out there. It’s often hard, particularly for students, but also for academics, to identify what’s reliable. We recognise we need to do more to enable students more clearly to understand what they are finding.
“We recognise we need to do more to enable students more clearly to understand what they are finding.”
The library has an academic support team. This has been the case for many years. Their work is now more focussed on content assessment. We have developed a programme called LibSmart – it’s divided into 2 levels with a third one being planned. Level 1 is a basic introduction to all aspects of working with libraries and information. Level 2 looks at more specific types of information and is designed for higher level undergraduates, but we have discovered that postgraduates and academic staff are using it too. The programme includes information on how to find out whether information is reliable. We’ve always engaged in such activities, but they’ve become more important now because we recognise that users are changing the ways in which they engage with information. Artificial Intelligence and the increasing prevalence of fake information sources have given the programme an additional boost.
Turning to AI specifically, I am fortunate to work with our Chief Information Officer, who has a real interest in AI. We don’t have specific rules about using AI – it is changing too rapidly for them to be workable – but we do have guidance for staff and students. We were quick to realise the need for putting something in place quite rapidly, focusing particularly on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate use and how to acknowledge the use of AI.
In the library, my academic support colleagues are tasked with seeing what AI might mean for education. We have added information about AI to our LibGuides and two of my colleagues are monitoring new information about the use of AI and new trends and their impact on teaching and learning. We want to understand how the library can help. The University has an AI ethics board. Key questions are what can you do with AI? And what is its potential?
LB: Is there a focus on diversity at the University?
JU: We are looking at questions around diversity, particularly within the context of our international student body. We now have a more diverse student community, which includes students from across the world. Working with them has made us more aware of how higher education works in other countries and how it can be very different. Building a relationship with these students is a two-way street: we can help these students get more from our content and services and they can help us by making us think differently about how we can approach our work.
We have also been thinking about how to diversify our collections. We have become more aware, and now ask ourselves whether students feel represented by the content we have. We’re a long way off doing this comprehensively, but we are making significant developments in key areas, particularly with regard to our heritage collections and how we present them sensitively and appropriately. We are also reaching out to colleagues in other countries who have more experience in diversifying their collections and working practices.
LB: Have there been specific instances this year where the deployment of unusual/unorthodox learning resources and/or the freedom to read was celebrated in your library?
JU: We have a new colleague, Elizabeth Williams, who is the head of our library support. She has published on the subject of diversity and is helping us think differently about our work.
LB: There has been considerable recent publicity about how new graduates have been taught not to think for themselves or are not ready after graduation to join the workforce. How does your library and your institution address this?
“Exploration of a diversity of views expands understanding and prepares students for the challenges of the workplace.”
JU: I am aware that certain universities in the UK have introduced “health warnings” to reading lists, to advise students that certain texts might distress them. I believe there have even been some moves towards abridging certain classics to bring them more into line with modern thinking. We would be very uncomfortable about taking such an approach. We are not here to make choices for students. Students may find some of the content in the library disturbing or deem it to be offensive by modern standards, but the library should be a place where you can explore and broaden your horizons. If we tried to remove or water down the material we hold, we would soon quite rightly get kickback from academics. Exploration of a diversity of views expands understanding and prepares students for the challenges of the workplace. Some universities are working on broad statements to warn students that they may find content they don’t like or might find uncomfortable in the library collections. We are looking at this approach and will debate whether we think this is appropriate for us.
LB: Building on Barack Obama’s message about the power of books, can you give examples of how literature has influenced leadership or personal development in your community?
JU: The work we’re doing on diversity has made me want to be better informed myself. I’m reading more about the context of peoples’ histories and background, so that I can at least begin to make an attempt to understand issues of how content should be presented and interpreted. I am trying to make sure I understand what kinds of different and complex challenges are going on below the top level of political spin. It is one of the most interesting topics I’ve engaged with as an information scientist.
I have a colleague in Italy who works at a university that has buildings constructed in the 1930s when Italy was ruled by a fascist government. It has fascist slogans and symbols embedded in its architecture and presents difficult challenges for the current university administration. I’ve been fascinated to observe how the modern-day university is approaching this challenge. All universities have aspects of their history which is challenging: there is so much we can learn from each other.
LB: Librarians seem to have gained in status and influence since the Covid lockdowns. Could you describe your role and the role of the library as an agent for change?
“We have moved from being service providers to partners in teaching and research.”
JU: I agree completely that Covid boosted appreciation for librarians within the institution. We have moved from being service providers to partners in teaching and research. At Edinburgh, we have a team that provides research support. They show researchers how to manage the data produced by research projects and how they can ensure it is recorded properly and stored. Library colleagues are now treated as equals – even, sometimes, asked to lead projects. Covid reminded everyone that the library as a learning space for students was incredibly important – and that it is challenging for students when they cannot access good quality space on campus. We were fortunate when Covid struck that we already had a digital-first collection policy and experience of delivering online courses, but we still had to move swiftly to implement wholesale changes in ways of working, practically overnight.
LB: Looking ahead to 2024, what initiatives or goals do you have for your library in promoting intellectual freedom and the love of reading?
JU: Basically, I want the library to embrace the whole concept of Open. Initially, we talked about open in connection with research and publishing, but it can be applied to all aspects of work: open publications, open spaces more available to our community, being open about the way we operate, and, especially, ensuring that academic freedom is protected by being as open and transparent as we can be.
[Title image by AnnaStills/iStock/Getty Images Plus]